XCOM has changed, and so should you

Next week is a big week for nostalgia.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the reimagining of a game first released in 1994, will hit on Thursday. The same day that Bethesda’s Dishonored, in many ways an homage to stealth and immersive sims of old, will be released.

It may be a coincidence these games are being released on the same day, but it’s certainly thematically appropriate. Both games have very concerned fans and very involved gamers looking in on the progress of both of these titles and watching how they progress. Even though Dishonored is a completely new intellectual property, gamers already have claimed ownership over this title because it represents abilities and features they haven’t seen in games for a long time. That’s a good thing.

But there’s a dangerous sense of entitlement that can come across games like this. Its shown itself emerge as part of the XCOM community, and it showed itself emerge last year when Deus Ex: Human Revolution was on the brink of release.

In fact, the gamers’ ownership of that title was felt the most when the developers apologised for daring to upset the game’s theme and create boss battles the players couldn’t avoid – an obvious misstep from the original game’s mantra of “do anything you please”.

Another example is the android game Brave Frontier which has been spoiled by modded apks and hacks such as this brave frontier mod apk which lets you modify the game such that you can achieve defence, attack, hp and all sort of characteristics (cheats) that the brave frontier game itself doesn’t allow. However, the positive thing is brave frontier doesn’t let you use these mods and you run the risk of being banned if they ever find out.

You may be wondering how i can link xcom with brave frontier, well they both are similar in that their developers seem to have ignored the title. Look at the latest updates for both games to know what i mean, way far out than you would expect.

Part of this sense of ownership can be seen in articles like this on Rock Paper Shotgun, where the demo of Brave frontier has been criticised for being too short, too linear, and too restrictive in what it can offer players. Never mind the fact most games don’t even get a demo in the first place – and never mind the fact that hours and hours of gameplay have already been revealed. No, the demo just wasn’t good enough.

As the industry grows and becomes more capable we’re going to see more of these stories, as the gamers of the 90s turn into competent developers and start reimagining licenses for a new generation. We’ll see it next year when Thief starts showing more of itself, and on and on it goes.

But the reaction from the gaming community has been so hostile I’m not sure what to think. If you read comments on forums like Reddit or Something Awful, the dedicated fans of this series are so protective of the genre they’ll dismiss any notion the game could be good because it misses a few key features.

It’s the same with Dishonored. The would-be players have been so wrapped up in the idea of a non-kill play through they’re obsessed with the idea and when it looks like something may even negate that just a tiny bit, they’ll cry foul.

I don’t have a problem with that, because Dishonored isn’t so much my main beef here. But the outcry in the XCOM Community has been over so many of these small niggles – things as small as types of enemies and the “consolisation” of the game. In true internet fashion, something is either the Best Thing Ever or the Spawn of Satan, and so it is here. Don’t have this particular enemy? Pre-order cancelled. Demo not open enough? Pre-order cancelled.

I don’t particularly mind people being protective over a game series, let alone an iconic one like XCOM. But isn’t this type of reaction getting a little exhausting?

And doesn’t it say more about the players than the game itself?

I’m trying to think back to 1994, when XCOM was first released. Gaming was still a subculture, and especially when it came to hard-hitting strategy games like XCOM. Players were extremely dedicated to the game, obsessing over every detail. It was a common point of interest for many people, banding them together. For many it no doubt defined a lot of their teenage years.

It’s nearly 20 years later. Those same people have full-time jobs. Maybe they’re married or in committed relationships. Several probably have children and are trying to make ends meet. So in one sense, I understand why XCOM fans are hugely attached to this and defensive of any little change. In a world where everything is focused on just staying alive, getting something as close as possible to emulating a childhood landmark would be a breath of fresh air.

But they also need to get over it.

Games change. Times change. The XCOM series – and eventually Thief – are going to become more mainstream because gaming has become more mainstream. They are not going to be able to cater to the dedicated fanbase that loved the original title.

And when it comes to comparing evolution, XCOM hasn’t really changed that much. Its fans have. And that’s where the fear comes in. It’s a subconscious thing, obviously. But the dedicated fans are clinging onto the make-up of the old game because it’s representative of their past – complete nostalgia.

And as Leigh Alexander wrote recently, maybe nostalgia isn’t such a great thing after all. Maybe it blocks us from seeing something new.

I’m not meaning to criticise anyone for making sure XCOM is as good as it could be. And people can be nostalgic and still defend features that were in the original game simply because they’re good mechanics.

But when it comes to gaming remakes, sometimes it’s better to let go of the past and cling on to what fresh opportunities a reimagining can bring. Players giving the game some negative marks should keep that in mind.

After all, you’ve changed in the past 20 years. Maybe it’s time you let games change as well.

Why I didn’t contribute to Double Fine’s Kickstarter campaign, and why you definitely shouldn’t have either

This is to the journalists among us.

The Double Fine Kickstarter project has been a rousing success. It represents a key turning point in our industry, where developers no longer need to be held captive to publishers’ pocket books. There is the possibility now for some developers to find a dedicated fan base to fund their projects.

But there’s also a real danger here.

Many of the people giving to this campaign are the older gamers, those who were around during the 90s when point-and-click adventure games were at their peak. The very mention of a quality developer such as Tim Schafer behind a new title saw these men and women laying down respectable amounts of money, in anticipation of such an adventure. And why not? If you’re convinced the quality of such a project will be high, there’s no problem in funding it – crowdsourcing has allowed projects to come to life that never would have before.

But plenty of game journalists have given to the campaign as well. And that shouldn’t be happening.

I don’t mean to go on a tirade about how gaming journalism is the next big thing and that, you know, what we’re doing here is actually really serious, guys, really. But there is a razor-thin difference between advocacy and participation, and the industry has come so far that it’s more than ever a dangerous line to tread.

Gaming journalism finds its roots in that advocacy. When gaming was first becoming a big thing, the earliest magazines and publications were built on the idea that what’s happening in the industry is exciting and we should all be a part of it. New games, new consoles, new faces making interesting leaps in coding and logic. That quickly found its way into the publications we see in the 90s. And while there were a few publications that catered to fairly serious discussions of games and the gaming industry, most of these were simply previews and ads for whatever SNES game would be coming out within the next six months.

I’m generalising, of course. But I point out the serious, philisophical discussions we have about games and game theory is new. Very new, and film criticism has us beat by a long shot. It was 60 years ago the greatest filmmakers of their day were writing feature-length articles about the French New Wave, Neo-Realism and so on. This has been going on in the gaming industry for barely a decade at a mainstream level.

Of course, you can point back to the debut of the film industry and quite credibly argue movies were made as pieces of entertainment. While film began as a weird photography experiment, this quickly exploded into what we see in the 30s and 40s – a product made by a company for consumption by a mass audience. As time as gone on, however, the criticism and discussion around film has grown to be as important as the films themselves. Eisenstein, Godard, even Ebert – these are the great minds of criticism.

And yet, could you imagine Ebert contributing to Spielberg’s next picture via a Kickstarter campaign? I can’t speak on behalf of the man, but I’m going to side towards “no”.

There’s a link between the origin of games journalism, and film journalism, in that both are products. But while film has had time to develop and mature, games are nowhere near that point yet. We are just on the cusp of what can be accomplished here – and we shouldn’t abandon that journey by continuing to be participants, rather than journalists.

No, we’re not at that point yet. Gamers still view gaming journalists as advocates, those who should champion new titles rather than cut them down. (Which obviously goes against the very nature of being a journalist – remaining skeptical). And it’s clear publishers still view the industry that way as well - remember the Rage fiasco from last year? Gamasutra’s Brandon Sheffield dares to question the game’s creators about some questionable design elements, and the man was ripped to shreds by the gaming community. He claimed to have received an email from a AAA creative director who instructed PR not to respond to his requests.

This is journalism. And so is Tracey Lien’s piece about the fall of Red Ant, and so is all the work being done around the introduction of an R18+ rating. It’s stuff that people don’t want printed. As our industry grows, matures and expectations grow around design and execution, so should the quality of its scrutiny. And that cannot happen while we are participants, rather than objective eyes-on-the-wall.

There’s nothing wrong with saying a game is great, or even praising it to the point of hyperbole. But games writing has come so far in 20 years that actually participating in the creation of such a game is not only inappropriate, but counter-intuitive to what games writing should be accomplishing.

We should be pressing hard. Asking the deep questions, probing into the issues and discussions that gaming creates. And while few of those are likely to come from Schafer’s new point-and-click adventure, it becomes extremely difficult to judge that game having invested a piece of your efforts into it.

I am a business journalist. If I were to buy shares in a company, I would have an ethical obligation to disclose my interests. Kara Swisher on All Things Digital does so, and is promptly criticised even for that by some in the industry. This is not a perfect comparison, obviously. Those who contributed shares here don’t have a portion of the game’s profit, but as I spelled out earlier -

There is a distinct difference between advocacy and participation.

The counter-argument to this is that the first Kickstarter reward of the Double Fine project is a copy of the game. You might say it’s simply a down payment, a pre-order. I wouldn’t have a problem with that except it’s not the same as a pre-order. At all. You’re actively making a decision to assist in this game’s development, and are not simply putting up your hand and saying, “yes, I’ll buy that when it comes out”. But again, you’re not just buying an end product. Your funds are part of what is enabling this game to be made. We as journalists must remain objective, and we cannot do so while we’re standing alongside developers.

We encourage, yes – even tell people to donate themselves. But we also criticise and remain objective.

Maybe I’m taking myself too seriously. But there’s been too much great writing coming out of the gaming scene over the past few years to not take it seriously. We must remain skeptical, objective and on watch. If you want to be a developer – be a developer. As journalists, we owe it to our readers to remain apart. And we cannot do that while handing out investments.

Sympathetic characters…a response

In the past 48 hours I’ve received a fair bit of criticism over a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago, titled “RPGs and the fundamental problem of sympathetic characters“. I was linked to, kindly, I might add, by Rock Paper Shotgun’s Sunday Papers article, which wraps up a few links from the previous week in a number of different gaming blogs. I was pretty surprised to wake up on a Monday morning and find my traffic had skyrocketed to about 5,000 views in 24 hours.

Before I explain my position further, as I believe I should, I want to point out a couple of things. Firstly, the first article I wrote was for a Critical Distance “Blogs of the Round Table” community project. The topic of the month was “being other”, and bloggers are encouraged to write around that topic. As I’m currently playing Fallout 3, I decided to write a post about how, having been through the facial creation screen at the beginning of the game, I was frustrated to find that, once again, it ultimately didn’t matter and I was just another silent cipher.

The criticism directed at my post is mostly well-received, except for the few personal attacks. I want to address some of those criticisms. Namely, that I didn’t go into enough detail and as a result, didn’t articulate my point. Had I known I would be writing for the Rock, Paper, Shotgun audience, I would have spent more time and care on my article. At least, that’s what I told myself earlier today, but I also realised that I should be putting the same amount of care into each one of my posts. Laziness is no excuse. Because of that, I’m attempting to spend more time explaining myself in each of my articles to avoid confusion.

There have been a number of points laid at my feet, and it would be impossible to address them all. But I want take head on the most popular complaint about my post. And that is, firstly, that RPG protagonists are usually silent as that is the fundamental nature of the genre, and that quite a lot of gamers enjoy these silent characters as they want to create their own characters rather than having that experience ruined for them by a pre-imagined board of creative directors, who are usually more interested in sales than in anything interesting. Having the silent character empowers the player.

First of all, it’s no surprise to me RPG protagonists are silent. I’ve been playing RPGs for years, and am well familiarised with the genre. And secondly, I completely acknowledge the strength a silent protagonist provides. One of my readers, Ken Liu, encapsulated this quite well:

Attachment and emotional engagement are not necessarily tied to what appears on your screen or what you hear through your speakers. Sometimes, you can get a more fulfilling experience by letting your own imagination fill the gaps.

Quite right. There’s an awesome power in being able to control every thought and action your character makes, not being bogged down by predetermined positions or relationships. Games like these allow you to be who you are, or who you want to be. I don’t mean to take away that power.

This is what I would suggest. In my opinion, and in only my opinion, a character with a pre-determined voice, facial structure and personality is always going to be stronger than the character created by yourself. I freely acknowledge this is up for debate. I know plenty of people who complete pacifist runs of games like Deus Ex, and when I suggest they take a certain course of action while playing, they would say, “no, my character wouldn’t do that”. These players are strong editors, and, to complete the film analogy, they know exactly when to cut and which takes to edit.

But these people also don’t represent the majority of gamers. When most gamers have the freedom to make a character, they’ll create a facial structure, as a typical RPG will prompt you to do, then they’ll enter the world. And they don’t think about what their “character” would do in any particular moment. They just do whatever they think will give them the best outcome, whether that be money, an achievement, progress in the game, or what have you. I’d wager it’s only the minority of gamers that take advantage of that opportunity.

Now, just because a minority of gamers only invests serious time and effort into that RPG doesn’t make the silent protagonist any less powerful. It does, however, prove a point that because of that very choice you’ve given the player, the experience is not only fragmented but is also diluted. The rich and sarcastic quips from Nathan Drake are nowhere to be found, JC Denton’s wasted cereal boxes also gone.

As I’m playing Fallout 3, let’s take that for an example. Imagine the character I’m playing right now. A rugged, hardened survivor of the Vault, handy with lockpicks and small arms. He can talk his way out of trouble, and is able to barter a good deal. He shoots straight and is willing to help out the innocent and the poor. He goes where he needs to, doesn’t bother with anything that wastes his time. Every decision I make is based around the personality that I have projected onto that avatar.

But for a person who takes that immersion less seriously, they might create, say, a character with a comical appearance, rather than something that implies fear or any other type of emotion. They may just pick random responses. One moment, they’re completely kind, and the next, they’re vengeful to a person they’ve never even met. To put this into a little bit more perspective, watching a film of that character would be incredibly frustrating. They’d be putting themselves into needlessly dangerous and ridiculous situations for no reason.

Again, I want to emphasise here that I’m not attacking this system. RPGs have allowed this for years and I hope it never goes away because it allows that power. But because you have these two extremely different experiences from the same game, it by necessity foregoes the type of connection you’d have to a pre-built avatar, such as, once again, Nathan Drake, or whichever character you choose. Now, this is where the main criticism has been laid. The protest is, “but the silent protagonist implies all the power I need, even more so sometimes”. True, and as Ken just said earlier, sometimes giving that character a voice and a nature in an RPG just ruins the experience. But to be sure, even the most die-hard RPG fan will connect to a pre-built character more than they would their own creation, simply because their own characters will not be as well-rounded.

Do we see how that internally created character walks? Do we see him make little glances that imply years of heartache and pain, like those presented by Rob Weithoff in Red Dead Redemption? Do we see him, or her, swat away flies, or make off-the-cuff quips? These little mannerisms are essential to character building, and they simply cannot be created by the player because they’re too busy playing the game rather than creating a pre-built person. They’re a shell.

And once again, as I said in the earlier post, that’s fine, it just means these games will never be able to provide us with any sort of strong characterisation. And that is the reasoning behind my words, when I said they are fundamentally broken. But that doesn’t mean they are fundamentally bad. It’s just my opinion that even the most die-hard RPG fans will connect to pre-built characters more than they will their own, simply because of that relationship. Whether they react to them in a positive or negative way is a different story. But to be sure, there will be a connection there. One that cannot be realised by a silent protagonist. And for that reason, I think whenever we play an RPG led by a silent protagonist, there is always going to be part of us that is held back, even though it’s us making all the choices and imagining the character. It’s a little bit of a paradox, I suppose, but because of that shell that’s presented to us, it just takes us a little extra effort to get involved.

All of this is to say that this creates a barrier to “sympathy”. When I say sympathy, I mean that emotional connection we have with the character when a negative or positive reaction occurs. When I’m playing Uncharted, I cry out when Sully is shot, or become on edge when Nathan is dangling from a train. But when this happens to me in Skyrim or Fallout 3, I care, but I don’t tend to care as much because the character I’ve created exists in my head. Of course, in both cases you can just reload and try again, but there is still a little portion of a reaction there when you see Nathan Drake shot, or dangling from a precarious position. When my character in Fallout dies, or you find out a piece of information about your father, I don’t necessarily feel that same pain.

This may be by design. Fallout 3 is designed to be completely bleak and desolate, and that can filter through into the player’s experience. I totally accept that. And also, the issue of voice acting is an aside. I don’t mean to suggest that we can only connect to players through their voices. As I pointed out, Half Life 2 creates this connection extremely well, and it’s probably the most well-known example of a game that creates a connection to the character despite that silence.

There’s a lot more I could say, like how if you’re not investing enough of yourself into the RPG, then that’s your own fault, and not the game’s, etc. But I hope I’ve explained my position. I’m not expecting anyone to agree with anything that I’ve said here, or for that matter, even respect it. I just wanted to flesh out my opinion more and give a broader perspective. Because as some people said in the RPS post, it’s a little unfair of me to simply post an 800 word piece and then expect people to understand everything I have to say. I made some other comments in that post, but they stand for themselves. I hope this gives a little bit more of a broader perspective.

Role-playing games and the fundamental problem of sympathetic characters

I recently picked up Fallout 3 in the Steam Christmas sale after ignoring it for over three years. I don’t have any particular aversion to complicated role playing games, but to be sure they take a considerably larger effort than a 10-hour narrative.

They require a different headspace altogether. That doesn’t bother me, but I have tried to avoid them in the past – because despite all the talk regarding how these games provide us with a rich tapestry of character, I find them to be the most bleak and disconnected narrative experiences a game can provide.

Consider the beginning of Fallout 3. After being shown a picture of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, you actually experience birth. A small light slowly grows to encapsulate the screen, and suddenly, you’ve arrived.

The scene is quite startling. You look up at your father, voiced by Liam Neeson, who coos and praises how good looking you are. It’s a nice moment, watching the new father become wrapped up in the miracle of life. Just as a real infant is in its first moments of life, you’re completely helpless.

That is, until you’re prompted to choose your gender, and how you’re going to look when “you’re all grown up”. This isn’t such a big deal, every RPG does this. But something about Fallout 3 strikes me as wanting to be different from the pack.

I could have chosen any RPG here. Demon’s Souls, Dragon Age, Skyrim, anything that uses a face and character creator. But clearly, Fallout 3 creates a specific attempt to connect you to your character more than any other game of its type by actually having you experience your birth, childhood and adolescence.

By all accounts you should connect to this character the most, after having experienced literally everything they have as well. But you don’t. Walking through Fallout 3’s wasteland, I’m more struck by the sense of loneliness and despair than I am any type of grief when I’m killed by a fellow raider.

Why? What is it that whenever my character is killed or damaged, I have absolutely no concern for his wellbeing?

It’s because the character building aspects of role-playing games are fundamentally broken and prevent  sympathy from the player.

Consider what I’ve done with the character so far. I’ve created a façade for him, which is nothing more than an appearance. The fundamental nature of the role playing game is that you create a personality through your reactions to other NPCs, but even then, sympathy is hard to come by.

The character here is nothing but an avatar. When I respond to the Megaton sheriff asking me whether I can diffuse the bomb in the middle of tomb, I’m not responding whether my character can do it. No, instead, I’m wondering whether I, Patrick Stafford, can do it.

I explored this in my piece for Hyper Magazine last September about whether the decisions we make in games reflect something about our personality. Research I cited in that story suggests the decisions we make in RPGs are in fact a reflection of what we might do in that sort of situation, or are at least representative of how we feel about the decision at hand.

(There’s also a piece on the Psychology of Games blog here that explores this in a little further detail. I’d post my Hyper piece, but unfortunately, it’s in print!)

Part of the problem here is that I never see my character’s face. Whereas in games such as Mass Effect each conversation plays out by having a fully-voiced protagonist interact with NPCs based on dialogue decisions you’ve picked out, here, there is no audio.

You click a response based on what you want to say. Sure, you might argue that it’s your character who is making the response, and that you’re completing a “good” run or a “bad” run, but there is absolutely nothing about the character that dictates this. It’s purely the player’s decision to follow a certain path.

Perhaps we don’t play RPGs for rich characterisation. That’s fine. It’s been that way for years. But it can be done. Notwithstanding Mass Effect’s shortcomings, it places the player inside the middle of the action but without the abandonment Fallout 3 uses to create immersion.

Instead, we see your own face, reflect on the tone in your voice and become more of a puppet master than an avatar for your decisions. You’re here controlling the action in every conversation, but you’re not necessarily a part of it.

Or consider Deus Ex: Human Revolution and its own conversation battles. From the first person perspective, Jensen talks down criminals and head honchos using a variety of narrative options, fully voiced, making you feel more of a part of the action.

Both of these games provided me with fewer choices than Fallout 3 and yet I felt more attached to these characters than my own little vault dweller.

The lack of audio responses in games such as Fallout 3, Dragon Age and older RPGs such as Baldur’s Gate may be part of the avatar experience, but they also are a critical roadblock in the attempt to make characters more sympathetic.

Could it be the use of first-person perspective? Perhaps. But as I just pointed out, Deus Ex uses the same perspective for its conversation battles and yet you still feel a part of the action. It’s more likely to do with the fact that in Fallout 3, you never see your own face.

Yes, of course, there are moments where you catch a glimpse while in third-person. But for the majority of the action, the default-view is having you look through the characters’ eyes.

Even Dragon Age showed your character creepily standing by silently during text-driven conversations. Here, you’re not so much a part of the action as you are the direct conduit, and as a result, the use of facial-design features are pretty much nothing more than a distraction.

Is that a problem? Probably not. But we ought to acknowledge the limits of the genre and work around them in other ways.

The other end of the spectrum would suggest present characters in an Uncharted-like scripted format, but it’s not even necessary to change at all. When I say the use of these character building tools are fundamentally broken, they are, but only in the sense that they are broken when wasted. Maybe the only thing we need to add a little bit of sympathy is a face in a mirror.

For all the talk we do about how these games provide us with the opportunity to create any type of character we want, we ought to acknowledge more often how this system falls short of its potential, creates some of the least interesting characters and as a result, presents a fundamental barrier to inhabiting a digital body.

Note: This blog post was prompted by Critical Distance’s “Blogs of the Round Table” project on the subject of “being other”. You should go here and read the rest of the entries, they’re all great. 

Second note: After being posted on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, this post has received a fair bit of attention. I’ve written a reply here

The top 10 best video game stories

It seems odd that on a site analysing video game stories there isn’t a list of some of the best. While I’ve compiled a short list here of what stories gamers should be checking out for narrative bliss, I thought it would be appropriate to take some time and showcase what I believe to be some of the best video game stories ever created.

Please keep in mind – this is not an exhaustive list. The games listed here are what I believe to be some of the best narratives used in gaming, and any other site with a similar list could have 10 totally different games or franchises.

The developers of the games listed here understand how narrative works. Whether they’re putting players into space or sending them back in time, these stories are the pinnacle of gaming narrative and represent what the medium can do if more time and effort is put into writing great, believable stories.

10. Uncharted

There’s no shame in making a video game play like an action film, and Uncharted accomplishes that task extremely well. But the secret to Uncharted’s success isn’t in the strength of its story, but in the believability of its voice acting.

Nolan North encompasses the breadth of Nathan Drake’s character with poise and expertise. In order to take players on a believable journey, you need to give them believable characters as well.

Story is important. But the vessels through which gamers are taken along for the wide are just as crucial, and Uncharted understands that solid voice acting is one of the most important methods of doing this.

9. Metal Gear Solid

There are plenty of valid criticisms gamers could level at Metal Gear Solid, the most prominent of which being the franchises uses cutscenes much too liberally and relies on them instead of using gameplay.

But beyond those arguments lie a complicated story that doesn’t descend into anarchy. The developers of Metal Gear understand that a story needs clear direction and pacing – the gamer always knows what’s going on and what the motivation of the next scene is.

There are similarities to Splinter Cell here, but I think Metal Gear is able to tell a story more clearly and put the player in context in a more believable way. Just as Snake does, the gamer always knows what he or she needs to do – direction is key to a good story.

8. Dead Space

I’ve written about Dead Space elsewhere on the site, and rightly so – it’s one of the few games that understand how to tell narrative in the midst of action without breaking the player’s immersion.

The key to Dead Space’s quality of narrative is the immediate use of subtext. In the first game, when the player first starts out you aren’t told that you’re an engineer, or that you’re heading towards a ship held by a strange alien life-force. instead, you’re shown pictures and videos of your girlfriend, immediately creating an emotional anchor.

The Dead Space franchise is arguably about humanity, and the question of what it really means to be human. As the marker fosters a deadly life force that rips humans apart and turns them into monsters, as Isaac goes powers on he loses his group with reality. The horror in this franchise doesn’t come from what lurks behind the corner – it’s what lurks within your head.

7. BioShock

Just as Dead Space uses subtext to tell a very human story, BioShock uses philosophy to deepen its narrative.

There are plenty of solid narrative techniques in BioShock – a believable premise, well-voiced characters, a unique (and for the time, innovative), morality system and a level design that rewards linear gameplay. But the thread that entwines them all together is the underlying philosphy of Andrew Ryan’s objectivism.

Objectivism is a philosophy that teaches man makes his own way in life. Charity is essentially immoral, and you owed nothing. This is the moralistic prism through which Ryan constructs Rapture, and through which the player approaches the morality system.

Much has been made over the way gamers approach harvesting ADAM for their powers, but it is merely a mechanic used as an extension and representation of the game’s objectivist philosophy – it is one of the perfect examples of a game using its subtext to influence the actual gameplay.

BioShock is arguably a linear game, and the story loses some power because of it, but more developers would do well to pump their games with an underlying philosophy that influences everything from art direction to game mechanics.

6. Silent Hill 2

James Sunderland is not the best protagonist in the history of gaming. Some of his dialogue is odd, the voice acting is at times quite lifeless and a few of his decisions are questionable. But yet, Silent Hill 2 still represents some of the best narrative in the history of gaming.

I could spend an entire series of posts on Silent Hill 2, but for now I’ll just focus on what makes this game work – a character arc. Unlike some action games or adventure titles, the player actually has to play Silent Hill 2 in order to learn more about the protagonist. He is complicated, mysterious and will not give up everything about him in the first few hours of gameplay.

I’ve explained here why having a character arc is so important to a story. Killing zombies, ghosts and monsters is all well and good, but games can be such much more if they simply give their characters an arc.It makes a game so much more memorable, and Silent Hill 2 is remembered because of it.

People change. They adapt to the circumstances around them. And Silent Hill 2 is a perfect example of how a game works when developers adhere to classic storytelling and narrative techniques.

5. Thief

While the premise of Thief may be a little far-fetched, it also represents one of the most under-used techniques in gaming – story-telling through exploration.

If you want to progress through Thief, you have to read logs left behind by the crew. They give you more information on how to proceed and will help you bypass some of the more difficult pieces of gameplay.

But more importantly, they help flesh out the atmosphere of the world. Just as players read logs in Dead Space, or talk to the non-playable characters in Deus Ex, reading in Thief gives you a much better feeling of the scope of the world you’re playing in and you have the added benefit of using a thief trainer and cheat to your heart’s desire.

Thief may not be the most believable story, but it’s certainly convincing.

4. Half Life

One of the most loved gaming franchises of all time, the Half Life series also represents a step-forward in story-telling for interactive entertainment.

The story itself is compelling enough – scientists rip open the space time continuaem, allow violent aliens to run rampant and put the entire earth into jeapordy after a separate alien force invades Earth and puts the entire population into slavery.

But the most compelling story-telling technique in Half Life isn’t the original premise, or the struggling remnants of humanity represented by City 17 inhabitants, Alyx Vance and her family, but in the method of in-game action.

The action doesn’t stop here – not once. Cutscenes are done away with in favour of continuous in-game action. As a result, the use of first-person perspective is given so much more depth. The gamer actually feels as if they are in the story – they’re a part of the resistance – and not just another grunt in a sea of armies.

Perhaps this is part of the reason why gamers feel such a connection with Gordon Freeman. NPCs talk to you directly and use Gordon’s name, connecting you with the character.

It’s a technique that Half Life didn’t invent, but definitely improved, and inspired countless other games to do the same. It was surely a critical step forward in gaming narrative that will influence other developers for years to come.

3. Assassin’s Creed

I’ve said this previously, but Assassin’s Creed isn’t about floating over roof tops and stabbing unsuspecting guards from above – it’s about power, politics, greed and envy.

The power of this franchise’s story comes from its use of history. Desmond finds himself drawn into the oldest conspiracy known to mankind. It encompasses the birth of humans, and seemingly every person that has come to power ever since – presidents, czars, wars and treaties are all part of this deception.

The use of the Subject 16 puzzles are the key here. In each one, the player is given another glimpse into just how far this conspiracy runs – famous scientists and world leaders are shown to be part of a centuries-old conspiracy designed to control humanity and keep them into submission.

Assassin’s Creed is a fun ride. But it’s even more entertaining if the player does a little work, and figures out just how far the rabbit hole goes.

2. Portal

Portal doesn’t have a deep narrative, but Valve’s quality of story-telling is shown in what it doesn’t tell the player.

The game rewards the player for discovering the narrative not through spoken exposition, but through exploring the level design. As the game goes on, the test subject can wander in secret areas and find writings scribbled on the walls suggesting that GlaDOS isn’t all that she seems – in fact, this “test” is a deadly place to be.

Portal also understands character. GlaDOS transforms from a friendly robot voice into a deadly force of subtle destruction with a penchant for black humour – and her dialogue shows this off:

We are pleased that you made it through the final challenge where we pretended we were going to murder you. We are very very happy for your success.

We are throwing a party in honor of your tremendous success. Place the device on the ground, then lie on your stomach with your arms at your sides.

Combined with a a solid understanding of pacing and a bold confidence in linear story-telling, Valve knows that giving the player too much information will ruin the fun of discovering the world they’ve built for them. Instead, it knows that gamers should be treated as if they actually have a little bit of intelligence when it comes to story and character.

1. Deus Ex

A global conspiracy, dozens of fleshed out characters and one of the biggest and most believable words in gaming history- Deus Ex represents a pinnacle in video game story-telling.

The gameplay may be clunky, the AI completely deficient and the graphics horribly outdated, but developers would do well to take some lessons from this gaming gem.

The actual conspiracy isn’t what makes Deus Ex so great – it’s the way it unfolds. You’re given a hint of what’s happening at the beginning of the game, but you slowly reveal more as the game goes on. When the player begins at Liberty Island, you know nothing and you’re dropped into the action without much knowledge of the world at all.

Instead, just as Portal allows players to learn more by level exploration, Deus Ex only reveals the story through speaking with other characters. Through the vast amount of conversation options available to the player, he or she will learn more about the plot as they go and talk to these other NPCs.

It’s the perfect way to combine storytelling and gameplay. You want to keep the player interested in the world but you also want to tell a convincing story. This is a very natural way of allowing the two to interconect – and the same applies for reading text logs and datacubes.

Deus Ex is a game dripping in atmosphere. From the level design, to the clothing, music and dialogue, the player believes they are in the middle of a dystopian future. This isn’t a replacement for narrative, but it helps the player believe.

Deus Ex was also one of the first games to allow you to choose your own path as you continue. This is where the ultimate strength of the narrative lies – although the gamer is allowed to choose his or her own path, the narrative never weakens. Each strand is as strong as the others – the fact gamers are still playing it through over a decade later and finding new narrative options is a testament to Deus Ex’s narrative depth.

This game requires several posts of its own. It is what happens when a strong narrative is combined with rich characters, dialogue and a dedication to allowing players to forge their own path.

This game punishes you. You can go and kill some characters, but the others will reprimand you for it and the story will be changed. There is nothing more you can do. It is the perfect representation of decisions that occur in real life – and this is a practice more developers should be emulating.