Story structure: it’s not just for movies anymore

It is 1995 and I have purchased my first PC.

A friend of mine tells me about this game Doom that is the wildest, scariest, freakiest, most addictive thing he has ever encountered. I happen across a free shareware version of the game at Staples and think “What the heck, I’ll try it.”

The next 24 hours or so are a blur. I’m aware afterward that my arms hurt from working the keys so frantically for such an extended period of time, but otherwise it’s just me and the game.

Part of the appeal of Doom is that there is no apparent story: you are, apparently, something called a “space marine,” and at the beginning of the game you find yourself, unannounced and without a guide, in the middle of some kind of research facility somewhere on Mars. There are rooms and hallways and staircases, but every place looks the same and nothing makes any sense. There are unexpected rivers of toxic wastes running through rooms, and stacks of exploding oil drums everywhere. You have no idea what’s going on, you only know that monsters, zombies, imps, demons and other unholy creatures are trying to kill you. You’re all alone, everything is your enemy. At any moment, walls might slide open to reveal more horrible creatures, or they will just appear out of nowhere in a sparkling green blob. Levels have no perceivable design difference or goal — each one is just a series of rooms you move through with escalating confrontations with monsters and at the end of one you find a specific room and push a button and that takes you, somehow, to the next level. There are trick walls and hidden surprises and secret weapons. If you are supposed to be some kind of soldier, you’re operating without a battle plan, without backup, without comrades and without a rendezvous point. There is no object to your adventure but to get through it and there is no point to the game except to scare the crap out of you and make you keep playing it. All this is set to a cheesy, tinny, insistent music soundtrack that is as silly as it is effective.

Shortly thereafter, the folks who made Doom also make Quake, a game where you play, um, some kind of soldier, again trapped in some kind of weird science-fiction world where hideous, stomach-turning monsters wait for you within ingeniously-designed castles and laboratories and whatnot. Quake is somewhat more imaginative than Doom, features monsters ranging from angry knights to exploding blobs of blue protoplasm, has weapons like a nailgun and some kind of lightning-shooting thing, and a dense, suffocating score by Trent Reznor. Again, you’re given no explanation as to who you are or why any of this is happening. Again, you’re on your own, abandoned, left to figure things out for yourself. Instead of getting to a room with a button, you move from “slipgate” to “slipgate,” a kind of teleportation pad that takes you to the next level. Somewhere in there it’s mentioned that this “slipgate” technology is the key to the whole situation: some military scientists (I think) have developed this teleportation device to transport equipment from place to place and in the process have accidentally opened a portal to another dimension.

And time goes on, and Doom and Quake have many, many sequels and spinoffs and ripoffs and imitations and I enjoy playing a lot of them.

Then along comes Half-Life. It’s only a few years later (1998) but it feels like a hugestep forward in gaming. After five minutes of Half-Life, Doom and Quake and their progeny feel crude, silly and pointless. In Half-Life, you fight your way through recognizable spaces with specific purposes, offices and hallways and research labs. The creatures you’re fighting are just as horrifying as those in Doom or Quake, but there is an unnerving psychology to them — they don’t merely attack, they think and scheme, lay traps and panic. You have friends and allies, clear goals and specific, logical destinations and a complex motivation.

Half-Life is hugely involving, much more so than the earlier games, a whole world to get lost in, and I am playing it for two weeks before I realize that it has, essentially, the exact same plot as Doom. You’re on Earth, sure, and you’re a scientist instead of a soldier, but otherwise the games are the same — hideous monsters appear out of nowhere because, yes, scientists have developed a teleporter that has accidentally created a portal into another dimension.

I am dumbfounded — the two games are conceptually the same to the point of copyright infringement, but feel completely different. How has Half-Life managed to do this?

The difference, it will not surprise readers of this journal, is story structure. In Half-Life, you’re not an anonymous grunt, you’re a specific person with a specific purpose. You’re not in some formless, pointless structure, you’re in a detailed, recognizable space, one you can relate to, a place with filing cabinets and worn linoleum tiles and a dropped ceiling and soda machines and telephones. This makes the monsters more disorienting and terrifying — they seem to be as frightened of you as you are of them, the difference being that they shoot lightning out of their hands to defend themselves.

You work your way through the thrilling, terrifying, underground, Area-51-type research lab known as Black Mesa with only one goal in mind — get upstairs. You are repeatedly told that your only hope for survival is to get to the surface. The drive to move ever upward becomes paramount, and the suffocating sense of being trapped in an underground complex with these horrible creatures becomes unbearable.

Finally you reach a freight elevator that will take you to the surface. Marines are there to rescue you — hooray! You made it! The game is over!

Except it’s not. No, it turns out that the marines aren’t there to rescue you, they’re there to kill you — they’re there to kill everything in Black Mesa. And they may not look as scary as the monsters from the other dimension, but they’re twice as smart and they don’t get confused.

And you realize — the difference between Doom and Half-Life is that Half-Life has a genuine plot, an ever-unfolding mystery that gets weirder and more frightening as the game goes on. Doom is a great game, but Half-Life is a great narrative. It’s like a movie and you’re in it, influencing the plot and at the center of the action. There’s a sense of unspooling narrative that simply isn’t present in Doom, and every time it seems like the drama cannot escalate any further, it does, in frightening and unexpected ways. The other characters have differing personalities, the fights have different structures and brilliant choreography.

You fight marines and monsters on the surface and through the labyrinthine passageways of Black Mesa, and finally you come to the secret of the catastrophe, the teleporter complex that started it all. For the second time, just when you think the game is ending, it takes another unthinkable twist — you must now go through the teleporter, alone and unarmed, to the alternate dimension to destroy whatever intelligence is sending the monsters through. Youthink this might be a single “boss” level, but no, it turns out it’s a whole new world that goes on for another whole third of the game. And you realize that Half-Life has, in fact, a classic three-act structure. Act I is “get to the surface, help is on the way” Act II is “help is your enemy, you’re on your own,” Act III is “stop running and face the evil.” The “twists” are a-line action-movie caliber, and there’s even an end-of-Act-II “low point” where you realize you have to leave your dangerous-but-recognizable world to fight monsters in an alien landscape with its own rules and physics.

I walk around in a daze after playing Half-Life and I realize I’m living through the birth of a new medium. Just as movies began as novelties shown before “real” entertainment, or as nickel entertainments in amusement arcades, well, that describes the early days of gaming as well. Movies went from Train Arriving at a Station to The Great Train Robbery in twelve years and from the 15-minute Great Train Robbery to the maximum-opus Birth of a Nation in seven. Gaming started with Pong and Pac-Man in the 70s and got to Doom in the 90s, then Half-Life a mere four years later. If Half-Life is the Birth of a Nation of gaming, that means that the Gone With the Wind of gaming is still in our future, and the Godfather of gaming as well.

Young screenwriters take note: you may be working for the wrong medium.  Apply your storytelling skills effectively to the medium of gaming and the world will appear at your doorstep.

As for me, my gaming education pretty much ends here.  I’ve played the staggering Half-Life 2 and Doom 3 and Quake 4, but I don’t own an Xbox or Playstation or even a Gameboy.  I suppose as my children age that situation will change.  I invite my gaming readers to educate me in my future choices.



44 Responses to “Story structure: it’s not just for movies anymore”
  1. They did some clever stuff with game design in Half-Life, too. Take a look at the opening few minutes of the game– it’s got opening credits, yes, but they’re superimposed on the player’s commute to work. You ride a train, you look out the windows, stuff goes by, people say good morning… As a device to immerse the player in the world (and the faceless, voiceless character of Gordon Freeman), it’s striking and effective. They could have had a static cutscene, with a movie playing, but they didn’t– they let the player wander around (pacing, really) the tiny train car, and pick what to look at out the windows. If you watch closely, you’ll see a lot of stuff you run into later. (Foreshadowing– your key to quality literature!)

    • Todd says:

      Yeah, all of that stuff is amazing. And when you play Blue Shift later, you start the game as the security guy Gordon passes in the opening minutes of Half-Life — it’s all quite wonderful.

  2. popebuck1 says:

    You’ve got to play Bioshock. It’s as involving and touching and deeply moving as any movie you’ve ever seen – and it’ll scare the hell out of you (especially if you play it alone, in the dark, with surround sound).

  3. chmmr says:

    Apply your storytelling skills effectively to the medium of gaming and the world will appear at your doorstep.

    Crucially though, part of doing this – applying storytelling skills to games – effectively means understanding how significantly (hint: quite) the territory changes when you add interactivity. There are hundreds of games that have failed miserably, both as games and as stories, because the designers thought taking a page from Hollywood structurally was the silver bullet for “compelling experience”. In reality it’s much more complicated. Part of the reason Half-Life works so well is because the story motives mesh perfectly with the game goal(s) – both the player and Gordon Freeman are constantly in situations where they have to avoid death, escape, etc. There’s no time to worry about anything more complicated, so the fact that the game only lets you run and shoot is never exposed as a weakness or limitation like many other games. The interactive agency you have can only enhance the story, and likewise the story is nonexistent except where it comments fairly directly on the game’s events.

    In a sense, Doom is caught between the two worlds of game-as-abstraction (Pac-Man, Tetris, Geometry Wars) and game-as-cinematic-experience (Half-Life, BioShock). It pretends to care about what’s happening with the UAC and demon invasion, when really it’s just a micro-thin veneer brushed over some satisfying twitch action.

    • Todd says:

      There are hundreds of games that have failed miserably, both as games and as stories, because the designers thought taking a page from Hollywood structurally was the silver bullet for “compelling experience”.

      Oh, I never said it would be easy.

  4. megazver says:

    Well, if you’re enjoyed the Half-Life games, Portal seems to be a pretty obvious choice.

  5. memento_mori says:

    Check out the Thief games (Thief: the Dark Project and Thief: the Metal Age). Really great stories and voice acting as well as atraditional first-person shooter action.

  6. gdh says:

    What happened between Doom and Half-Life was that computer games got professional. It used to be the case that a game was developed by a very small group of people, all of whom were programming geeks. If you were lucky you had an actual artist or two in there to make things look cool. But as the industry got bigger and game companies got bigger, and got acquired by larger parent companies, they ended up taking much more of a delegated, movie-production type approach: Actual artists, musicians and, gasp, writers were hired. (Mind you, I’m speaking of action games here, adventure games got their way earlier — see anything by Infocom or the early Lucasarts adventure games like Sam & Max or Day of the Tentacle).

    Although id Software, the quintessential small-group-of-nerds company seems to have a evolved a different strategy over the years. They still generally make simplistic games without real plot, but they pour everything into the technical side so that every new game they release has a trend-setting graphics engine they can license to all the companies who actually employ writers. (Half-Life, like innumerable other games, was based on the Quake engine.)

    The big challenge faced by game writers is balancing a well-crafted plot with player freedom. It’s hard to have a story that drives along satisfyingly while still giving the player the sense that they’re making decisions for themself and aren’t just being herded along the rails of a pre-determined path.

    One game I found quite interesting on the more open-ended end of that spectrum was Sid Meier’s Alpha Centari. It’s a classic god-game in the Civilization mold, but it has such a well fleshed-out future history to play in that it gives you a real sense of taking part in a grand narrative. Largely through its excellent use of nanofiction.

    • mendal says:

      “The big challenge faced by game writers is balancing a well-crafted plot with player freedom. It’s hard to have a story that drives along satisfyingly while still giving the player the sense that they’re making decisions for themself and aren’t just being herded along the rails of a pre-determined path.”

      As a table-top role-player and Game Master (Storyteller), that’s essentially what I do every freaking week. Maybe I need to look into a new job field.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I’d like to see your views of Shadow of the Colossus (PS2) and Killer 7 (PS2/Gamecube).

    • Ico is a proto-Shadow of the Colossus, and was extremely influential – most games where climbing is involved owe a huge debt to Ico. The plot is barebones, but in both games the plot’s presented in large chunks through the actions the player takes. This is the best kind of interactive storytelling, where the game gives the player the tools to explore the world and come to their own realisation about the way the plot’s going. (For instance: in Shadow and the Colossus, the player’s given the task to kill a series of large colossi in order to revive a young lady, and you’re not told much more until the end. Most players, though, get a huge sense of guilt over killing the colossi once they start running up against a couple who are completely docile, minding their own business. Clearly they’re not the dangerous monsters that you’re initially led to believe.

      The Companion Cube level in Portal is an incredible lesson, as well – watch how an object with no lines and no behaviours becomes a character, and has its very own death scene. It’s masterfully done.

  8. stainedecho says:

    I’d try and find a copy of System Shock 2 for the PC. It came out in 2000 i believe and can still run in XP. It’s one of my favorite PC games of all time. Also, if you can find Thief: Gold, or Thief 2: The Metal Age, those are also worth a glance.


  9. planettom says:

    When the Large Hadron Collider gets switched on in August, I predict all kinds of extra-dimensional creepy-crawlies come through.

  10. marcochacon says:

    Portal, indeed, does everything HL / HL 2 did–but with more economy. I agree with the first respondent that where Half-Life set itself apart was in the opening credit sequence. Computer games usually put their credits at the end: in this case we had credits up-front and it told me, even subliminally, that the creators felt they had something special here.

    Indeed they did.


  11. You’ve played MYST I trust?

    • Todd says:

      I have not. At the time Mystcame out, I was looking only for first-person shooters. I should probably investigate it.

      • By all means, do so. I suggest finding the recent DVD version with updated CGI.

        The game and story are engrossing. So much so, in fact, that you’ll never notice that you haven’t shot or blown up anything.


  12. teamwak says:

    I’m an occasional gamer myself. The games only that I play are Tomb Raider and Resident Evil.

    Both made pretty shitty movies, but both were amazing games. With real story and locations. RE is moves from a deserted mansion, into a whole deserted (but occasionally zombie filled) city. Familiar locations like the police station and the hospital really add to the terror.

    And Tomb Raider was like living your own Indy or Romancing the Stone adventure. Why the producers ditched the elements from both movies that made them great, I’ll never know

    • Todd says:

      I played Tomb Raider for years, but the movies were so bad they actually made me stop playing the games — surely not the game designers’ intent.

  13. jstrocel says:

    If you manage to get yourself a PS2 or variation thereof, you can do worse than pick yourself up a copy of the Metal Gear Solid Trilogy. No series has caused more debate on how story in a game should be handled.

    • mimitabu says:

      i definitely second the metal gear series, preferably starting with metal gear solid on playstation, then 2 and 3 on the ps2 (all 3 can be played on the ps2 or ps3, with mgs4 coming out on ps3 soon).

      basically, the story tries to get the gamer to question war, and question the motivations behind playing games simulating war. at the same time, there’s great tension from the stealth-oriented gameplay (with pretty good to excellent battle sequences), ambiguous homo eroticism that has spawned many an internet debate and many laughs from me while thinking about the director of the game, lots of political commentary (mainly left-leaning), beautiful backgrounds, etc.

      mgs3 is probably the best (i especially like the long drawn out sniper duel that, to me, felt like a whole new way of playing action games). all 3 of the games have always interested me in that hideo kojima (above mentioned director who loves including main characters with minutely detailed buttocks) seems to have a real grasp of how to make puzzle games a la 80s NES games… but somehow transfers that dynamic to 3d, RPG-esque adventure.

      i think you’d find all 3 games both interesting and enjoyable. hah, i can also picture your response to the point in mgs2 when the game suddenly decides it’s time to sit you down and explain backstory for a good hour. that moment merits a writer’s workship-ish livejournal post all on its own, it’s such a spectacular failure.

      any other suggestions i’d have are straight rpgs. final fantasy 7 is probably the most interesting, followed by xenogears (which had budget problems that either killed the game or made it all the better, depending on your point of view). ff7 is good for its character development, and pacing (you start in a slum, explore the rest of a city, then gradually travel across an entire world, it’s great). xenogears is just weird (also, you could arguably just watch neon genesis evangelion instead; i’d suggest doing so to anyone, regardless of what games you play). the rest of the final fantasies are very good as well, though the core of ff4,5,6,7,8 and arguably 9 are about as good as they get.

  14. Anonymous says:

    MYST is a superb game, in large part because you’re not just wandering through these beautiful freaky worlds — you’re rummaging through the detritius of two people’s lives, and listening to what they’re telling you. And while things get interesting when you realize that each of the two people you make contact with is telling a completely different story from the other, things get REALLY interesting when you start to find evidence that contradicts what BOTH of them are saying.

    Also, MARATHON, a semi-obscure Mac game from 1994, from the guys who would later make HALO. It’s basically Doom with better graphics — and a story, largely told through extremely well-written computer terminals you find throughout the game. You’re a space marine (or are you) working to save a colony ship from alien invaders — until the ship’s warring artificial intelligences, one good, one evil, and one just completely bugnuts insane, start jerking you around to serve their own private ends. The 1995 sequel, DURANDAL, has one passage from a terminal that still sticks in my mind — an alien race’s neutral, puzzled, slightly mournful analysis of the strange medical procedure the bad-guy aliens have been seen to perform on their people. It takes you a few minutes to realize that these poor bastards are describing watching their own people getting shot in the face, and they have no comprehension of it.

    I’ll second or third the recommendation for PORTAL — for the first half, it’s a straight puzzler with clever jokes, ominous hints of wrongness, and tricky situations. But there’s a great twist in which the game essentially betrays you. From then on, the game gets weirdly personal, and every time you thwart its attempts to kill you, you feel a rebellious sense of pride. It also has some of the funniest dialogue I’ve ever heard in an action game — even funnier than HALO’s cheerfully mad 343 Guilty Spark, whistling cheery tunes as he watches you blast your way through a hellish zombie apocalypse.

    As for BIOSHOCK, I only played 15 minutes of the demo, and it gave me straight-up nightmares. Really, really good game, far as I saw.

    — Nathan A.

  15. Starflight is one of my favorite games of all time. In the likeness of Star Trek. Here you are the Captain of your own Starship with five crew members cyborg and alien included that you get to train as credits(money)is deducted from your account. Has a storyline to follow, and as you go back to your starbase you can read messages people left you to show the life you so called have.

    You can scan an enemy ship and and go to war, or choose to play in peace with “some” ships in the game. I say some, because some ships you may encounter detects a certain alien on your spaceship then all out lazer gunning can ensue—with your ship as a prime target. Cool game—look forward to the game if made on a Xbox 360 or something.

  16. Speaking of Star Trek, here’s all the episodes for free up in here:

  17. I HAVE NO MOUTH AND I MUST SCREAM, based on Harlan Ellison’s short story, is supposed to be a remarkable game. I’ve never played it though.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Deus Ex. Great gameplay and a fantastic story that includes the great conspiracy theories: Illuminati, Majestic 12, Knights Templar and Area 51.

  19. I still get queesy just looking at your picture of Doom…. What a day it was when I got the cheat so that you could have any weapon…

    Godfather for Playstation 2 was awesome and I also liked From Russia with Love, but all in all, I am waiting for Wii technology to be cheaper and better….

    • Todd says:

      I get your meaning, but I’m guessing that The Godfather video game was not the Godfather of video games. If that means anything.

      • mikeyed says:

        arguably you’ll never have a “Godfather” of video games, cause “The Godfather” is truly a classic in its own medium. That would be like trying to find a “Starry Night” of movies, how does one compare one to the other?

  20. Apparently, Grand Theft Auto IV is teh awesome.

  21. mikeyed says:

    Final Fantasy Tactics, as one of my friends said, has a protagonist similar to Jesus. I don’t know about that, but it sure is lengthy and in-depth like the Bible.

    Star Craft offers some awesome possibilities of awesomeness. Rogue Squadron 2 for the Gamecube encapsulates the adventures of the Republic’s greatest squadron across the span of the entire original trilogy, yet still manages to be one of the greatest and most satisfying Star Wars games of all time in my opinion. Ooo, on the topic of Star Wars, Shadows of the Empire for the N64 is the video game interpretation of the first Star Wars novel and is still one helluva ride. Of course, there’s always the Super Star Wars games for the SNES that are still considered some of the best Star Wars games. Then the ultimate completely original Star Wars epic, Knights of the old Republic, which is an RPG that allows you to become a total asshole or a total saint. The first one is great for story, but the second one has more variety and way more freedom.

    One of my favurite games ever, by the way, is Super Mario RPG, which was made by Squaresoft not too long before the mythic Final Fantasy 7.

    If you wanna talk video games and movies, I’m there. I excel in game boy and Kurosawa, contradictory? I think not.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Oh, I’m only saying it’d be interesting to be able to see it, I’m not saying I could stand to watch it again.