Storytelling from the gut.
That’s the component which is missing from a lot of big-budget games today. Despite millions of dollars and thousands of staff working on huge games, the concept of a truly interesting and unique story is a rare thing. It’s typically relegated to something that supports a cool gameplay design or new multiplayer feature rather than the other way around.
Despite pouring dozens of hours into games like Assassin’s Creed Syndicate or Destiny 2, I would have trouble explaining their story to someone. “There’s a…bad person doing a thing and we have to stop them? Sorry it’s a bit hazy, hey are you going to finish that pizza?”. You can spend an inhuman amount of time on designing cathedrals or intricate caverns but how much time should you spend on convincing the player to keep exploring them? Why am I here and why should I keep going?
There are exceptions to the rule. Guerrilla Games’ phenomenal Horizon: Zero Dawn created an extraordinary environment for Aloy to explore but also added the layer of perhaps the most compelling plot in an open-world to date. Touching on themes of human arrogance and lack of foresight, the post-post apocalypse came down to terrified people acting on their ignorant fears. Unpeeled in a deliberate and measured fashion, Horizon’s story was quite simply a page-turner. Albeit with countless side-quests to distract you along the way.
But there’s a deeper question here. Should every game strive to tell a story? Are some games simply not suited to tell one or will developers keep trying until all genres are cracked open – exposed for the world to see and possibilities to play with?
That’s the question I posed to Jon McKellan, creative director at Glasgow’s No Code studio. “I think the issue is not so much that everyone needs to work harder at their stories, but that maybe you don’t need one in your game. I loved Infamous Second Son for example. A proper playground. I didn’t care about the story, I just wanted to clean up the town, learn new powers, and do that graffiti game again. It didn’t actually need a story, and I would still have played the hell out of it. What they had was fine, it did the job. But I wonder how constrained they were by it and what could have been by maybe not having one at all, other than a Mario-style “go do X” and then leave you to it. It works either way. But like anything, you just need to be doing it for the right reason. You have to ask yourself honestly if your game really needs a feature, including a story, and do the best with what you have.”
With experience under his belt working on Alien Isolation, McKellan is aware of the importance of story in certain games and how it can make the playing experience that much richer. So when his new independent studio began, story and atmosphere were natural bedfellows.
After experimenting with a 72-hour game jam, McKellan and the crew at No Code took what they learned and expanded it into Stories Untold. Four (or maybe five?) terrifying tales that drinks from the well of pulp novellas to allow the player to be consumed by storytelling first and foremost.
Stories Untold is a brave, claustrophobic adventure through a series of events that could very well signify the end of the world. Everything from its pacing, voice acting and visual design come together to create an unsettling and brilliant journey into the human soul. One of the key benefits of his past experience was knowing when and how to apply atmosphere. Striking the right tone in this area is key to accompanying a grim and unforgiving story. “Alien Isolation was a very atmospheric game. It lived or died by its atmosphere throughout development. It’s tricky to look at early work-in-progress horror or atmospheric gameplay and be inspired. It needs all the elements – sound, lighting, narrative, quality assets, etc – to make it work. It’s a real challenge, and you don’t often see the true nature of what you’ve built until it’s almost too late to do anything about it. So it relies on imagination and gut feelings.”
That’s what should always be considered first: your gut. It’s still a great judge of what works and what doesn’t. It always knows what deserves to hold your attention. For example, in recent years games have become colossal. It’s just par for the course these days for a typical role-playing game or open-world adventure to reach ludicrous lengths of 70-100 hours. In addition, some players get downright upset if a typical action game doesn’t hold dozens of hours of content within its code.
But if those endless hours are simply mediocre and the pacing drags things out to the point where you no longer care about what is happening, then what’s the point? Stories Untold shears the fat off the bone with a laser-focus on storytelling. Doing more with less, especially without shareholders breathing over your neck, is an opportunity that should be embraced with full abandon. And McKellan knows it. “Over the last year or two I’ve been thinking a lot about short stories in games. Or rather, the lack of. It seems that if a narrative game isn’t 12 hours long or more, it’s somehow too short, yet for a film that kind of a runtime is a massive exception to the rule. So it’s become a big obsession of mine, and we want to explore that further. The stories that can’t be padded out to fit the traditional game length people expect, well they could sit nice in an anthology of stories with a common thread or theme.”
One of the many things Stories Untold does so expertly is play with expectations. In more tales than we can count, there’s a standard format for a game. Hero, villain, goals, obstacles. Regardless of genre, you mostly know what’s going on and can have a safe guess as to what lays ahead.
However when a player is rattled in subtle ways, it make an extraordinary impact. A trick of light, sleight of hand, something that upsets the natural order of things. Making us question normality and in turn, transforming us into what we should be all along: curious.
The four events in Stories Untold throw our assumptions all around the room with gameplay design and unpredictable writing so in each instance, we are ravenous to find out what happens next. The House Abandon, The Lab Conduct, The Station Process and The Last Session all start out simple enough but then tear away at our expectations. Until the floor under our feet is gone and nothing remains but a black void. Context and time being the only things keeping us up. “I feel like there are only a few things we can rely on as being constant in life and reliable, and one of them is time” McKellan continues, “So when you start to play with that, and make your sense of time unreliable, that’s quite unsettling I think. It’s not something you consciously think of during a game or film, but removing that stability definitely has a psychological effect on the viewer and can put people on edge without them knowing why. The Lab Conduct is a good example of that – the switch from past-recollection to present-urgency plays with the time and context of what you are seeing unfold, and then of course once you’ve played the whole game, that entire sequence takes on a whole new meaning if you play through again – so the time and context is played with once again. That was the biggest challenge. Keeping track of the hundreds of cross-references and story beats that take on new meanings depending on what light you shine on it. Fun to build, a nightmare to maintain.”
A steady-paced, cerebral game focused on story and primarily using obsolete in-game computer interfaces is not something that you can advertise during the NBA Finals. Well you could, but it would probably prove to be a costly risk. But the ramifications for storytelling in a game will be the thing that lasts beyond any number of annual shooter or racing titles. The advances Stories Untold makes in that area are nothing short of stunning.
Not only does it create scenarios that you never considered before but it also does it in such a confident way that you come out the other side thinking you’re already lagging far behind from a creative standpoint. Every moment feels like something that fell out of an alternate future where games that force the player to question their surroundings, their memories and themselves are commonplace rather than extremely rare. And its creators are very focused on making that future a reality. “We started our next project almost immediately after Stories Untold launched and we’re looking forward to talking more about that at some point. We can’t really say much more than that just now, but we are going bigger and bolder. We’re taking what worked, and exploring new ideas and concepts that we don’t think have been explored too often. Stories Untold’s reception has been a real confidence booster that maybe people like a bit of short but exciting roller coaster madness in their life.”
If you think about your favourite book or TV show. It’s probably got a great story. Something that you just need to binge eight episodes in a row to finish or stay up until 2 in the morning until you burn through all the chapters. A tale that knows there’s no time to waste so every moment is used to its full benefit to create event after event that has you sliding down its slopes into the inevitable conclusion.
That’s where Stories Untold is coming from. It grabbed me by the hand and dragged me through a quiet, disturbing adventure unlike anything I’d experienced before. That’s why it’s the best game I played in 2017. Because it came from the gut.