I’ve talked before about enjoying games for their narratives (excessively, if you consider the five-part Spec Ops article), and I realized earlier I haven’t spent much time illustrating what that means. After all, everyone has a story they like. A billion people have enjoyed Star Wars, a billion more Harry Potter. Not exactly a bold claim.

What I actually enjoy (and intentionally failed to articulate in the opening paragraph) is to pull the face off a story and study the gears beneath. I like to examine why BioShock resonates, on some level, with almost everyone who’s played it, but Aliens: Colonial Marines warrants only scorn. Games demand interaction from their audience like no other medium does, and when crafted effectively it’s like grasping Mjolnir. The Mass Effect series told a massive three-part story, a combined 120 hours of gameplay, and players still want more.

Yet many games still fail to deliver on their promised potential. When Aliens: Colonial Marines launched, youtube flooded with videos dedicated to tearing its clumsy narrative apart. More recently, the Ubisoft marketing flagship Watch_Dogs faced criticism from Giant Bomb and became the subject of a joke script from Playthroughline, both of which pointed out the cognitive dissonance inherent when a character intended as sympathetic can run around Chicago hacking bystanders’ bank accounts. Or, you know, blowing them up. You don’t have to go much farther than our own site to find thoughts on a weak game narrative; just look at what Alan had to say about Mafia 2.

As the header image suggests, we’ll get into two specific games soon. For now though, let’s step back and look at story structure on a theoretical level.

A Recognizable and Inefficient Triangle

Here’s an image I became very familiar with in middle school, and I like to think most people have seen it:

Recognize this? Freytag’s Pyramid. A classic. Rising action, climax, falling action. Simple, elegant.

And wrong.

Well, mostly wrong. It applies to anything, and as a result becomes an overly simplistic view of a story’s structure. Yes, most stories contain these three elements, but I can think of many games where charting a progression of events using this triangle would create problems. Gone Home and Dear Esther come to mind. Kentucky Route Zero would twist Freytag’s Pyramid into an M.C. Escher painting.

There’s a different model for charting stories that comes closer to modeling the typical game narrative. It looks like this:

I find this iconography suitable for many narratives. Few stories wait until the halfway point (or further) to present and subsequently resolve conflict. Most stories — especially video game ones — have multiple conflicts that occur throughout the timeline of the story, each being resolved until a new, greater conflict arises, eventually culminating in a big finale.

Ever stop playing a game because it was just too “in your face?” Or, a more common scenario, ever turned off a game because you played it for a couple hours and felt it had nothing new to show? These are games that failed to provide appropriate contrasts in their action.

The highs and lows punctuate one another in any narrative. If there’s no baseline, no ramp up or ramp down in the tension, it’s difficult to relate one moment of action to any other.

To illustrate this point I’ve picked two games. The first one is practically a master’s course game design. The second is… well, it’s Dark Sector. Don’t feel bad if the name doesn’t ring a bell. In fact, it’s the reason its been chosen.

Half-Life 2

Half-Life 2’s pace mirrors the earthquake chart right away. There’s no action at all when the game begins. Just a cryptic G-man talking at the end of a tram ride. Time is spent wandering the streets, throwing away a can, and getting a sense of the world at large. Then Barry, wonderful handsome Barry, shows up to start things off. After meeting the cast and getting your trusty crowbar, it’s off to do some airboating.

Remember all that airboating? There was an awful lot of airboating. The player rides around at their own pace for a while until they hit a barricade. Then a detour is required, often resulting in a bunch of shooting.

Bang bang.

Shoot shoot.

Crowbar a barnacle.

Then the barricade is solved and it’s back to airboating. The time spent floating across the water is time to relax, which helps those shoot-shoot-bang-bang moments stand out. It also establishes the airboat as a safe zone, a place free from threat. Then as your time boating comes to an end, Half-Life 2 threatens your safe zone with the helicopter chase sequence, breaking an established pattern to ramp up the tension.

Hands up, people who’ve played Half-Life 2. When Alyx said, “That’s the old passage to Ravenholm. We don’t go there anymore,” how many of you knew you’d be going to Ravenholm pretty soon? Sadly I can’t see through spacetime, but I imagine there’s a lot of hands up. Alyx’s line comes up during peace, but it immediately alerts the player the next area is going to be dreadful and to expect the worst. It sets up an expectation of dread for the next area, ramping up the tension without actually thrusting any surprises upon the player. Instead you still take your time, get the Gravity Gun, and play around with Dog in a Junkyard for a while. Ravenholm lies in wait.

Then everything goes to hell. The player goes straight from the closest thing to a home they’ve seen to a headcrab-ified, horror-themed village. The time spent on the homestead tossin’ the ball around with Dog makes Ravenholm more of a shock, as your leisurely time is brought to an abrupt end and the player is ushered through the gates.

The scene spent playing with Dog is more than just downtime as well. It’s an organic way to teach the player how to use their new toy, the Gravity Gun. Ravenholm is a place that forces the player to use this new toy to survive, since it’s populated with saw blades and explosive canisters. It creates a subconscious contrast between playing with Dog and killing headcrab zombies in Ravenholm. A baseline to terror.

If you happen to play Half-Life 2 (or its episodes) any time soon, keep the earthquake graph in mind. Ravenholm is one of my favorite moments, but Valve does an excellent job at maintaining this pace throughout the whole game. After particularly harrowing encounters, you’ll often be treated with sightseeing vistas and supplies. They act as moments to slow the player down and give them some breathing room between action beats. Alyx even prompts the player to take it easy, saying things like, “Check it out Gordon!” After the vista, you move on to the next major action beat and the process repeats.

Next I’d like to contrast Half-Life 2’s design with another game that, uh, might’ve lacked such a tight design docket. It’d be very easy drag out a critically panned game, then tar and feather it to death (and believe me, the temptation is there). Instead I chose Dark Sector because of its failed potential. Like Terry Malloy, Dark Sector coulda been a contender.

Dark Sector

Maybe this game’s started sounding familiar by now. Perhaps you’ve even run it through Google and said, “Oh yeah, that game!” If you’re like me, you even said it out loud to yourself. I chose Dark Sector by sifting through my steam library, looking for something unfamiliar I knew I’d spent substantial time with. The first game with at least four hours played to elicit the thought, “What is this?” became my Terry Malloy.

Sorry Dark Sector. You won the steam lottery.

Dark Sector is a game from Digital Extremes, who you might know better for Warframe. Dark Sector came out in 2008 on multiple platforms, had a positive-to-middling reception from reviewers, and then vanished from public knowledge. It currently sits at 66 on Metacritic.

Here’s the thing: Dark Sector isn’t just digital trash. There’s an argument to be made about 66 being too harsh of a score. Everything in Dark Sector is well-produced. The lighting looks great, the character models are great, all the firearms have fantastic impact and power behind them, bad guys get cleaved apart in very satisfying ways, and the trademarked glaive is a blast to throw and aim. It’s also only $10 on Steam these days. Not a bad price for a lavishly produced bloodbath.

No, the problem is not production. The problem is I can’t name a single character from Dark Sector. I can’t recall a memorable event, can’t recall a single landmark, and can’t summarize a single plot point. What I remember is reaching the end and feeling confused, because I couldn’t recall what my character wanted or what we were doing in this cave. We were working for a military unit, I remember. They showed up and we killed them. Maybe they turned evil? A tentacle monster showed up too, I’m pretty sure. Then a narrator said something about how I saved my soul. Did I save my soul? I’m not sure.

There’s not a lot of contrasting moments in Dark Sector. The whole game is a murderfest from start to finish, but no matter how fun of a murderfest it is, it all washes together if there’s no contrast. The lack of anything other than action in the game’s narrative means none of these action beats stand out from one another. After murdering a set of dudes (A “shoot dozens-of-guys sequence,” if you will), there’s nothing to do but go murder another set of dudes.

Eventually robots show up which provide their own unique challenge, often testing your ability to aim the glaive, but this simply replaces one action beat with a different type of action beat. Testing the player’s ability to turn robots to scrap with calculated glaive tosses makes for a few fun boss fights and a change in pace, but it doesn’t fix an ultimately nonexistent narrative.

In a curious contradiction, Dark Sector fails by doing its one thing too well; It does it at the cost of its narrative. I never lost interest with Dark Sector. I played through the whole thing in about eight hours. The problem is all eight of those hours vanished into the ether, because around every corner were dudes waiting for their subsequent murder. No contrasting events. On occasion I did turn a corner to find a cutscene instead, but these failed for other reasons entirely. We’ll address those in a future article, and spare Dark Sector further flogging.

I recognize pitting Half-Life 2 against Dark Sector is an unfair battle. It’s the Ali and Liston of the gaming world. It’s the most unfair thing we’ve done here since… well, Mafia 2 versus Goodfellas. My apologies to Digital Extremes.

The good news is Digital Extreme’s new game, Warframe, is nothing but non-stop multiplayer action. Any semblance of narrative is thrown out, and the focus is squared on a team of players clearing out derelict ships. Warframe has the same production polish as Dark Sector. In some ways Warframe also has better pacing then Dark Sector, since there’s downtime between missions to asses your rewards and gained experience. If anyone out there reading this enjoyed Dark Sector, grab some friends and check out Warframe.

There’s more to a story then just tension and resolution, of course. Next time we’ll discuss characterization, theming, and genres… and flog Dark Sector a little more.

Continued in Craft of a Story: Part 2 — Characterization.