Monday, February 04, 2008

Story-Telling in Video Games: Oblivion and The Shivering Isles

It’s been a little while since my last post, for several reasons: 1) I’m lazy. 2) I’ve been throwing myself at Day Job with renewed vigor. 3) I’ve actually been focusing on honest-to-god writing (more to come on that sometime in the near future). 4) I finally picked up the Shivering Isles Expansion to The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and allowed it to suck away my free-time into a sweet abyss of hardcore videogametry.

Last night, I finally put the main quest/plot of The Shivering Isles to rest, and I must say: it was way better than the main plot behind Oblivion itself. What’s interesting, though, is that both quests follow the same basic plot structure, which led me to reflect on story-telling in videogames and in stories in general, and I have decided to inflict my insights on you.

First, brief praise for Oblivion: It’s amazing. They’ve really created an enormous, fully functioning fantasy world that’s reminiscent of living in some of my favorite novels from my teenage years, like Sword of Shannara or The Ruby Knight. If you like fantasy, it is worth buying Oblivion just to live in its world for a little while. I used to get up early in the mornings just so I could spend time decorating my in-game house with various trophies, including a lovely floral arrangement on the mantle. Seriously.

That aside, the serious weakness of Oblivion is story. The Oblivion plot, in a nutshell is this: the land has known relative peace for some indeterminate period of time. Now, Mysterious Bad Guys have done Very Bad Things to overthrow the peaceful order and initiate an invasion from a demonic other-dimension, culminating in the arrival of Ancient Untold Evil. Naturally, You are a seemingly insignificant commoner who is thrust into the midst of things and must go on a quest to become a Legendary Hero and stop the invasion more-or-less single-handedly. We will call this Standard Fantasy Plot B. The world of Oblivion, and the myriad things to do in it, made this rather uninspired plot overlookable. If it was a novel, on the other hand, I would have put it down. Not because it was bad per se, but because it was simply uninspired.

The plot to The Shivering Isles, on the other hand, goes along these lines: You (same dude from the main quest) travel to a foreign realm where an age of peace is interrupted by the Coming of The Ancient Evil, being an invasion from demonic other-dimensional beings, and culminating in the arrival of the Ancient Untold Evil. You are charged with combating said beings and Evil and breaking the millennial cycle of destruction. We’ll call that Standard Fantasy Plot B, Cycle-of-Doom Subtype.

With the exception of the fact that in the main quest, the demonic invasion is a new thing, whereas in Shivering Isles, it’s a once-a-millennium devastation party, these two basic plotlines are pretty much identical. The difference is in the execution. Main Quest takes place in a pretty standard elf-and-troll filled fantasy world, with your standard stalwart companions, retardedly obstinant rulers, and ludicrously maniacal bad guys. Shivering Isles, on the other hand, takes place in the other-worldly domain of the God of Madness, where giant mushroom trees stretch up into a shattered sky filled with pink constellations and odd galaxies. The primary quest-giver is the God of Madness himself, and everyone you interact with is crazy in his or her own unique, personal way. And the Ancient Evil is, well, I’ll avoid spoiling it, but the secret behind the whole affair is a bit of a nice twist, though not the necessarily the most mind-blowing one ever made.

I guess the point of all of this is that you have side-by-side an example of taking the same basic plot and doing it the trite way or doing it the original way. The Main Quest takes no real risks, and it ends up being palatable, but more of an impediment to the game's greatness than anything else. Shivering Isles, on the other hand, without really altering the same basic underlying plot progression, achieves something memorable and satisfying, all through toying with the details surrounding that old tired plotline.
For me, the take away is that you don’t have to come up with the world’s most original plot to create a great story. You just have to tell the story in a unique way. The Commoner-Who-Would-Be-King is a story we’ve all seen so many times that it’s nauseating to think about. But make the commoner a dragonfly and the kingdom into a world of perpetually melting ice crystals, and suddenly its worth your time to look over.

Interesting things to think about. I think I will ponder them while I tie up a few loose ends to in Oblivion…