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Three Moves Ahead Episode 49 – Strategy Games and Story Telling

January 26th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 17 Comments · Podcast, Three Moves Ahead


This week, Troy, Julian and Rob talk about the limitations and possibilities of story telling in strategy games. Can you have an authorial perspective in a system driven genre? Is the RTS campaign story irrevocably broken? Is there anything on the horizon that might give us hope?

And stay tuned to the end where I ask for feedback for our anniversary show.

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17 Comments so far ↓

  • Alan Au

    About the comment that maybe strategy games just aren’t amenable to storytelling, I agree that part of the problem is that units are fairly generic, and in most cases, expendable. Some games have veterancy systems, like Myth, which give the player incentive to give those units more care and attention, but ultimately they’re just another tool to get the player to the end of the scenario. Some games also feature named characters, or let you name the characters yourself. This can create some emergent stories, but that isn’t quite the same as generating a grand narrative.

    StarCraft took a different approach by having named “hero” units which were featured in cutscenes. However, because of the way the gameplay worked, most players ended up locking them away in some fortified bunker, so as not to risk losing them during a big battle. Supposedly this is one of the reasons why Warcraft 3 allowed players to resurrect fallen heroes after a short delay, to encourage players to use them in combat. Of course, respawning takes away some of the sense of attachment. Then there’s Fire Emblem with its permadeath mechanic.

    The Fire Emblem games are interesting for another reason: the “conversation” interactions. Basically, pairs of characters that fought in close proximity would sometimes talk to each other. It sometimes felt out of place when two characters would start chatting mid-battle, but it added to the idea that characters were more than just collections of combat statistics. Speaking of conversations and character interactions, there are only really so many stories you can tell when your interface options consist of “attack” and “move.”

    As for Rise of Legends it had the problem of trying to justify game mechanics through narrative. At least with historical games, gameplay is based on history and not the other way around. Even then, a lot of what goes into scenarios is the historical context, and why the battle is being fought in the first place. The Battle of Britain makes for an interesting context, but it’s a cheat because you know the story around the conflict. The conflict itself might just be planes shooting at each other.

    Anyhow, this is a problem that extends beyond strategy games into other genres as well. For a long time, shooters were just a collection of maps, sometimes strung together by a flimsy narrative if you were lucky. Nowadays, with the convergence of roleplaying and shooters, the character focus is allowing for more intricate storytelling. However, strategy still deals with the big-picture, which makes it difficult to identify with individual characters and tell complex stories about them.

  • Eury

    Great episode, but I found it a bit puzzling that you never in the episode mentioned Warcraft 3, a game that World of Warcraft pretty much built its world around.

    In my opinion it had some of the best voice acting and cinematics, not to mention well executed missions, that can be found in any RTS game.

    Otherwise a very enjoyable episode, thanks.

  • Josh

    This is going to be something difficult to articulate. To me, a story in a traditional sense is one in which the listener takes a passive stance, listening to a series of events is provided in varying detail to coincide with the variety of mechanisms to tell such a story. A good story has to flow.

    That is the way it works in movies and books. Following the same convention with a computer game (doesn’t really matter about genre right now) based on a story handed down from the design team means that the player will focus on a bite sized portion of the events considered significant within the story, and no matter what happens, in order for the story to progress, the same resolution will have to happen; that city must be sacked, area b must be captured and the rescued hostage must make it to point X. Personally, I feel as though in a medium such as computer gaming where the “listener” has to take an active role during the significant events, the only dynamic provided is the methods to be undertaken in order to achieve victory. In the vein of strategy games, I believe a good story driven campaign is one which is flexible enough to handle a scenario defeat, (or inability to meet an objective) not just focus on a victory. Of course, that can, and will mean a whole slew of different situations need to be accounted for. Unfortunately, this may then fall into the same category of a player driven campaign, yet I’d like to think the two are still entirely separate. I haven’t spent much time with the Dawn of War 2 campaign, but I reached the point where I think it will achieve that result.

    So, in summary, if part of the storytelling is going to fall onto the player, then give them a chance then to change it, whether for good or bad. It can still have those scripted elements, just that there will be a need for more in order to cover the possibilities of not just winning, but also losing, like a choose your own adventure book.

    But wait, there’s more!

    So, Troy, you raised what was to me, a good point in the podcast about identifying what the player is. Are they a King, a God, a grunt on the ground. I mentioned World in Conflict in response to one of your prior podcasts, and the reason I enjoy that game is the story telling. Sure, it is a matter of achieving the objective in order to progress the story, but I felt as though there was a lot more to it. Right from the start, victory was defined as being able to get out of Seattle alive with the Soviets take control. The cutscenes show what was to me, a more human element to the player’s character, the conversations with his father, personal musings of the situation that has come upon them, and more which I won’t spoil. The cutscenes also establish that order of command, which I will fault by having almost too much emphasis on the player (Parker) being the essential tool for victory. It is up to you to destroy that artillery battery, yet the designers I guess tried to justify it by having the other commanders appearing too busy fighting on other fronts to help out. But more than that, during play when you are moving your guys around to achieve the objective comes the usual banter from the other commanders, and it helped me grow attached to them, the no-nonsense Sawyer always clashing with the eternally whinging Bannon.

    Keep on reading and get a set of steak knives!

    I mentioned over at the QT3 forums about my love of the campaign in Age of Empires 2. I did consider Age of Mythology however so much of it is forgotten. I attribute that to the slight difference in story telling. While Age of Mythology lends itself to using the game engine to tell the story, Age of Empires took a step back, removed all action elements and provided a recount of events that would be the lead up for the next map. My favourite campaign for instance was the story of Fredrick Barbarossa, with a narrative written as though the player were in a real German pub, the publican recounting the story of what happened. It just seems to take that sharp step back, allowing myself anyway to have a breather and enjoy the series of events. In fact, that is a little similar to what was the case in World in Conflict too, so perhaps the narrative is the real strength to driving the story, not the action itself?

    As it were, I did the campaign in Age of Mythology for completion sake, but the story itself is just a haze now of titans being unleashed and needing to be locked away.

    Well, I’m done. I was tempted to mention Company of Heroes and its campaigns, but I haven’t done enough to really comment there. If you read all of this, congratulations!

  • Ian Bowes (spelk)

    I’ve been wracking my brains to come up with “strategy games with good narratives”, and scanning through my shot-to-hell memory I’m not dredging up much, especially not in the RTS genre.

    The Spellforce games, with their fusion of RPG and RTS mechanics, could afford to guide the tactical elements of the RTS game through a more involving storyline, plus you were centered around a customisable hero and his companions, and the armies you created around you for battle where the faceless expendable minions.

    I think because many strategy games rely on commander level abstraction and disassociation with the troop on the ground, there is a difficulty in bringing involving and emotional stories to bear on the proceedings. If you can connect an RPG ethos to an avatar on the ground, that the commander cares about, then you can funnel story and emotive content through that.

    I started thinking out of the RTS box, and come up with Shadow Hearts for the Playstation 2, which had an amazing quirky japanese horror storyline, wrapped around a heroes of might and magic style combat mechanic. Or perhaps something like Nexus: The Jupiter Incident, whereby the overarching story is everything, and the almost puzzle like tactical combat involving huge space battleships and alien technologies gels the strategy to the mission size chunks of narrative. Both of these games sucked me in storywise, but can only be called light strategy I guess.

    I suppose I could even say the party based tactical play in Mass Effect would also count as a game where the story is the main focus and the action and tactical decisions are carried by it.

    How much does knowing the history behind the scenarios in Field of Glory affect the players appreciation of playing the scenario? Perhaps in historical games theres a level of layering your own interpretations and knowledge of a era over the actual turn based mechanics. Perhaps thats what attracts wargamers in the first place. And if Slitherine rewrote or re-enacted a hammy version of the Romans vs the Carthaginians, it would jar and possibly turn away gamers from it?

    Where was Tom by the way?

  • Michael A.

    Ah – a topic near and dear to my heart.

    What’s wrong with the Company of Heroes campaigns? Granted, they follow the tried and true “gradual introduction of new units” formula, but IMO the game narrative works very well (except for a few scenarios where the lack of triggers allow you to preempt the narrative).

  • Alan Au

    Like most historical-context games, Company of Heroes cheats by letting real world historical events do the storytelling in place of the gameplay. Sure, there are cutscenes, but they unfold independently of the gameplay, and the “characters” never make an appearance on the field.

    A few games have dynamic campaigns, and I’m reminded of the old Panzer General, which gave you different missions based on your successes and failures. Exceptional performance would lead to an early assault on London, while poor performance would result in the defense of Berlin.

  • One Move Behind – Narrative & Stairway Thoughts | RobZacny.com

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  • Tony

    Through most of the podcast you focused on linear narrative. My favourite storytelling in games is the more “light touch” non-linear storytelling that is buried in the games setting.

    Alpha Centauri is the best example I can think of. AC does have a linear narrative starting with planetfall through to ascension. But theres lots of snippets of storytelling every time you engage in diplomacy, or discover a new technology. You slowly get a picture of who the characters are.

    You touched on it when you talked about voice acting and setting. Theres definitely a crossover area between setting and non-linear storytelling. A good setting tends to inspire storys. Not just “emergent gameplay” type storys but little scenes that tell a story.


  • Ginger Yellow

    I was a bit disappointed that although you talked about SupCom – well, SupCom 2 – you didn’t mention it when talking about how having mission critical characters risks turning a game into an elaborate escort mission. One of the things I really like about SupCom (and TA, for that matter) is the way you have to balance your desire to use the ACU’s awesome destructive power with the need to keep it alive. That said, the story in SupCom really is disposable, much though I like the voice actors.

    I’d like to second the support for the narrative in Company of Heroes, at least part of it. Living as I do in Britain, I’ve seen A Bridge Too Far way too many times for my own good. So it was fascinating to play that campaign from the German perspective, and I think they handled the whole “How can I root for a Nazi?” issue pretty well.

  • Alan Au

    How could I forget Alpha Centauri? Yes, that game did some amazing things with storytelling, with the gameplay arc involving the evolution of fungus from hazard to nuisance to bonus.

  • Quinten

    I have mentioned Men of War quite a few times here, and I thought of it when I first saw the topic of this episode. I want to write about it here, because unlike CoH, you have individual men you command, and they all have names. You can’t make more guys when they die, if they are dead… oh well. Rob mentioned that most RTS campaigns give you bigger and better challenges until you have the full complement of toys, to borrow a term from Mr. Chick. Men of War starts like that, but then gives you a humongous battle where you hold a city under siege by Germans; this battle is incredibly difficult if you don’t use lots of weapons that are never introduced. The game varies in the size of battles, and the weapons you get, taking more of a historical approach.
    They try to tell the story of a couple of friends who are separated during the war, and see different ends of it. One of them becomes spetznaz and the other an infantry officer. It isn’t very interesting, but the varying missions between the two make it more interesting. The cut scenes that tell the story use the in game models, which makes them feel more human and gets you more involved. Unfortunately outside of the Russian Campaign they are less concerned with narrative and more of telling the story of the war. I will say it is jarring to have a story character die, but they are just “knocked out” by the three point blank rifle shots. Though some missions require you keep one person alive, these are the exception not the rule.
    Men of War: Red Tide will actually have you follow the same squad from mission to mission in some instances. I haven’t played past the first two mini campaigns, so I can’t say if it does anything more interesting with story than the shocking twist: apparently the Russians by the Black Sea all have American accents.
    I rather like the story in Starcraft and Warcraft, and it is the only reason I bother to beat them. I don’t like the way Blizzard makes their Real Time Strategy games feel. The story has always been the hook to keep me going, so I may just watch Starcraft 2’s story videos on youtube.

  • Thomas Kiley

    I think the biggest issue is the disconnect between the game play and the story. Part of this stems from what you were saying about story being an oversight. As a result, developers tend to use these clichéd stories with the little guy slowly proving his worth.

    However, strategy games don’t tend to deal with characters within the game play. Some times this can work fine, such as when the story line is really good (good enough to work in a book) and the voice acting is good etc. However, I think it is an uphill struggle compared to other genres such as shooters and the story works in spite of the game.

    Instead I think strategy games should do stories on the level that the game play operates. So if you are doing a squad based game, then a character strong story will be fine (like Dawn of War 2). But if you are doing a Civ scale game, then your story needs to be of a similar scope -> not personal success but national success.

    Obviously good characterisation is a good way to make a compelling story, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible to write a good story where the characters are countries. However, it is more challenging, which is why I agree with Rob that strategy games should present a good narrative hook and let players make their own stories, particularly when the scale reaches the point where individuals are irrelevant game play wise.

  • Rob Zacny

    I was going to mention Alpha Centauri during the podcast, but the conversation never really moved in that direction and we had some time constraints. I wish we had, though, because I agree that Alpha Centauri is a masterful example of telling a story within a strategy game. I’ve made that case before here on FoS.

    It’s also a special case. For one thing, it uses the flavor-text and the story “interludes” to advance a plot that has no connection at all to what you are doing. The story of AC is really source material for the game you are playing, and not the plot. It works brilliantly to give the game a unique vibe, and it makes the action in the game much more freighted with meaning. But it’s not really a narrative game.

    Warcraft III is another game I thought about bringing up, but was hesitant to do so given that we had already talked a bit about Starcraft. I’d agree that the game had an excellent campaign, and in some cases did a great job of tying the action in the mission to the storyline. I’m thinking in particular of the mission where Arthas lays waste to that city and pretty much all the action on Northrend.

    But that’s all the first campaign. I think Warcraft III, despite some excellent writing and characterization (Illidan, in particular, stands out for me), also has missions that typify problems with strategy game narrative. The elven prison level, for instance, which is the bog-standard “hallway map” that you find in most RTS campaigns. The undead campaign is a blur for me. With the orcs, I remember a lot of mission that just kind of bored me. Wandering the new continent and watching the taurens getting slaughtered by centaurs, or chopping down half a forest. Some stuff really works in the game. I think Warcraft III is a mixed-success, at best.

    Alan nailed CoH pretty well, but I fleshed out my complaints a bit more on my blog. The bottom line is that CoH’s campaign is kind of the nutshell version of why people are sick to death of WW2 as a setting. I can’t liberate Carentan again. I can’t capture causeways with the 101st again. And I absolutely cannot raid the secret V-2 base again. CoH made me do all of it, channeling “Greatest Generation” sentimentality the entire way.

    I have not played the expansion campaign, but perhaps I owe that a look.

    We won’t even discuss how long I’ve been putting off Men of War. Suffice it to say, I am ashamed.

  • RandomInternetsGuy

    Thanks for the great show. There were interesting points made by everyone.

    As already commented on, I feel the level of abstraction and detachment has a lot to do with the level of immersion in a storyline.

    For example, conducting a special forces raid in an RTS is building a unit, tellin that unit where to go, then clicking on a special ability and hopefully moving the unit out of harm’s way…otherwise, oh well, just spend a few more resources and build another one. The story is faceless special forces guy infiltrated the base and blew up a key fortification as a small part in the grand scheme of things as I was simultaneously building my economy, mustering forces, etc.

    However, you can build an entire narrative from that in a 3rd person stealth game like Splinter Cell where you are the special forces guy doing the legwork, building a plan, choosing your equipment, carefully infiltrating that base, having a few close calls where your cover is almost blown, and escaping barely in time to enjoy the Michael Bay style fireworks.

    I’m stating the obvious, but the level of interest in a setting or context also plays a role. As mentioned in the TMA about introducing strategy games to new players, one of you mentioned a setting or historical context as a way to hook or entice the prospective player into playing a strategy game they otherwise wouldn’t care to try.

    I don’t think there’s any amount of superb voice work or intriguing narrative that would pique my interest for a story about the WWII Allied invasion of Normandy from a strategy commander perspective. I remember thinking “Oh God, not Omaha again…” when I played the very first map of the campaign of CoH.

    Contrast this attitude with the one I had when playing Brothers In Arms, a tactical FPS, where I actually did care about the characters and whether they lived or not. Baker’s musings between missions and the events that occurred in the game imparted in me the sense of bleak nihilism that some of these soldiers must have felt.

  • Rythe

    I have many fond memories of Starcraft because of the story. In a way, the actual game did kinda become an unlock for the story elements, but when the story is done well, I’m okay with it. The story was also the greater context of the game that made the single player campaign worth playing through. I lump C&C into the same sort of experience.

    As mentioned in the podcast, Homeworld is one of the few strategy games that did the meta narrative right. It’s hard to do well, which is why the technique is used so seldomly. It’s hard enough doing a good job with standard, familiar story structures.

    On the other hand, I didn’t like Dawn of War II’s campaign. Largely because you had to be fast and rush everything to get enough points for another battle in the same day. After a certain point, your troops just felt generic too. The game tried to give them some sort of personality but it didn’t stick. I can’t remember anyone’s name from that game.

    It was touched on lightly in the podcast, but the reason there isn’t more involved and evolving story elements in the missions themselves is that both take a lot of effort. Even with a basic win/lose branching, you’re increasing workload by a power of two for each step further into the campaign. There’s also a problem of putting creativity into the strategy game system. One way is to make the maps themselves dynamic, changing the terrain based on events and such (Which TotalAnnihilation sorta did with wreckage, and C&C 2 kinda failed with its elevation system.) Another way is changing mission objectives on the fly depending on player actions – which actually is feasible but takes a lot of scripting and a really robust engine for it. Even then, it’d be creatively challenging to get away from destroy X and/or capture Y over and over again. Most Triple-A titles don’t have the vision for it, most indie titles don’t have the time or budget for it even if they wish they could. Glimmers of it are there in a couple games, but not so much realization.

    Voice acting *is* huge, which is another thing Starcraft and C&C did well.

  • Dectilon

    I bought Tiberian Sun used and for some reason the movies didn’t work. Sure, it confused the hell out of me because I’d suddenly get objectives out of nowhere. However: The general darkness and fluorescent environments combined with Frank Klepacki’s score made for an incredibly visceral and oppressive atmosphere which gave off a real sense of hopelessness and painted an entire narrative in my head.

    Years later I got the cutscenes to work and how I wish I never had. Holy crap was the real story stupid and bland. And that, including Red Alert, was probably the best storytelling in strategy games at the time!

    As for Starcraft and Warcraft 3 I’d say that the only reason they’re so acclaimed is because they’re alone in trying. Neither game really has an actually good story, just the best one in strategy games. That seems to be a problem in video games overall. For example, I’ll admit I had tons of fun playing through Mass Effect 1&2, but I would never claim (as a lot of BioWare fans do) that the writing is brilliant. It’s really not. It gets the job done, but held up to the writing in other media it’s really nothing special.

    You mentioned Myth during the podcast, and that is easily my favorite strategy game narrative. It’s a LotR-esque struggle as seen through the eyes of a tired war veteran. The battles get harder as you win them, sure, but (at least I feel that) it’s not for some arbitrary reason. It seems natural that veterans be brought used for continuously more risky, dangerous assignments simply because they’ve survived.

    Now, I haven’t played Myth 3, but in both Myth 1&2 (as far as I can remember) the situation is always bleak. The only real chance of victory they have is to cut down the Fallen Lords; winning the war through attrition is not an option. The atmosphere stays dark and epic throughout, as opposed to a lot of games where they for each mission have to make up some reason why things just got worse even though you just kicked major ass.

    As for Dawn of War, I really, really like the voice acting for the UNITS. The orkz grunting about having the most dakka in a sort of cockney accent, or the Librarian sternly explaining how an open mind is a fortress with it’s gates unbarred and unguarded. Great stuff. The actual campaign dialog though? Ugh. Does not work. For some reason it’s just has so much less energy in it for some reason I cannot explain. Screw that, I’ll just play another melee match just to hear cultists exclaim how sanity is for the weak.

  • KaoFloppy

    X-COM! Here is a game that told stories on several different levels. It told its overall story via its mission arcs, which smoothly and gradually progresses from simple crash landings to abductions to terror to the high-stake base assaults. It fills in the details via the encyclopedia entries, which does double duty of giving you back stories while educating you on how to use your new toy in combat. Notably, it doesn’t have any cutscenes or narratives.

    At another level, it tells tales of the individual squaddies recruited by the players. This is made possible because of the way this game lets the player recruit units that stays in the game as long as the player can keep them alive. This makes it possible for the player to become attached to units over time, and invest more emotional interest in their well being.

    Every player has his/her own tale of at least one specific squaddie, whether it’s a heroic tale, a clumsy accidental tale, genuine terror, or a tragic loss. This story isn’t told explicitly…it’s just part of the normal game. If the “tragic loss” happens to any unit in an RTS, then the player gets pissed or shrugs, and then makes another one. If this happens to a hero unit in an RTS, the player loses the game, and need to play again (ok except for Warcraft 3). If this happens to a character in Fire Emblem, well he/she stays dead; but Fire Emblem doesn’t let you create your own unit anyways.

    Ok, maybe I lied about the several levels part, because I can only talk about these two. However, I just really needed to get these points out there. I mean, my brain screamed X-COM non-stop since about 1/4 way into this podcast. It is the perfect game to contrast the other in-game story telling methods that you guys discussed.