"Syndicate's biggest failing is perhaps a complete inability to realise the appeal of Bullfrog's original dystopian vision," wrote Martin Gaston in his recent review. "Half-heartedly wedging in some basic dramatic structure only serves to highlight how Starbreeze doesn't know what it's doing, and an awkward endgame that focuses on morals and truth simply doesn't work in a game where everyone's a villain."

Syndicate fumbles when it comes to basic storytelling, but it's hardly the first release to receive such criticism. On the contrary, games with widely-lauded plots are few and far between. But why is it so hard for video games to spin a ripping yarn?

To find out, we sat down to chat with Walt Williams, lead writer on Spec Ops: The Line; Oskari Häkkinen, head of franchise development at Remedy; and James Parker, whose past writing credits include Reservoir Dogs and Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising.


Problem 1: Story has to work around gameplay

In every other storytelling medium, plot structure is a key concern. Films, TV shows, novels and plays all have their respective strengths and demands - but at their core they are passive activities. Games, on the other hand, are built around their interactive properties.

"That's exactly how it should be," says games writer James Parker. "As soon as you have a game where the gameplay is too adversely affected by the story, it stops being a game. Rather than it simply being a good game with a bad story, you're failing at the first step. It doesn't matter how good the story is if you've broken it straight away."

By their very nature, games are required to give players a degree of control over their experience - where they go, what they do, and who they fight or talk to. From a storytelling perspective this is problematic, because it's hard to ensure that everyone absorbs the information you wish to convey - whether it's an important plot point, or something that informs the overall mood or tone.

"Gaming is interactive entertainment, and it needs to be played the way somebody wants to play," says Remedy's Oskari Häkkinen. "But with Alan Wake, as everybody knows, we first announced it as an open-world game, which didn't really work out for us. Our overall vision was to create a thriller, and the thriller experience just wasn't working in the open-world. A linear structure worked better for us, because we could control the dialogue, the weather, everything."

The revised design of Alan Wake allowed Remedy to steer players through their narrative, but only the cost of some of the freedom that was implicit in their initial concept.

"The game is certainly better for it," says Oskari. "Without saying that we're explicitly trying to make everyone have the same experience, we are trying to give the gamers a story experience that we envision - one that everyone will enjoy not in the same way, but in a similar way."


Problem 2: Where does the story fit in, anyway?

Given this clash between active gameplay and passive storytelling, it's no surprise that cutscenes are so frequently criticised or derided by hardcore gamers. Despite the hallowed status of the Metal Gear Solid series, Hideo Kojima has become notorious for forcing players to sit through lengthy movies, devoid of interaction. And while that may be an extreme example, it's fair to say that there are few games or developers who receive praise for their non-interactive moments.

But if cutscenes are unacceptable, where are the industry's fabulists supposed to set out their stall?

"Cutscenes make my job 100 per cent easier, because I get to have a specific moment where I can do the narrative that I need to do," says Walt Williams, lead writer on 2K and Yager Development's Spec Ops: The Line. "But at the same time, the trick of making the story of a game grab you the whole way through is with the stuff in-between the scenes - the narrative that's happening in gameplay."

Despite its appearance as a straight-up military shooter, The Line has steep, narrative-driven ambitions, taking its cues from both Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford-Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Underneath the cover system and precision headshots, The Line aims to make us consider the horrors of war, and of human nature as a whole. But while players take on the role of lead character Martin Walker, it's his two sidekicks, Adams and Lugo, who support much of the game's narrative.

"A lot of the heart and the emotion of what's happening comes from their mouths," explains Williams. "They get to be the emotional expression that Walker wouldn't be able to be. You're controlling him, so Walker can only emote to a certain extent before you can't relate to him at all. With the two squadmates, I'm able to still give that emotion to the player and put them in the moment, where they're feeling what everyone is feeling."

Williams has the advantage of having two permanent characters who can comment and reflect what the player is going through. But in games where the main character largely acts alone, developers are forced to use other means. Like its predecessor, Alan Wake's American Nightmare relies upon in-game media to set out much of the story.

Even here, however, there's a balance to be struck: some players will only tolerate a tiny quantity of exposition, while others want to revel in the game's lore - and the studio has to cater to both groups at once:

"There's the basic premise that everyone will understand, but we've put in tonnes of optional story content," says Häkkinen. "There's load of manuscript pages, and there are radio shows again. With the NPCs we've got lots and lots of dialogue in there. You talk to an NPC the first time and you get the basic story - that's for everyone. But then for the people who want to explore the picture more, they keep talking to the NPCs and we start connecting the dots back to the first game."

Alan Wake's pages are merely the latest in a long line of plot-dispensing collectibles, with BioShock's audio diaries and Resident Evil's secret documents being two other notable examples. But these devices only work if players want to pick them up in the first place.

Problem 3: Players would rather just shoot stuff

Reservoir Dogs has a reputation for being one of the most violent films of the '90s, but when you boil it down, there are only a few outbursts across the course of the whole story. The 2006 tie-in game, on the other hand, is knee-deep in bodies from the very first level. Why? Because combat - shooting, in this case - is an integral element of game design.

"Reservoir Dogs is not a great example of a film adaptation for that very reason - it doesn't represent the film," says Parker. "It's the best job that could be done with the materials to turn it into a game. You couldn't pitch Reservoir Dogs as a game, even now with things that have changed since, because it's not about anything, really. It's about relationships between some guys, and it plays out."

Beyond the relative infrequency of violent acts in the plot, Parker argues that a closer adaptation of Reservoir Dogs could never work as a game - because its linear, narrative cohesion is what makes it successful in the first place:

"You wouldn't want to influence that setup, particularly, because it wouldn't create a better story. I think that's the argument: interactivity is only worthwhile if it can lend itself to new, interesting experiences. Reservoir Dogs is incredibly tight as a story, incredibly well-written. You wouldn't want to do it any differently, so why make it interactive?"

And there's another problem that stems from our violent gaming tendencies: We're all so used to blowing away bad guys that it's very hard to make death matter.

A prime example of this cropped up late last year, when 2K showed off a key sequence from Spec Ops: The Line - one in which the player is forced to kill one of two defenceless NPCs for the sake of saving their own skin. It's a moment that's supposed to carry great gravitas, but at last year's press event, at least one player immediately capped the nearest victim, without a moment's hesitation.

Williams suggests that this dramatic dilemma suffered for being presented as part of a demo, divorced from the several hours of play that will eventually serve as its preceding context.

"The game is designed to essentially be a mirror to whatever you're bringing into it, things you may not be aware of," he says. "That guy walked in and said, 'You know what? This isn't my problem. They want me to kill one of them? OK, I'll kill 'em and move on, because this is not what I'm here to do.'

"My hope is that by the end of the game, he will at least do the rest of the things we put him through, realise that about himself. There's nothing wrong with him being that guy, thinking that way. But by the end I want him to at least realise why he's thinking that way - what is it about himself that made him say, 'This isn't my thing'. Instead of thinking of it as just a game."

That last point is key. For a game's story to work, players must think of the experience as being more than "just" a game. If we see the NPCs as mere targets to be shot at, can we ever care about their fate?


Problem 4: Games struggle when it comes to complex emotions

Our trigger-happy tendencies underscore one further issue faced by those who set out to tell a mature gaming story: Games are supposed to be enjoyable, and if you're attempting to convey complex emotions like sadness, frustration or regret, this can lead to an awkward clash.

In the case of Spec Ops: The Line, the bleakness of the setting and plot has to mesh with the gung-ho excitement of the standard gunplay. Williams reveals that Yager experimented with making the shooting more of a draining experience, only to find that the end result was something that no-one wanted to play:

"There was a point where we were shooting for that [bleaker gameplay], but the truth of the matter is we couldn't make it work. The game was so dark, and the combat was so gruelling, that we were taking people further than we wanted to.

"You didn't want to finish the game, because you were already shellshocked by the time you got a to a certain point. I tried to play it through in two days, and I was depressed! Any time I picked up the controller, I felt physically exhausted - because it was hitting you on so many levels. "

Does this mean, for example, that video games will never have the equivalent of Schindler's List?

"I'm not saying it couldn't be done, but you'd struggle," opines Parker. "There's an issue of games being primarily about success: It's very hard to create a situation where the player fails deliberately without it feeling unfair in some way. Something like Uncharted does it a lot, where you end up in a bad place and you start again - and that kind of works, because you're expecting it from the story. But it's not got sadness in it, it's not got the true depths of despair that you'd get in other mediums, because you'd probably just put it down and play something else."

In the past it's been argued that gaming is a relatively new medium, and that this accounts for the relative lack of mature storylines. But Parker believes that this excuse has long since expired.

"The 'being a young medium' thing is probably wearing out as an argument, given the size of the market and the number of games around. There are interesting things being done in indie games that explore more issues than triple-A projects, just as there with indie films compared to summer blockbusters. So I don't think it will always be the case that game stories can't tackle issues, but I think we should try for easier emotions to hit than sorrow. Comedy would be a good thing to carry through to more games."


Problem 5: Games writing often isn't seen as a discipline

"I think the biggest obstacle is that as an industry, we need to see writing as a design discipline," says Williams, who joined the games industry after several years of working on comics. "It's not something that anyone can do, and it's not something where you can bring any random writer in to do it. I can't code a game, I can't sit down and model something; an artist can't necessarily sit down and write a script. Every piece has to work in unison as a thoughtful design orientation. We either need to train designers to be dramatic writers, or bring in dramatic writers who are willing to learn design."

Parker was a playwright before Doom mods led him to the games industry. Like Williams, he believes that to writers must learn basic game design if they are to have any chance at making their stories work.

"There's an assumption that you can go, 'Here's someone who's written a Blockbuster film, a name, they can obviously write'. But they don't understand. Games aren't more difficult to write for than other media, but they have they have their own set of complexities that you wouldn't understand if you haven't been involved with it for any length of time.

"It's much better for the industry to have people who understand games proper players, or people from other disciplines who have gone into it with genuine passion, rather than simply seeing it as a lucrative avenue, for whatever reason."

And for his part, Parker also remains optimistic for the future of games writing. Indeed, he already believes that things are improving - although perhaps not in the manner you might expect.

"I always cite FIFA as a good example. The commentary on FIFA now is pretty good: you can watch a full game, and the number of variables it takes into account to put together that commentary speech, to make it feel like you're playing a real game of football... it's stunning, really. I think that's an area where a lot of work is done that people don't realise. People aren't aware that writing is getting better in that respect, and eventually that will carry over into more linear, narrative games.

"People see story-driven games and judge them against one another, then judge everything against them," he concludes. "Whereas if you look at the whole of the game space there's actually more being done around the edges, with games that aren't story-driven, but still feed into those processes."

Narrative-driven gaming is hardly a lost cause, as is evident from the number of people who are rushing out to buy Mass Effect 3. All the same, if games are to progress as a storytelling medium, perhaps we should stop trying to make them look like films.

James Parker can be found on Twitter or at James Parker Writing. Spec Ops: The Line will be released on June 29 for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360; Alan Wake is out now on PC and Xbox 360