Breaking Bad, Ozymandius – Storytelling in Games

So I just watched Breaking Bad.

Ant, if you are reading this, I am not spoiling anything. Just hurry and get caught up already.

I don’t think I have to tell anyone that this show is amazing, but it really shows off the storytelling potential and capability of long form media.

This quality of writing is something that I feel is missing in video games, especially RPGs. (I am also watching Talking Bad right now and Krysten Ritter is still beautiful).

One of the great things in this show is how the stakes progressively get upped. At the beginning of the series, the threat Walt faces is to him alone. Yes, his family would have to deal with the fallout, but it is him alone that is at risk. By the end of the series, Walter getting caught would not only bring him down, but also his wife and his brother-in-law and potentially Madrigal (which wouldn’t have been a bad thing).

Now, take your typical RPG series. First thing, the world is at stake. So, your character goes and saves the world. So what do you do for the sequel? Save the world again!

If the stakes are the same, why do a sequel? The beauty of raising the stakes over time is that the increase in tension keeps the audience engaged and more invested in the story.

I’ve got to hand it to Bioware and Dragon Age 2. They tried to change the stakes in that game by centering it around a single town (I still maintain that Dragon Age 2 is not a bad game, just a bad followup to Dragon Age Origins). It would have been more successful story-wise if the first game had centered around Kirkwall and then Origins with saving Ferelden. So as to not break the story, have the mage revolution having not reached Ferelden by then. (Nevermind about the difference in gameplay style, I am just talking story here).

That’s the thing, I like having the stakes raised in Breaking Bad again and again. In RPGs, this doesn’t seem to happen. From the get go, the player is saving everyone yet a personal investment in the fate of the world on the part of the audience hasn’t had time to develop. In Breaking Bad, the audience cares about the fate of Jesse and Walter Jr. and all of the people around Walter.

That’s what I would like to see in video games. A story that focuses on the small things and builds towards the big stuff. How many tales are about saving the family farm? What if saving the family farm pulls the character into a life of crime or in the military? Then from there the player goes on and takes care of the issues within the military (perhaps saving the world in the process) all in the name of saving the things that the character (and hopefully the player at this point) cares about.

I may come back to this and go into the potential of storytelling in games at a later point, but this episode took my breath away so much that this sprang to mind.

On an unrelated note, you can download a print and play copy of our game Unbound: Endless War here. If you like it, please rate our game on Board Game Geek.

Also, “Jesus, Marie! They’re minerals!”

About jkempf


James Kempf, CEO of Cliché Studio, has made two games for Mercury Retrograde Press, learned from managing the comics at Criminal Records that John Stewart is the best Green Lantern, and once happily played a 12 ft. dwarf in Rifts.