I applied to join a mod team last month as a story consultant. It was very cheeky of me because they weren’t even looking for anybody to join the story team. After a few e-mails back and forth it was agreed that what I wanted to do and what they needed doing weren’t exactly the same. No hard feelings on either side, simply a matter of different needs and desires.
The whole episode got me thinking about how mods are made especially with regard to the story. The problem with story and idea writing is that EVERYBODY can do it! Some with more eloquence and style than others but still it there, on paper! You’re not a modeller or mapper until you can either model or map. But everybody is a story man. It’s time mod makers made the story more of a priority and had a specialist story team. That’s not to say that modellers can’t and don’t have good ideas but you need people who understand the whys and hows of good game writing.
Films producers take good stories and turn them into good films. The same should be true for Mod Leaders. Of course the problem is that mod making is voluntary and people resist being told to make models or maps in a certain way. They need their freedom to express their own ideas. This can still be done within the framework of the story but specialists should do the work.
When you see a bad model or map it’s very obvious but what about a bad story? How do you define a good or bad story? Well that’s a whole new post but suffice to say that too many of the stories in FPS games and mods are simply clichéd settings with little depth.
One other point to make is that it is not strictly necessary to have a great story to make a great game. BUT, I believe it’s more important for a mod to have a story than a game. Why? Well, here are a couple of examples.
Firstly let’s consider a mod that hasn’t introduced anything new. Meaning it’s using everything from the original game. When you play a mod you have probably played the game it’s based on. You have become familiar with the textures, sound, weapons and enemies. Even if you introduce great maps and settings, that familiarity breeds contempt. It has to stand out from the game you’ve just played otherwise it blends into the background, it becomes just another map or mod that looks, feels and plays the same! Where’s the motivation for playing it? However, if you can somehow take the original story and use elements from it to tell a different story you can get people hooked. I believe that’s one of the reason Opposing Force and Blue Shift were so successful for Valve because players were interested in the story, sure the game play was great but that’s not enough.
(I also believe that is why more great mods were made for Half Life than Unreal because the Unreal story didn’t lend itself to other easily related stories. Yes, you can put players on the Na Pali planet have them do stuff but it’s not the same. Another point is that you had character in HL, whether they be security guards or scientists, characters create interest.)
The End, the Finale, the Outcome. Whatever you call it, it’s got to be attractive. The story has to create a need in the player to “know what happens at the end”. How often have you watched a bad film to the end just to know what happens? Probably a lot more than you have finished a bad mod just to know the ending! Okay, we all know that Prisoner 849 or Gordon Freeman are going to survive and win but the details should be hazy.
Onto the second example, a TC or Total Conversion. Imagine a SP game that was released that had no story, all you had to do was complete 20 levels with varying side quests and a bunch of weapons and enemies. Sounds interesting? NO, why? Because there no hook, nothing to draw you in. Yes, the gameplay might be great but for some that’s not enough. Connection is what’s needed, how do the enemies and weapons relate to the REASON for the character doing what she or he is doing?
I don’t want to give the impression that I think all my mod story ideas should be made into mods and all the mods out there have crap stories. What I’m trying to suggest is that if there were more people like me who focused on stories then maybe amateur mod story writing would get much better, like modelling and mapping have. Some maps and models released by mod teams are incredible, easy professional quality. Can we say the same about the stories? I don’t think so. Until more teams begin to understand the importance of stories then teams will continue to produce visually spectacular but ultimately forgettable mods.