One of my favourite games of all time is Sonic Team's "NiGHTS" for the Saturn. The core mechanic is very simple, and the graphics look a little ropey compared to more modern titles, but it still has oodles of charm and lots of playability. You can imagine my excitement when "Journey of Dreams" was announced, but having played it recently there was something that irritated me.
There's too much story.
Don't get me wrong, I love a good yarn, but there's a time and place for it. Ignoring the fact that video games tend to have sub-standard plots, there's several deeper problems that need to be addressed.
The biggest problem is games that have a plot for no reason other than to fit in. If Space Invaders was made today, would each level need to start with a monologue about the plight of the human race? Perhaps the ending would reveal that mankind were the real space invaders, destroying other worlds for their resources. That might sound like a great plot on paper, but do we really need it?
Let's use horror films as another example. The bits we don't see can sometimes be the scariest. A close-up of the victim's face, followed by a cut to their shadow and a ghastly scream is far more effective than seeing them being sliced up whilst the killer explains about how he wasn't loved as a child. The real power of the scene lies in the viewer's mind. Perhaps they see the attacker as a clawed monstrosity, or maybe it's the theme park owner who's in it for the money. The important thing is that the viewer is left to decide what really happened.
That's my problem with Journey of Dreams.
The first NiGHTS had some great FMV which set the story up nicely. From the opening film, it becomes apparently that Claris and Elliott were talented individuals plagued by fear and nightmares. There are no cut-scenes once the game has started, and it's pretty much left up to the player to decide on everything.
Once the final boss has been vanquished, the two main characters meet in Nightopia, but again it's up to the player to decide what happening. Have they fallen in love, or are they just cementing a friendship from their adventures?
Sadly Journey of Dreams decided to add dialogue to the mix. Lots of it. Although I'm not keen on the voice acting, my real problem is that it doesn't give you chance to use your imagination. For a game that's all about dreams, it's a shame the developers decided to go down this route.
Games don't have to tell a story. It's nice when they do, but there's really no need for hours of cut-scenes and pages of dialogue for a game that's about collecting orbs and flying through hoops. It's an important lesson to learn: More isn't always better.
Unnecessary story elements aren't a huge problem in indie gaming, but that's mainly down to the limited budgets and time constraints. What's more important is remembering that as indies we have a lot more flexibility in deciding how we tell stories.
Take time to consider what really needs to be told, and strip out the bits you don't need. You want people reading your story to know just enough to be interesting, whilst still leaving gaps for their imagination to fill in.