Story In Video Games

A while back there was an article in The Atlantic with the rather controversial title Video Games Are Better Without Stories.

I didn’t even know about the article–who looks for gaming articles in The Atlantic?–until I started to see tweets about it filter through my feeds, and I got the distinct impression that it was polarizing the gaming community (again). On one side, there are people saying, “Of course games are better with story what a dumb article.” On the other side, there are people saying, “Finally someone said what we’re all thinking.. story sucks!” There are literally no other opinions. Well, except this one.

I read the article. It’s … well, it’s completely fair. The only thing I disagree with is the incredibly pretentious tone of the writing. (I have a pet peeve about pretentious writing. Read Strunk and White you bastards. Use simple words.)

As usual in the modern digital era, the title of the article gives little or no indication of the subject matter. The article lays out a pretty solid (but, again, annoyingly pretentious) case for why a narrative story might not be improved when it’s told through a game engine, as opposed to books, television, or movies.

If I had read this article six months ago, I might have had a different opinion. But I recently played DOOM, and I just played Mass Effect 1, 2, and 3.

One of the new things in DOOM was the addition of some narrative elements to explain why you are running around shooting demons on Mars. They came in the form of cut scenes and some environmental storytelling. I will be blunt: DOOM did not need a narrative. This is game where you run around shooting demons on Mars. I repeat: You shoot demons on Mars. There does not need to be a backstory. There does not need to be an antagonist. Your character does not need a personality. There does not need to be a narrative payoff at the end. You buy the game, you shoot demons on Mars until you’re done. The end.

Another good example of a game that doesn’t need a story is Devil Daggers. A super fun game. You run around on a platform shooting daggers at floating skulls. Why? Who cares? No story expected or required. (And in that case, no story was given.)

Those are my first examples for why I can understand the author’s point. My second example begins with a minor little game called Mass Effect 1.

You may remember Mass Effect 1 as that game you never finished because you could never get into those weird controls. And it’s true. The game mechanics are terrible. But it has a fantastic story. The best in the series, in my opinion. Some of the best narrative moments in any video game, actually. This is an example of a game where the game gets in the way of the story. The entire time I played Mass Effect 1 (twice, actually), I hated when cut scenes and dialog scenes ended and I had to slog through playing the game to get to the next scene. It was an interruption. An annoyance. A waste of time. All I wanted to do was sit back and watch the story unfold, but I kept having to run around shooting at stuff to unlock the next chapter.

That story was not improved by integrating it within a game. It was hindered, in fact. I would have much preferred to sit back and watch the Mass Effect 1 story in a television show or movie format. This is exactly the reason why people make and watch YouTube videos of cut scenes in games. Because they want to watch the story, but they don’t want to bother going through the game to see it.

(Yes, I am largely ignoring the issue of player agency–getting to choose your own story. There are many ways that the Mass Effect 1 story can turn out, but are they all equally good paths? I can only speak from my own experience with crafting stories that when faced with a decision point, there is usually only one path that has the most dramatically satisfying outcome.)

There was another much-maligned game called Enslaved where I had a very similar reaction. I liked the story, but I hated the game (well, I didn’t hate it but it was a bit dull). I just wanted to watch the cut scenes.

Those are two more examples of why I can understand the author’s point.

Do I think all stories should be removed from all video games? Of course not. There would be no more RPGs if that happened.

But does every game need a story? Is every game helped by a story? Of course not. (See DOOM and Devil Daggers. And checkers. And tennis. And yatzee. And poker. And golf. And chess. And hearts. And solitaire. And Zaxxon. And Galaga. And Pitfall. And Battle Zone.)

The point I’m trying to make (which I believe is ultimately the same point as in The Atlantic article) is that developers should think carefully about how the story serves the game, and how the game serves the story, and the balance and interaction between the two. Too often the story part of a game (ie. cut scenes, environment) is an entirely separate entity from the game part of a game (ie. the shooting or running or puzzles). If there’s an imbalance, or one piece is just “tacked on,” you get situations like DOOM or Mass Effect 1, which is annoying for everyone.

Tied up with this issue is also the issue of what a “game” actually is. Most everyone thinks a “game” is their kind of game, and not the million other kinds of games that are out there.

We use the same words (“video games”) to describe things which are radically different. DOOM the video game is radically different from, say, Gone Home the video game. They should not be compared, ever. They are both created with a “game engine” and they are both “entertainment” but that’s about the only thing they have in common. It’s like comparing gospel music and dubstep, or Gone With The Wind and bondage porn. They are meant for different audiences. The DOOM audience is entertained by challenge and obstacles. The Gone Home audience is entertained by exploration and story. Two radically different things.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s plenty of room in the industry for everyone right now.

Persona 5 and Streaming

Streaming… get it? via Wikimedia Commons

I saw that the makers of Persona 5 made the odd choice of limiting streaming of their game. (I use the word “streaming” here to include Twitch and YouTube Let’s Play videos.) Liore and Eri also weighed in on this with contrasting viewpoints.

I’d never heard of Persona 5 before this, and never heard of or played Persona 1 through 4, either. (I think it’s a console game from The East.) I don’t even know what kind of game it is. The point is I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m only interested in the intellectual property angle.

These days, we take it for granted that game developers allow streamers to play their games on their channels. But this is a great reminder that legally speaking, the developer (or publisher, probably) owns all of that game content. (Presumably the same way that record companies own the recordings of music we listen to.) So whether we like it or not, it is certainly within their legal rights to prevent people from streaming it (at least in the U.S., I have no idea about other countries). From that perspective, I don’t have any issue with Atlus’s choice.

But… it’s certainly a head-scratching choice in this day and age.

I don’t have any statistics to back this up, but I would guess that publishers get some measureable revenue out of what is effectively the free advertising they receive from streamers (or nearly free, wink, wink, nudge, nudge). It’s true that streaming probably helps smaller studios proportionately more, but I don’t think it hurts bigger studios, simply because there have been no efforts to shut down streamers. If big studios were quantifiably losing money because of streaming, I am confident that Twitch would have been sued into oblivion years ago. Either that or we’d be seeing a lot more streamer rules like we see with Persona 5.

I can only guess that the bean counters at Atlus don’t think they will get any benefit from streamers. Perhaps they even think that, as Eri suggested, every stream viewer represents the loss of a sale. I don’t personally believe in the loss of sales theory, despite Liore admitting she never buys the games she watches on YouTube. Maybe she can comment on this, but I suspect that people who watch games instead of buying them probably never would have bought them in the first place, because they either aren’t interested in the gameplay or don’t have the time to play it.

In any case I don’t believe that Atlus is really worried about spoilers getting out. That’s just amazingly clueless.*

I think Atlus is making a big deal about nothing. Developers talk to each other at conferences and stuff, so if there was a problem in the industry with streaming, there’s no way that Atlus is the only one who noticed it and took a stand. I don’t necessarily think it’s an evil conspiracy like Eri thinks (beyond the baseline conspiracy that all corporations try to make a profit), but you have to admit that the controversy sure generated a lot of press for their game.

On the predictably overblown reaction from streamers, I don’t know that I would have put it quite the way she did, but Liore is exactly correct that streamers are at the mercy of game developers, and not the other way around. When you build your career around showing somebody else’s intellectual property, you have to expect there might be some bumps in the road. Streamers might be able to exert some pressure over smaller games, but I have a feeling big game studios could bring substantially more legal firepower into that fight.

Liore’s right: Streamers should just deal with it and move on. A week from now nobody is going to care about Atlus or Persona 5 or whatever lifetime ban streamers have in the works.

In a related story, I just saw an article on Kotaku which implored “content creators” to “organize.” I mean, I get that it’s hard as hell to make a living as a streamer, but really? A streamer union? Nobody is forced to choose streaming as their profession. It’s a huge risk with very little chance of a payoff.

* However, to be fair, a recent MassivelyOP podcast interview of Shards Online-turned-Legends of Aria developer Derek Brinkmann gave me newfound insight into how unaware a developer can be of current gaming trends. My jaw dropped when I heard the guy admit he hasn’t really played an MMORPG since Everquest.