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.

4 thoughts on “Story In Video Games”

  1. On the other hand, lots of people enjoy context for why they do things. You say DOOM doesn’t need a story, but isn’t it more correct that YOU don’t need a story? I, for instance, cannot get into mindless games where I shoot things because a game just has it set to “evil”.I enjoy having context for why my character is doing what it’s doing.

    When it really boils down to it, players enjoy having story for context. Players enjoy stories in game in comparison to books, tv shows, and movies because there is this feeling that you are pushing it along that you can only get from a video game. No matter how shallow, just the feeling that I made Link shoot that arrow or my character ran to save Minfilia. Books, tv shows, and movies give this great feeling of seeing people be cool, weak, or strong. Video games? They make you feel like you are those things.

    To put it another way, most people with the other mediums will say “Harry Potter defeated Voldemort”, but a video game causes a lot of people to say “I beat Voldemort”. That’s why stories are important and should be implemented.

    1. Sorry just saw this. That’s a fair point, but again I think there is room for everyone in the market. There could be a Doom-like game with a story, and a Doom-like game without a story. Me as the consumer can pick which one I want.

  2. This is primarily a language issue (isn’t everything?). The word “game” simply can’t carry the number of concepts we are very lazily using it to describe. It’s also the fundamental reason “video games” still struggle to gain respect or even attention in any context other than a self-consciously “gaming” one.

    This will change. We may still end up using “game” as a generic in the way we use “movie” or “novel” but eventually there will come to be a wider understanding of the range of experiences it encompasses. When VR becomes a mainstream (probably THE mainstream) form of entertainment it will force the much-needed separation of definitions. Might have to wait another 20-30 years yet though.

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