An interesting opinion piece on CNET got me thinking. Are video game stories stagnant while the set pieces are improving?
It’s certainly evident that games today are much prettier than they have ever been. There are quite a few where I sit back after a set of events and am simply amazed at the experience. I felt that way back in God of War and the initial Hydra fight, as much as I did in Horizon sniping robot dinosaurs who shot fire. The experience itself is just amazing to watch, let alone play through.
The stories though, those are rough. Some are really impressive, others are really bad, and most are ho-hum.
I’m of the opinion that written stories are the most impressive. From word to the reader’s imagination, you need to convey something. There are a bajillion books, most are horrible. But you find that diamond from time to time. We’re still reading books from 100+ years ago. How many games that are 10+ years are people playing today?
Movies and TV are next, as they require some solid writing and they are fixed without player agency. As a viewer, there’s nothing you can do to impact the story while you’re watching it. Letter campaigns may change the larger story arc, sure, but that’s the exception. Again, there are classics and junk. For every Blade Runner we get 20 Battlefield Earth or The Ranch.
Games with Heart
There have been quite a few good ones over the years, most of them in the RPG space. Earthbound, Fallout, Planescape…games where you can still remember minute details 10+ years later.
Others, like Shadow of the Colossus took a different route, where the player is meant to experience the story under their terms, rather than an A/B/C decision tree. I think most would agree that this is the game that triggered the whole “game is art” conversation. (side note, it will be remastered for PS4)
But these are exceptions. We may get 1 or 2 a year. There are hundreds of other games, dozens in the AAA category, that just use story as a tool to let people play solo. Halo 2 had a good story, but it’s nothing but downhill since. Aside from perhaps Wolfenstein this year, FPS games have horrible story (hi SW:B2). Racing games, fighting games, action… all of them have pretty tripe stories.
Other Parts Have Improved
A story today has pretty much the same structure as it did 100 years ago. But controls, visuals, audio… all of these have dramatically improved in the past 5. It may seem that story is getting worse but perhaps it has more to do with all the other parts having large improvements in a short period of time, that the gap is tiny.
Ultima is a really good example of this. Super story (til 6). Horrible game to replay today from the start, as it has not aged well. You could easily place the story in a new game though.
It Doesn’t Matter
You don’t go and see a movie for the soundtrack. You don’t read a book because the pages and print are comfortable. You do play a game if the mechanics are solid. A crappy story is less of a hurdle as compared to crappy controls, balance, or video. Story adds a tremendous value, but it is not the primary one (even in RPGs, this is debatable).
We can certainly appreciate a solid story – and talk about it for years to come (we do). But it isn’t fair to say that all games require it, or even that the quality has gone down over time. It’s just that everything else has improved so much that our expectations on story seem out of balance.
Let’s just celebrate the great story tellers when we find them.