Play It For the Plot

When video games started, plot was pretty much meaningless. PONG has no plot, and you can invent your own for Space Invaders. There were some text-based games that were plot heavy in the late 70s, but even by the start of the 90s, plots were reserved for RPGs. Halo is one that still resonates with me now, managing to merge amazing gameplay and a narrative that was both consistently and open ended.

Today, all games need some sort of plot. The worst of them use the plot as a sort of glue to keep the various bits together, while the best of them put the plot at the top of the pile. So much so, that I would argue that the best games of the last 5 years were all plot driven. Last of Us, God of War, Horizon, Dark Souls, Hades, Celeste, Obra Din, Edith Finch, Outer Wilds, Read Dead Redemption…

That’s not to say that you can’t have mechanically amazing games with poor plots, Borderlands somehow makes this work. Or Diablo. You sort of let the plot be weak because the part you interact with the most is so good.

But plot today is harder to manage, because games are rarely offered in a linear fashion. Players can, and will, miss important bits of the story along the way, or find a path to skip forward. Divinity 2 is a perfect example of game that is both constrained and freed by it’s approach to plot management. There are options a plenty in each smaller story, yet their larger impacts are less than in other games because of the ripple effects of say, killing a key NPC in hour 1.

And good golly forbid if the game is part of a larger narrative arc, all of a sudden you need a lore keeper to make sure there’s continuity. There’s a certain mad genius aspect to any storyteller, making it both interesting and coherent. There are a lot of people out there who can write fiction, but not many who can write it well, or for long periods of time. People thought Beniof/Weiss are the poster children for this. It’s a tough skill, and the larger the fan base, the more pushback you get from them. I’m sure the WoW writers would be excellent if they weren’t stuck behind 20+ years of lore to maintain – now they are perfecting the art of painting themselves into corners.

No detailed spoilers, but if you want to go into AC: Valhalla “clean”, skip this paragraph. Having completed AC: Valhalla, I’m of a similar opinion that at the micro level the game has ok writing, but at the arc level, it really falls to pieces. In the same vein as JK Rowling likes to retroactively make things important – Deathly Hallows reads like a retcon, and you know, everything past that. Valhalla pulls some Matrix/Inception level subterfuge, and everyone just goes along with it, completely against hours of their own character development arcs. I get it, I’m not expecting Proust here, and AC has a habit of the multi-level storylines. Still, the 2 largest plot points made me question why I bothered playing at all. The mechanics work, so there’s that. It’s still a better $/hr/fun deal than nearly every other single player game on the market.

I must be saturated. I’ve been gaming over 35 years, I’ve read hundreds if not thousands of books. I’ve seen/read so much that my palate rejects more and more every year. Though conversely, when I do find something solid, I relish it to a degree I never did prior. I can still enjoy games with middling plots – Frostpunk is amazing – as long as the plot isn’t the driver. To the others pushing plot > gameplay… I dunno, take some writing classes or something. That $200 investment in skill development is going to go a lot farther than a new stick of RAM.

2 thoughts on “Play It For the Plot

  1. Beats me why most games feel they need to have any kind of plot. Concentrate on making the gameplay so satisfying at physical level that why you’re doing what you’re doing ceases to matter. And if you’re capable of writing a story that’s good enough to be published or filmed… maybe write a novel or a movie script instead of a game.

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    • I’ve had that thought a few times myself, and I think that the “less is more” aspect is really the goal here. Shadow of the Colossus has next to no plot, except for a contextual intro and outro, but it’s still better than 90% of games out there. Mario’s plot could not be simpler, and the perfect mechanics are the real deal. Even something like Zelda/Link have rather simple plots, yet amazing mechanics.

      Could I play something like Frostpunk without a plot? The mechanics really are dependent on the plot, otherwise it would just be SimCity in the snow.

      Maybe plot is like hot sauce. Great if used properly, horribly distracting if not. Can’t believe I just made that analogy.

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