Generation Gap: Video Game Stories

51hz0r4pdnlA while back, I asked what video games¬†you fell in love with ¬†in terms of story. Not surprisingly, most of your responses centered on games in the more recent era. This is an obvious trend because in the old days, games did not need a story to exist. But now, we need motivation, cut-scenes, back-story and lots and lots of twists. Too many, some would say. Like me. I think that people’s love for game stories depends on when they started playing.

See, when I was younger, stories in games were very basic. Some games didn’t even try to have one! Endings were short, usually text based. Hell, people were stunned by Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past’s FIVE minute ending. Minds were blown, heads exploded, etc…Since I have been playing games since about 1986 or so, I have a different perspective than someone who started in 1996. I play the game for the GAMEPLAY. If a game has a great story, awesome, but it’s only a bonus. If a game has poor gameplay, I don’t care how good the story might be, I am not playing it.

Truth be told, I find most video game stories to be cliched messes. I loved the first Halo for its simplicity. Halo 2 was practically a remake plot-wise, but they threw in some more convoluted elements just to make sure they gave it the full Metal Gear Solid 2 treatment. You know: make something that was good into complete and utter crap. My theory is that Halo (which kind of rips off Ringworld by Larry Niven, but whatever) had a good story because it was devoid of crazy twists or anything. But once the game came out and people started praising it, the writers thought mighty high of themselves and proceeded to do everything wrong for the second game by adding in all these layers of nonsense. Same thing happened with The Matrix and its sequels. My theory, anyway.

ff7Even my favorite series, Final Fantasy has become the same thing over and over: a bunch of angst-filled teens save the world. Which is why FF XII was so refreshing. It took the focus off the whiny teens and put it on a kingdom and an empire, with a looming war as the backdrop.

Epic stuff, but look at some of the other games. Final Fantasy VII is highly complex and poorly explained, so much so that many people don’t realize that Sephiroth spends all of the game at Northern Crater. Everytime you meet him in that game, it’s not even him, but a Jenova remnant/ghost/thingy. He doesn’t even kill Aeris, for crying out loud! People love this story so much, but I honestly think it is because they never experienced anything like it before. Final Fantasy IV, VI and Chrono Trigger had prepared me for such epic story telling. I think in this case, whichever popped your cherry is the love of your life. Although, in my case, I played FF IV first, but I love FF VI more. Go figure.

A lot of people get too caught up in game stories. I mean, I get why a 13 year old playing Halo would be totally blown away and want to know more about that universe, but I have heard Halo compared to Star Wars and I have news for you: even the Prequels were better than Halo’s story. Honestly, even the best games can’t really compare to stories in movies, for whatever reason. Grand Theft Auto IV was compared to The Godfather and Goodfellas, as an epic crime drama with a Hollywood-caliber script. Really? Roman and Brucie are Hollywood-caliber? A main character who goes from wanting to be left alone to massive killing sprees with no discernible motive given? Hollywood puts out a lot of crap, but it’s better than most of the things that pass for plots in video games.

Don’t get me wrong, there are great stories out there. Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic and Bioshock all had complex, mature¬†plots.¬†Even Portal’s simple story had layers to it, but without giant plot twists that¬†gum things up, like Metal Gear Solid. Oh, how could we leave that out? Metal Gear Solid has one of the most ridiculous plots and absurd characters I have ever seen. Taken as B-movie material, I think it’s pretty entertaining. But newsflash: it is not movie quality, by any stretch of the imagination. You know those made for TV movies that the Sci-Fi channel produces? Good stuff, just not Oscar worthy? Metal Gear Solid falls in that area.

darkness_header2Look at all the shooter games these days, like Resistance, Gears of War, Killzone 2. All have similar plots, but they mostly work. Resistance 2 got a lot of crap for its plot, but I enjoyed it for what it was: a summer blockbuster like Independence Day, just there to move the action along. Same with Killzone 2 and Gears. These stories are nothing we have not seen dozens of times before, but they serve the purpose of the game.

One thing that has pissed me off lately is when I download a demo from the PSN and the developers try to show off what they clearly consider to be an awesome story, but what I consider to be a pain in the ass cut-scene getting in the way of me playing the demo. Breaking news: no story is so good that I will buy your game if I don’t like the gameplay, and a demo is meant for gameplay. Keep your story in your trailers, please, because if you think that you are going to get me hooked on your story so that I rush out and buy your crappy game because I simply MUST find out what happened…well, you are sadly mistaken. Worst case, I can always check Wikipedia for spoilers if I want to find out what happened without wasting my time on your crappy game. I’m looking at you, The Darkness.

The point of all this is I think that video game stories CAN be great, but most of them are not. Rare is the game that really has something original and meaningful in it. And that’s just fine. Game developers should focus on GAMEPLAY and if the story can be great, I consider that to be icing on the cake. I think the reason I feel this way is that I was playing games when they were just games. Gamers who are playing now expect epic stories that entertain them just as much as when they see Iron Man or The Dark Knight. And there is nothing wrong that, either, but remember to temper your expectations. Not every game needs to be Shakespeare,¬†but it would be nice to have the bar raised more than once or twice a year.¬†And don’t forget the reason you’re playing: because it’s a game!

Written by

Age: 34 PSN ID: Starkiller81. I've played games since before I can remember, starting with my dad's Atari and I haven't stopped yet. Keep them coming and I will keep playing them.

26 thoughts on “Generation Gap: Video Game Stories”

  1. signed. Honestly, I hate it when the gameplay is shit. its embarrassing, and makes me wish I hadnt wasted the money. I prefer the games that dont have a huge story bearing down on me…

  2. The only reason you liked FF XII’s story was because it ripped of Star Wars lol! I defo agree that gameplay wins out but I’m a sucker for most plots no matter how poorly scripted. Halo’s plot was good for what it was, even though it ripped off ‘Ringworld’, and I was absorbed into the universe and have 5 of the novels. I love the ones by Eric Nylund. He rules. Also, MGS’s story WAS pure bullshit but there is no denying (for fans at least) that it was amazingly enjoyable.

  3. Well, I think you’d think differently of Halo’s overall plot if you knew some of the added materials, but yes, Halo 2 was kind of a mess in terms of story.

    But I only agree with you somewhat in this article. For me, sometimes a story can really get me into a game. Hell, I put Uncharted on easy just so I could get through the crappy shooting parts and get to both the platforming and the story. Halo Wars didn’t convince me it was worth getting through the demo until I started really getting into the cutscenes. These things can happen.

  4. Eddy,
    See, I liked Uncharted’s gameplay and the story was pretty good, too. I like how it didn’t try to be anything more than it was. It was a great success.

    As for Halo’s overall plot, I look at novels and such like DLC…I shouldn’t need it to get the full experience or to understand what is going on. It should enrich the world, but not cripple it if you don’t read them.

    In fact, I was ready to read the novels after the first game. Then I played the second one…and changed my mind,lol.

    My main problem with Halo 2, though, is its the same as the first game. Another Halo, more Flood…but no ending!

    But you may be proving my point, which is that it depends on when you started gaming. I am not sure, you might have started after me, so stories were starting to become a major part of games at that time. When I started, they weren’t. There is nothing wrong with either viewpoint, just different.

  5. Playing a game just for gameplay and not the story is just like saying you watch Action movies, just for the action. Hey, i’ve got friends like that too. Most action movies are just for the action and fail at story (transporter? jamesbonds?) but then there ARE stories like The Matrix, which I dont feel got convoluted. Sure, maybe the star in the 3rd one was the CG and not Neo, but regardless. If you have any interest in philosophy, the 2nd one should blow your mind ; most of my friends fell asleep during the conversation with the architect.

    Now, dont get me wrong, I’m not calling you a simpleton, but I think games that try to have a good story; even when they fail, still give me a better experience than a game like Halo (which I hated). Then there are games like World Of Goo which don’t need a story at all, and are more like the games You grew up with, simple puzzle-based using-your-wits gameplay. And thats fine. But a story always wins me over; just like the movies.

  6. Just a little point on Halo 2: it was, according to several sources inside Bungie, one of the worst produced games they ever made. Apparently the ending crunch on that game was so bad, it barely made ship date. It also affected the plot; Halo 2’s ending was thrown together at the last minute.

    Now, I’m a big fan of story in games. I enjoy watching cut scenes, I read the background on the settings, and I like seeing how a plot unravels, and how I would have done it differently. Sure, some games do have groan worthy dialogue and plot holes you could fly a mutated bat/Mutalisk thing through (looking at you, RE5), but I think that story telling in games is at an adolescent stage right now.

    You’ve got the kids who sit at the front of the class and think they know more than the teacher (Metal Gear), the popular kids who manage to get good grades (Halo, Half-Life), and the kids who are fun to hang around with but won’t exactly stimulate your intellect (RE5, Crysis).

    The reason that video games have a tough time getting across as a story telling medium compared to other media is that people expect games to be an interactive experience. With books and movies, you’re expected to sit there and absorb what’s being presented to you in a passive state. With games, you need to be constantly titillated.

    We’re well on the way to striking a good balance between gameplay and story, but I think that’s a while off. There are games available for every taste when it comes to story. Heck, even Gears 2, a bombastic shooter, had a story. Not a very good one, mind you, but there were several significant cut scenes.

    I hope story in games sticks around for a long while, other wise this English degree I’m working towards will be for naught! (Well, I can always get a job writing for Maxim or something. Sigh.)

  7. I like stories, but they should be in the game, not an extra book or shit. I was really disappointed when i found that the L4D campaigns weren’t linked and there was no back story.

  8. Halo? Story? Those two words should never share a sentence. And I agree with you; a good story can only take a game so far. If the presentation is bland and the gameplay sucks, then no amount of excellent writing will keep me glued to the screen. Gameplay is obviously still the most important aspect of a game, but I would argue that an interesting, unique setting is far more important than story…bonus points if the setting helps tell the story.

  9. I will partially agree with Eddy on the Halo issue. The books really make the halo storyline better. To me 2 and 3, you dont play them for the story. Halo I think had a good story when you learn more about it, but if you never touched the book, you basically miss out on 90% of stuff because its NOT in the game. Like how can this dude flip a tank? Oh must be his armor or something. Good game though.

    I liked the .hack game for its story, the first one for PS2. I also enjoy most of the Ace Combat games stories, they are simple yet fun. 4 had a GREAT story and mode of telling it.

  10. Great stuff, guys. I think after reading your comments, I am starting to better understand my own viewpoint.

    For example, I really love good stories in games, but I think I have been so turned off by certain things, like Xenosaga and MGS, with endless cut-scenes. I want to play! Sure, there are times when a long cut-scene is needed, but these games do it every few minutes and it kind of made me jaded towards all things like this.

    Julez, I did enjoy the 2nd half of the Matrix Reloaded. The Architect and all that was good stuff. The first half was boring as could be and the third movie was a mess, as far as I am concerned.

    There is a delicate balance that needs to be struck in games. I want a good story, but I don’t want to have to put down my controller for 15 minutes every time I walk into a new area.

  11. I think someone touched on something earlier that might have been overlooked. Half-Life 2 is a perfect example of storytelling and gameplay working in beautiful unison. It never pulls you out of the action and works seamlessly. That’s one of those games that probably would have faltered without either of those aspects, and would have been made a MUCH worse game because of it.

    I’m not saying that I ONLY play games for story (I’ve been playing video games since 1986-1987), but there are some games that I will only play for story. I don’t think that has anything to do with when I started playing them.

  12. Eddy,

    I understand what you are saying. I was merely venturing a theory. Comments like yours tell me my theory is flawed,lol.

    But what I was saying is that I am the opposite: I will not play a game just for its story, if the gameplay is bad. I quit Jade Empire because the actual GAME part was not fun for me. I read the story recap on Wikipedia and was happy with that.

    We are two sides of the same coin, it would seem,lol.

  13. Game play is a probably the most important element for all video games. However story does play a role in this is story helps to set up levels, weapons, the lore and feel of the game. The story is forces on in games more now days do to voice over work, cut scenes intros out tors, and every thing else in between.

  14. I agree with you to a degree, Anthony, even though you grew up in an early generation of games (I grew up with the N64 and Gamecube, and the like) although I don’t think story is as unnecessary as you say. A movie can have a lot of action or what have you, but a bad story makes it ultimately unenjoyable.
    That said, in certain situations, the answer to the question of the necessity of stories in video games changes. For epic games (Mass Effect, Fallout 3, Bioshock, etc.) which focus on a Hollywood-caliber story, gameplay is more of the interactivity that a player has with his character and world, not so much the action. What makes these games more than Myst though is that they do have combat, and while the quality of this combat can be debated, it’s still gameplay and it still works.
    For games that focus on gameplay and through a story in as a bonus, they’re story isn’t what consumers are going to be looking for. Most Multiplayer FPS’s (Gears of War, Killzone, Call of Duty, etc.) will have a simple, possibly cliche or not very good story that guides the player along the Campaign, and serves as a backstory for the locations in multiplayer (reminiscent of very early games which had a very simple story that usually was barely referenced in the game). Other genres also usually have simple stories because the main genres nowadays, FPS’s and RPG’s, receive the most time and effort to create a deep story.
    In the end, we buy video games for gameplay, but that doesn’t mean games are for gameplay only. Video games offer an easy-access, mainstream outlet for stories to have interactivity whether in dialogue or combat that no other media can achieve.

    As for demos, yeah – keep your cutscenes outta here!

  15. I highly disagree with everything Anthony said. Halo’s story bad, Darkness terrible, Halo 2 awful, the whole article. This is the first Gamer Sushi article that made me wanna puke in disgust.

  16. I feel it’s mostly generational, as you said Anthony. I started playing video games in 93-94 on my NES and spent a good chunk of my life playing Super Mario Bros 1 and 3. I didn’t care about the story, I just wanted to play. However, I also started reading fantasy novels and epics right around that time too. I’ve probably read a good 200 fantasy books, most with great stories. Video games have a hard time competing with books and movies, and when they try, you get Metal Gear Solid 4 (LET ME PLAY DAMN IT, SHUT UP).

    All that said, I think stories DO have a place in game and a lot of them are genuinely interesting. It’s all in the presentation, and that’s traditionally done with cutscenes. I think that it’s a bad habit that developers rely too heavily upon. As Eddy already said, with games like HL2, you can tell a deep and interesting story without ever making the player want to get up and grab a snack in the middle of it.

    I do think that there is an exception to all of this however, RPGs aren’t fun unless there is at least a half-interesting plot. And the only way to do a modern RPGs story justice is through cutscenes in certain places. Preferably pre-rendered epic fight scenes with story thrown in.

    Anyway, thats my take on the whole thing, hope I didn’t get sidetracked in there too much. Oh, and great article Anthony.

  17. I agree to an extent. When you have a game like baldur’s gate or myst, you really need the story to back up the game, but with a game like heretic or doom the gameplay really needs to be more predominant. Gaming for me can be for either of the two.

  18. [quote comment=”5635″]I highly disagree with everything Anthony said. Halo’s story bad, Darkness terrible, Halo 2 awful, the whole article. This is the first Gamer Sushi article that made me wanna puke in disgust.[/quote]

    I dont think you really read it, maybe you skimmed threw and once you saw something that differed from your opinion you slammed the scroll bar down and started typing away.

    Personally I like this article, normally the comments are everyone agreeing and complimenting each other but this sparked quite a little debate. Honestly, I never played a FF game, and half the time I played Halo 2 it was muted so I didnt wake anyone up. I love a good story, I’ll admit I dont play online until I beat the campaign due to kids spoiling in the lobby. The moment the story is more important and overall better then gameplay, is when the creators need to take a step back and remember we have to play this game in between the cutscenes. Perfect blend for me is the RE series… most of it lol.

  19. I disagree, I think a story is vital to a game’s enjoyment. Killing zombies by shooting a saw blade using the gravity gun in Half-life 2 was extremely fun, but w/o a plot it would get extremely boring. Half-life 2 is a game based entirely off of story. It’s story is what makes it so unique and awesome.

  20. [quote comment=”5643″]Half-life 2 is a game based entirely off of story. It’s story is what makes it so unique and awesome.[/quote]
    I wouldn’t say that it’s HL2’s story that makes it the great game that it is; the plot is, let’s face it, a standard aliens-try-to-take-over-the-world story with some twists. (Though ep2 made it more interesting) What makes HL2 so gripping is the way that the story is presented. Every square inch of a level seems to be meticulously planned out, with clues as to what happened left behind, but no cutscenes or flashbacks to fully explain things. It’s the air of uncertainty that makes the Half Life experience so real and gripping, and that’s something that all games could learn from. Sure it’s nice to know everything about a game’s universe, but at the same time it limits the experience of the player to exactly what the developer scripted. With any luck, the merging of story and gameplay that HL models will become the future of gaming. Of course, bring this up in front of most game companies, and they will stroke their goatee and ask, “but will that ship more units?”

  21. Yeah, if HL2 had no plot, nobody would like it. But I do defend Halo: CE. While DEFINETLY NOT movie quality I must say that Halo: CE was a good way to kick off a brand and a GREAT way to show how gameplay would be changed. I just wish there was more Marine involvment and a bit more exposition stuff. But I believe what makes a game is plot.

  22. [quote comment=”5635″]I highly disagree with everything Anthony said. Halo’s story bad, Darkness terrible, Halo 2 awful, the whole article. This is the first Gamer Sushi article that made me wanna puke in disgust.[/quote]

    I actually said I loved Halo’s story. I also said that I only played the demo of The Darkness and was turned of by having to wait through 10 min of cut-scenes to play. I am sure it is fun, but it wasted my time with long cinemas. So, oh well.

    And I loved Halo 2’s gameplay, but the story sucked.

    Maybe re-read it?

    As for a game that is great without a story…Left 4 Dead, anyone?

  23. [quote comment=”5649″]Yeah, if HL2 had no plot, nobody would like it.[/quote]

    ?? I bought the game because “Oh Look! Real Physics! Wow that mattress is DRAPED over The Box! AND IT FLOATS!!” – anyone else remember waiting 5 years and reading every scrap / watching every possible clip? – i woulda bought the game if gamespot gave it a 1, damnit! HL2’s story isnt that amazing, but it ties it all together; its a simple story that works; as we’ve pointed out, it doesnt always have to be complex to be successful.

    [quote comment=”5651″]

    As for a game that is great without a story…Left 4 Dead, anyone?[/quote]

    Yes! Great Game, but just as someone mentioned above, I was disapointed to find out that there wasn’t a story connected the 4 scenarios… I guess they figured the whole zombie thing was enough, and I mean lets get real: If this was real life, none of us would ask questions or want to know why it was happening, we’d pick up a friggen gun and get on our roofs and try to find anyone else normal.

    28days later, anyone?

  24. I am a big sucker for story, and I believe it is vital to have one nowadays, but like you said, there are some that can be great without them (Doom, L4D, etc.), but those are few and far between this generation.

  25. I can’t say that I’m a big sucker for stories, because some stories just bore me, and I go to the gameplay/multiplayer. Some games, I can’t play without a story, even if they are good games. It’s strange. But, I do believe that gameplay is much more important than story. I’ve played games with great stories and glitchy programming that didn’t even allow me to finish the game myself: I had to read up on what happened later on the net in response to the fustration.

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