A 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.
Even 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.
Look 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!