GamerSushi Asks: Story Versus Setting?

Walking Dead story

It seems like everywhere I turn, people are talking about the importance of story and emotion in video games. I know that I get sucked into that, too, partially because some of the most meaningful games that I’ve played have had some stellar stories. Games like The Walking Dead, Uncharted 2, a number of Final Fantasies and more have stuck with me longer than most.

The other day, Anthony, Jeff and I were talking about stories in games, and how it’s funny that gamers will excuse even the most absurd stories in favor of excellent gameplay. Far Cry 3, for instance, had a ridiculous premise and a story which made little sense, but I never really cared because the setting and the game itself were so much fun. Likewise, I can’t say I’ve ever been completely invested in the stories of games like Gears of War or even most of the Halo titles. Even Ni No Kuni, a game that I adore at the moment, has a pretty so-so story.

So what’s the reason that I can get past Ni No Kuni’s awkward, sometimes bumbling and cliche tale? Because the world itself is so rich, imaginative and fun to be in. You see, itt’s not just great gameplay that does the trick. When I think about the games that stick with me the longest, it actually happens to be games that combine great gameplay with a great setting that really worm their way into my brain and won’t let go.

Think about some of the games you loved to play, and why. It’s not just the mechanics. It’s the mechanics combined with a certain visual, a set piece, a level. All parts that make up a game’s setting. While jumping and wall-bouncing in Super Mario 64 is a blast, it wouldn’t have been memorable at all without the game’s superb level design. Likewise, I wouldn’t itch for Uncharted 2 just because I like swinging from ledges, but because I like swinging from the ledges in the Himalayas, or hopping down rooftops while a helicopter chases me.

It’s interesting to me that we spend so much time talking about video game stories (I include myself on this), when it seems like we’re totally fine ignoring them in favor of a marriage of mechanics and setting. As good as stories are in games like Bioshock or Arkham City, do you want to replay them more to see every twist and turn, or more because you want to inhabit the worlds of Rapture and Gotham City?

What do you guys think about the idea of the importance of video game stories? Are they important? Does setting trump story? What are some of your favorite video game stories and settings? Go!

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I write about samurai girls and space marines. Writer for Smooth Few Films. Rooster Teeth Freelancer. Author of Red vs. Blue, The Ultimate Fan Guide, out NOW!

5 thoughts on “GamerSushi Asks: Story Versus Setting?”

  1. I love it when it’s a combination of the two, and at times I can ignore a subpar story in favor of a good setting. However, for example, I would have loved Dishonored that much more if there was a story involved that was worthy of the game’s rich setting. And yes, I do replay good story games for those story moments, just as one re-watches a movie for their favorite scene. The setting enhances the story and helps it stand out, sure, but without the story there, I wouldn’t care to return to the world at all. Again using Dishonored as an example, now that I’ve gotten its achievements, I have no interest whatsoever in returning to the game. If it had had a memorable story, I’d have it still on my shelf, awaiting future playthroughs.

  2. I think both are very important, but like you said some games do work with a crappy story and vice-versa. AC3 I played just because of the setting. Horrible combat mechanics in my opinion, but who WOULDN’T want to play an Assassin set in Revolutionary America? I mean COME ON. And I’m already sold on the new Assassin’s Creed Black Flags even with AC3’s lackluster story. I mean, really? A Pirate? Shut up and take my money. But to get back on topic, I don’t think I can honestly say if each side can trump each other. It just a matter of the game itself. Because I’m willing to play a crappy story if the game heavily immerses me into its world, and I’d do the same if the story of the game catches my attention. Spec Ops: The Line is a recent game that caught my attention. The story of the game was definitely a wild roller-coaster. LOVED it. The setting? Honestly, I don’t care for the fact that Dubai, one of the RICHEST city in the middle-east, is under sand. Not once did the setting make me go, “Wow this looks amazing!” Funny how you mention Far Cry 3 as a perfect example of setting trumping story. Crysis 1 was one of the few games I remember that had a good combination of both. Oh and don’t forget about BIOSHOCK. Hah!

  3. When both come together more often than not that game is going to be great. But if I had to choose one or the other I’d have to say setting is more important. A really good setting can create it’s own stories, you made the example of Far Cry Eddy, that game is a great example of a setting without a good story. Rather sadly at the moment lots of games tend to hinge on their setting because the story isn’t up to par.

  4. Unless you go the obscure route of Limbo or Braid, or the intricate route of *insert Western RPG here*, the storytelling in a video game rarely peaks above a certain level. Setting is everything in a video game, and it can easily atone for whatever shortcomings (however inevitable) are present in your game.

    Half-Life 2 was particularly good with setting. You’re never told exactly what happened to Earth in the years since your pilgrimage to Xen. The series has never been particularly strong with storytelling; aliens from another dimension invade, and in the sequel, more of them invade and conquor humanity. But the setting is so well-defined. You’re thrown onto a train heading for a dystopia, and things happen all around you. The aliens’ authoritative installation is everywhere; restricting citizens, beating them, and molding them with propaganda from above. In Ravenholm, each corpse, each zombie, and each room tells a story. At one point you stumble across a room with tables littered with bodies and headcrabs. It’s a clear message that Ravenholm’s lone survivor had been trying to free the people from these creatures. When you travel along the coast, the water level is dirty, infested, and tragically drained. When you make your rounds in Nova Prospekt, you witness an unnerving clash of old European architecture and complex alien technology. There are so many stories told through the game’s setting, and it’s what makes Half-Life 2 so memorable. Gordon Freeman is a great character, but Half-Life isn’t Half-Life without the immersive and well-defined settings.

  5. Are stories important? I think it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. You don’t always need a story. Take Metroid as an example. The series doesn’t go for a particularly involving story (bar Other M, but we’ll not speak of it). The setting is what makes the series’ universe. Do I care about the Ing vs. Luminoth? Only enough to get that motivation in to commit genocide ON AN ENTIRE SPECIES. Do I care more about exploring Aether and killing Space Pirates? You bet I do.
    Comparitively, Would the Walking Dead have worked in the same way without the characters and story to follow through? As I said, it’s dependent on what you want to do.

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