Video games are thrilling to me because of their diversity as a medium – beyond being simply a game, they can function as a toy (Electroplankton), a competitive sport (Street Fighter), an interactive story (Ico), or even a piece of literature (RPGs). I doubt many gamers will disagree with me on these points; however, our enjoyment of a game as literature is stilted, and the problem may be in part due to us gamers. The problem? Gamers are far too spoiler-phobic, and it prevents gamers – and even game critics – from ever talking about a story in depth.
How many game reviews have you ever read where the story discussion looked something like this?
“The story has a few neat plot twists, and the characters are well-developed.”
“The characters are really engaging due to their personalities. So-n-So has (Some random personality trait), which is really original, etc.”
“The world is really immersive, and the amount of places you can go and things you can do are amazing.”
“The characters are well-defined.”
“The story is generic and the pacing is bad.”
“The story was unoriginal, but the character interaction was good. The main villain hides their true intentions until the end of the game.”
“The plot is functional, but most of the characters are annoying.”
It should be noted that these are not excerpts from reviews; this is my boiling down of all the information I could garner out of REAL game reviews I read. Of these review summaries, maybe about one-fourth of them had any qualifying statements to back them up – usually, said qualifying statements consisted of explaining the personality traits of a few characters, and nothing more. Even then, if you know that the characters are great, and that there are plot twists in the game, what does that really tell you about a game’s story?
Just because a critic enjoyed these aspects of a story does not mean that everyone else will. While the same axiom is true when critiquing gameplay, game critics are not shy to flesh out the facts on gameplay and give you the finer details. This has proven effective, because while it’s important to discuss opinion in a review, stating the facts is equally important so that the reader can determine whether or not they will enjoy something based on their preferences.
However, when it comes to discussing the storyline in a review, critics tend to divulge as few facts as possible – some even seem to flat out avoid stating ANY hard facts whatsoever. Instead, they tend to talk about the story in the broadest, most superficial strokes they can paint, and then give an opinion on it. It’s only one or two notches up from simply stating, “Oh yeah, it’s good – trust me,” or, “Oh yeah, it’s bad – trust me.”
Have you ever read a novel or movie critique? Critics of those mediums are hardly such tightwads when it comes to spoiling parts of movies. Hell, I’ve seen Roger Ebert even reveal how a movie ends in one of his reviews! Granted, he did warn his readers that he was going to do so; still, in order to talk about how the movie made him feel, he wasn’t the slightest bit afraid to reveal the climax of a movie to make his point.
Imagine if Roger Ebert reviewed movies in the same way that game critics handle their story discussions. Can you imagine how inept that method of critique would be for a film? I can just see someone trying to review Magnolia like that:
“Well, there were some pretty crazy plot twists. The characters were really good and varied. One of them is a loser, One of them is a dick, etc. It’s neat how they all intertwine. Oh yeah, it’s good – trust me.”
Man, if movie reviews were conducted in this manner, they would only be two paragraphs at the most! Why would anyone do anything else to pay the bills? All you’d have to do is foreshadow some things that will inevitably happen in the story – and for that matter, every story – and then say if you liked the way it played out or not. Anyone could be a critic if that’s how it was done!
People who critique stories for a living seem to have a better grasp on a fundamental concept about stories: There’s only so many ways in which you can make a plot refreshing and original. What really makes or breaks a story is either its execution, or whether or not there’s something you can garner from a story when you look past its surface.
There is an argument worth being addressed here: Some people believe that, being a game critic, it’s perhaps most important to review the game. The level of interactivity with the medium is obviously the biggest way in which video games differ from movies and books. Of course it’s important to do an excellent job of reviewing the way a game plays – I would be crazy to disagree with that.
I’m not saying that the critique of the game is any less important, though; what I’m saying is that a critique of the story is, in some cases, equally important to the critique of the game. Sure, this isn’t true for every game – I seriously doubt, for example, that anyone plays a Street Fighter game first and foremost for its intricate storyline. Still, any writer who attempts to carefully craft a storyline is doing so because they think it matters. If it warranted the game developers’ time to implement an intricate story, then it warrants our time to give it a thorough critique.
Also, if we don’t talk about a game’s story beyond the most superficial levels, we aren’t really giving the entire picture to the reader. Just because a game reviewer says they like some vague aspect of a storyline does not make it good, and that definitely doesn’t mean that you or anyone else will be guaranteed to like it. This sounds obvious at first, but if it were so obvious, I submit that readers would not readily condone such uninformative methods of journalism.
I hope I’ve established how ridiculous this is. Such story critiques do not give you any sense of what a story is about – neither in the superficial, external sense, nor in the symbolic, thematic sort of sense. They do not encourage us to look past the surface to see if there’s any deeper meaning and fulfillment to be had. Because we gamers treat story spoilers as cardinal sins, we revere the “What” of a story in the highest regard, instead of the “How” and “Why”. If we never get past that, we’ll never start looking at video game storylines for what they can truly achieve, thus selling them short in a big way.
So, if my words have struck a chord within you, it falls on you – the readers – to take a stand in keeping us – the journalists – honest about our work. It’s not easy, but it shouldn’t be; if it were, I’d be writing trite, two-paragraph movie reviews for a living that would make every real movie critic on earth cringe in disgust. We don’t let them get away with that; stop letting us get away with it, too.