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Like the sea of fellow gamers out there who have been brought up with the Super Nintendo and  Sega Genesis, we’re all familiar with frustrating less-than-16bit games. We’re also on the same page in regards to arcade games like Pac-Man, where players will often find themselves in an endless abyss of a never-ending quest, usually without any narrative to tell us why we’re supposed to be eating white pixels.

Upon fast forwarding two decades, it’s strange how some of us have been accustomed to Kojima-san’s Metal Gear antics, or Square Enix’s ability to tell a poignant tale of cliché love and redemption. Maybe it’s just me, but this assimilation to the world of video game storytelling has had me convinced for a good decade. It must be said: games without storylines suck.

Of course this opinion is divisive, considering a good portion of gamers out there really couldn’t care less about some pixelated hero’s journey to Nirvana. That’s fine. I too understand your need to pump two full clips into a Nazi’s cranium, your utmost desire to become the second coming of Jimmy Hendrix, and your insatiable need to speed down the walkways of Times Square, just to hear the thuds of helpless human bodies against the car you just hijacked.

But seriously, to me, a storyline gives you a purpose; it’s an incentive to be in the world that you’re playing. Without a good storyline (note: superfluous storylines also suck), games that should be story-driven lose its appeal. There would be no sense of immersion, no sense of epic escapism or identified interactivity with the hero that’s in your console.

I treat games like films; to me, it makes sense to treat it as a medium that allows one to escape from a dull Monday. Without a narrative, a video game feels like it’s lost its personality. Maybe it’s just me.

Plain and simple, being politically right’n’respectful regarding heralded games would suck the life out of this article’s Tree of Life. So I’ll say it once, to the dismay of a certain fellow Aussie with a name that rhymes with Byron Cones: Killzone 2 sucks. Guerrilla Games’ finest hour seems to have been my dullest this year, despite the waves of rave reviews.

Airing out Killzone isn’t the aim of this piece of editorial epiphany, as there are countless other games out there that have been put on an undeserving pedestal, but the proof is indeed in the tasteless pudding. There’s little sense of characterisation, objectives seem to range from shooting a piece of plank to a Helghast’s helmet, and what’s up with the main hero Sev being a mute while controlling him, but a loud mouth when it’s cutscene time?

Maybe I’m just nitpicking the not-so-small details, maybe I just don’t get sci-fi shooters, but the point still stands: Killzone 2 is an average shooter that looks good. Because of the absence of a good storyline, the game lacks a personality and ultimately fails to develop a connection between the game’s characters and the gamers themselves. Again, maybe it’s just me.

I want to be able to involve myself in video games, pretending that my actions matter, and above all, care about my actions and the repercussions it has in them. Many developers tend to forget that without an established protagonist with a strong character back log, gamers will rarely relate to the characters they’ll be playing for the next 10 to 15 hours.

Personally, I’ll feel like I’ve wasted those hours if I can’t take the experience with me after it’s long gone. I want my actions to matter in a game, just as I feel the need to ‘care’ for the supporting cast of the game. I play video games to escape from a hard day’s work, and to be able to convince myself that gunning down just one more goon won’t waste my time. Storylines tend to do that; they tend to suspend your belief system, give you one or two moments you won’t forget anytime soon, and above all make you care about lifeless objects.

There are developers out there who need to re-think and re-prioritize the way they look at video games in the 21st century. Giving us objectives from A to B is fine, but without a justified purpose via a storyline, what significance do these objectives hold? What difference is Pac-Man’s eat Blob 1 then Blob 2 to tackling objectives A then B if there’s no narrative?

An old primary school teacher used to tell me, “Don’t let your English get sloppy. Pay attention to the details.” Visuals, set pieces, and the environment can only tell you half the story – the other half needs to be told by the narrator. Certain developers do need to pay attention to the details, and let the players submerge in their world.

Once again, all this talk is coming from a gamer who wants his money’s worth paid in memorable moments, not just because he wants to “screw around in the game for the lulz.” I’m all for the running-and-gunning, just as long as there’s a good reason as to why we’re doing it.

Like I said, I’ve been assimilated and I’ve been conditioned to believe that applaud-worthy storytelling is the next step within gaming’s progression. Its importance may vary from gamer to gamer, but the significance it carries should be unquestioned.

It adds another layer to immersion. It gives players a sense of emotional attachment to fictional characters, creates an incentive to delve further into its universe, and above all, crafts us personalised moments that make the perilous trek worthwhile. After all, shouldn’t that be the aim for all credible mediums? But hey, then again, it might just be me.

  1. I do enjoy some games that don’t have storylines, but I rarely find that they’re the games that I remember most. A strong story has the power to stick with me in a way that gameplay can’t. Sure, I’ll remember the fun I had with a game, but my recall tends to be stronger with those elements related to storytelling.

    But I think the ability that games have for you to create your own stories is pretty impressive as well. Not all storylines are told to us – we make them. Every quest in an MMO is a story crafted by that group, as is every round of Modern Warfare 2. They aren’t the structured narratives of truly plot-driven games, but this sort of story has its place too.

    All I can hope is that we start to see more of a focus on all of these types of narratives. Hell, if Puzzle Quest can give us a story, it shows me that narrative can be found anywhere, and if it’s done well, it will always add to the experience.

  2. I have to completely agree about Killzone 2. After giving up on the title by the third level a friend of mine let me play the last level just to be relieved to know how much redundant gameplay I’ve avoided.

  3. Some of the best games I have played have had a great storyline. A good example of this is an indie favorite of mine which was released in ’99. It was just a puzzler in which you solved rooms and advanced to the next level. However, when the game’s publisher dropped it and returned rights to the owner, he retooled it and added voice acting to tell a story which made you WANT to finish the rooms that much quicker, so you could understand why you were mindlessly slaying cockroaches.

    • avatar Euclides

      I may have to debate you on Episode III not being that great a movie true, it wasn’t THE BEST of the saga, but it was a damn sight betetr than the previous two. True about the opening credits being able to wash your cares away. I’ve seen the opening crawls too many times to admit, and there’s always that feeling of awe/wonder/excitement that gets stirred up. Glad to see that Carl was able to enjoy himself, and didn’t let the confrontation spoil his fun. Now perhaps Rick can be convinced that the M.I.A. isn’t gay (as he put it) at all. Maybe the Institute needs an opening theme for visitors when they walk in the main doors.:)

  4. On a similar tone I had a conversation about boardgames recently where I said I prefered the game of life to monopoly – which it seems borders on sacriligous – my reason was that to me the game of life always felt like it had a narrative.

    Although it is a double edged sword, while I am more likely to play a storyline based game than one without narrative I am also more likely to only play it once

  5. It’s an age old debate, Ludology vs Narratology / Story vs Gameplay.
    I don’t think Storylines are overly important. What’s the story in Burnout? Do you play Street Fighter IV because of the well written backstories? Does FIFA have any semblance of a story?
    There are many games that a story isn’t needed, and for those games the needless inclusion would be a hindrance.

  6. Especially as genres become saturated, as FPSs have over the past decade — the inclusion of a good storyline is necessary just for a title to differentiate itself from the crowd.

    As someone who only plays FPSs when they do something really interesting, this is of paramount importance to me! Other than Borderlands, which scratches a different itch for me, I’ve only really been drawn to Bioshock out of the FPS genre. Nice write up!

  7. @Paul

    This article was never intended to be aimed towards sports games, especially for a franchise such as EA’s FIFA.

    And yes, I still think the racing genre can benefit from a tangible storyline. The same goes for the fighting genre, as it can definitely benefit from a well written story. How can a quality narrative hinder a fighting game? If anything, it’ll enhance it.

    The inclusion of a forced and obviously superflous story is of course not needed in a fighting game (ie. Tekken), but that point applies to every game anyway.

  8. “Immersion” is all smoke and mirrors. Therefore, I place myself firmly in the camp opposed to this argument.

    • avatar Princess

      I still have my coleco batlte tanks and pong I still have my atari 2600 with over 500 games in pristine condition plus my sega turbo grafix 16 and original playstation Was this answer helpful?

  9. @Tony — What’s wrong with smoke and mirrors? “immersion” is just what the game developers do to ease the process of suspension of disbelief.

    That’s like being opposed to live theatre because it relies on tricks to pull people into the world of the play. Yes, if the play sucks, then the tricks are annoying, but even the best play can be enhanced by improving the production values.

    Story’s not the only way to do that for a game, but it is one powerful tool that should be considered by gamers and game-makers alike. Hell, even Pac-Man and Donkey Kong have stories.

  10. Give me an action game with visceral hardcore gameplay, and skip the story, and I’ll be ok. Case and point, Bayonetta. Uncharted 2′s combination of both is nice, but it can’t top God of War pure action wise.

  11. I gotta agree with Chris here.

    • avatar Kihyun

      ill admit, I was really hnipog to catch a glimpse of a young Han Solo running around, if even for a split second. I was extremely disappointed.And, I have to say, I didnt like part 1. Not cause of Jar Jar, but because everything had a sleek clean modern look, even though its supposed to be the oldest?!As the episodes increase, everything gets junkier. Thats when Lucas established the best look.

  12. avatar Jazzman

    A great plot only takes a couple of drafts and if it is well-written it can easily drag gamers not only to play average games, but their sequels aswell. It’s the cheapest way to make up for reprocussions like bad graphics or poor balance, especially for indie games where it can be evident.

  13. While I am a huge fan of RPGs, I do think it’s kind of crazy to say that games without storylines suck.

    The reason I enjoy Street Fighter 2 is not because it has fast-paced, simple gameplay that allows you to focus on refining your skill and pitting it against others in a game of intelligent competitive play…AND a storyline.

    The reason I enjoy Mega Man X is not because it’s a frenetic platformer game that tests your reaction time, rewards pattern recognition, has difficulty that can be tailored to suit your desires by way of forgoing certain powerups and special weapons…AND a storyline.

    Sure, I know a lot about the stories of those games, mostly because I’ve subjected myself to them for so long. But, let’s face it: even though the storylines of those games are terrible, it doesn’t detract from the experience, cos that’s not why you’re playing it.

    If a game does attempt to deliver a compelling narrative, then it should be examined. If it doesn’t, well…they are video GAMES, after all. Believe me when I say that I absolutely love wonderful narratives in storylines:

    But, it’s not necessary for an enjoyable experience, as you yourself mentioned in the beginning of your editorial. You’re right that a good storyline could possibly enhance the experience of most games. I disagree that a game “sucks” without one.

  14. Of course, I am never going to claim “I don’t want any story in my games” that would be redundant. But the Ludology side of things holds alot of weight, and strong gameplay can mean a game can overlook story elements. But that clearly isn’t the case in all games. I disagree with the main point of “no storyline = suck” and to try and narrow it down it seems the point distills into “Games with Storylines need good storylines.”

    To see storylines as “a reason to play average games” is a horrible concept, if you have a good story and a bad game, write a book. One of the things about the medium of video games is don’t just need to have the story there (in the case of games that require storylines) but you need to figure out how to tell it. This isn’t movies, this isn’t a book, this isn’t a play or a comic or radio piece, this is a medium of its very own. Metal Gear Solid gets beat into the ground by rampant anti-fanboys at any possible moment for being too much like a movie, not enough like a game at times. Lost Odyssey had “flashbacks” to the characters’ pasts, which were fascinating to read and wonderfully written (especially considering they’re translations, I believe) but it was a game, not a book.

    I’ve sort of forgotten my point here, so I’ll stop typing now.

  15. avatar Eze

    Why are all the pictures of PS3 exclusives?

    • avatar Jannat

      Great review guys! Roth, the word you are liokong for is ‘hubris’, Dr Frankenstein’s conceit. Walternet has it in spades while Walter has been humbled over the years. Which brings me to my question for you Roth and Dennis, I’m getting the increasing feeling that there is more to these ‘events’ in the alternate universe and they may not be as dangerous as Walternet has proposed. Ultimately, at least with the bank vault incident, it seems more about eliminating Fringe science use for everyone but Walternet rather than protecting that universe. If there is ‘balance’ in Nature, why is only one side needing solutions like the amber? What do you guys think?

  16. avatar billychiillywilly

    since when is mass effect on ps3?

  17. avatar Realist

    The best storylines are the ones I make myself. The worst ones are those I am forced to follow.

    Storylines in offline single-player adventure games are just fine. Storylines in MMO’s have no place, IMO, especially ones that involve instancing and cutscenes.

    If everyone in an MMO is “the hero” then no one is “the hero.”

    The best MMO experiences I have had were ones in which my character started as a nobody and I developed him through my own choices, risk-taking, and adventures. In contrast, I have never valued anything “given to me” by a game and have never enjoyed being forced or railroaded down some storyline path.

  18. avatar Thaina

    that old or what about snes games?people still like them because fun and spilme. and when u haven’t played a game for so long it become somewhat new again.yes because u may need help with a older game. example would be the (help beating Dark-godbeast on secert of mana 2. )another reason is because they are still games so there is no reason not to play them.yes of course it is cool to have all the systems because u got a wide varriety to choose from. and what is wrong with that. Was this answer helpful?

  19. avatar Gabriela

    I didn’t know about the no beer on Sundays law. That does seem a little odd. Someone once tried to explian to me that Minnesota beer has less concentrated alcohol, like it’s 3.2.1 beer or something. I never did understand it.As for buying liquor in a grocery store, I have to admit, the law seems to be there more to support liquor stores than enforcing public safety. Its also weird how you can set up a liquor store in the same building, but it can’t have the same entrance.

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