A couple of weeks back, Jeff Effendi posted that “games without storylines suck”. He claims that without a strong narrative to guide our actions, not even the deepest mechanics or the most cohesive designs can carry a game. Players do need direction, but only basic incentives are required. Expanding the role of story very rarely makes games any better.
Where is line drawn to separate “good” narrative from “bad” narrative? A lot of the most beloved games feature the simplest of narratives that, while not Oscar-quality epics, are not necessarily “terrible” either. As long as the game provides the right amount of context for your character and his/her mission, you’ll never worry about not getting enough mileage out of your ride.
I mark the PlayStation era and games like Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy VII as the birth of the cinematic movement. Prior to that time, most games delivered story not with voice acting or lengthy scrolls of text, but through the context of your on-screen actions. In fact, a lot of pivotal information such as backstory was relegated to ancillary materials like manuals or strategy guides.
Consider Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Genesis. You play as a blue hedgehog who runs at breakneck speeds to rescue his animal friends from the sinister Dr. Robotnik. That’s the extent of the story; even so, a lot of information was withheld from the game itself. Unless you read the manual, you’d have no clue about the significance of the Chaos Emeralds. More surprisingly, at no point during the game was Robotnik’s name ever mentioned.
The adventure itself was the story. You began in your lush homeland, raced through ancient ruins, made your way through the city, and finally arrived at the villain’s robot factory. Though no clear link existed between levels, you formed a link in your mind. When you smashed your first Badnik and freed the trapped critter within, you discovered that these robots were just your friends in need of your aide. All this was relayed with nary a word of dialogue.
Most people would say Sonic the Hedgehog had no story. Why? Because there weren’t any cutscenes or Eleventh Hour reveals? Other games of the era such as Mega Man and Super Mario Bros. employed similar bare-bones narratives – didn’t bother anyone. Even Pac-Man featured humorous intermissions that served as rewards for completing a number of levels.
The key word here is “context”, object and event associations that every game uses to engage an audience. Space Invaders was about a single turret defending the Earth from an alien swarm, but imagine if it was titled Shoot ‘Em Down and the enemy sprites were edited to appear less alien. The sci-fi hook capitalizing on the recently released Star Wars film was the big draw, and I doubt the game would have been remembered without it.
It’s more appropriate to say that games require strong context rather than strong story in order to be any good. As long as a game presents a cohesive world with adequate incentives, any extra data to flesh out the story is just window dressing. That’s why the sports and puzzle genres don’t require any kind of framing fiction, only adherence to a set of rules that make sense in the context of the game.
So when Jeff says that “games without storylines suck”, he’s referring to that extra window dressing. He wants games to push literary and cinematic benchmarks, for narrative to graduate from a mere supplementary diversion to one of the chief focuses of the medium. If we subscribe to this, we must assume that there is a point at which narrative is rich enough to ensure a memorable experience.
That brings me right back to my original question: where is the line drawn between good and bad? Can a game only be good if the story meets some nebulous complexity benchmark? Certainly the “rescue the princess” scenario in New Super Mario Bros. Wii doesn’t hinder what is regarded as a revival of the essence that defined the NES generation. Would it have benefited from a dose of Machiavellian intrigue or interwoven plot threads?
Saying that gaming needs to evolve as a storytelling venue is almost an admission that there are no significant genres or innovations left to discover. As such, the only way to advance is through the generous application of literature and film techniques. Is gaming so stale that the only way to muster an interest in future endeavors is by hanging on to the promise of greater overlap with other disparate and more developed mediums?
I’m disgusted by the notion that the only way a game can be memorable is through its story. Not to discredit impactful scenes like the death of Aeris or the battle against GLaDOS, but if video games cannot inspire and excite on the merits of game design alone then what does that make gaming? Is it just a vehicle for interactive story-telling?
Remember finding your first hidden 1-up in Super Mario Bros.? How about being chased by the Mecha Dragon in Mega Man 2? Or rocket-surfing in Contra III? Or rolling a wad in Katamari Damacy? None of these are directly related to key events in their respective game’s narratives, but you’d be hard-pressed to say they didn’t leave a lasting impression on gamers.
These types of gameplay moments are effective because they celebrate user control. The more innovative the technique employed, the more likely you’ll see it influence the play styles of future titles. Even the most vocal supporters of expanded narrative have to admit that emotional connections to particular gameplay traits and applications are at the very least as strong as the connections to those memorable triumphs in story-telling.
Perhaps the issue in Jeff’s specific case is that he’s immersed in a very narrow variety of styles. In his article, he name-dropped Killzone 2, made frequent references to gunplay, and posted images of top-shelf, Hollywood-ized epics. If that is in any way a reflection of his current gaming habits, I can understand why he would turn towards narrative as the key differentiator. If the games you play place heavy emphasis on story, naturally you’ll have a strong desire to witness evolution in that direction.
Besides, all this discussion is really only relevant in the single-player space. Is the reason so many people purchased Modern Warfare 2 or Halo 3 because of the engaging narrative or because of the robust online multiplayer that lengthened the life of the titles indefinitely? In the Smash Bros. franchise, the single-player modes are forgettable afterthoughts while the free-for-all brawls are the real meat and potatoes. Given how multiplayer is the medium’s biggest draw, clearly there are other elements that users value more than how “deep” and “engrossing” the story is.
Pumping up story for the sake of pumping up story may please some people, but I don’t see it having an effect on gaming evolution to any significant degree. We should have no problem forming connections and maintaining interest as long as games provide adequate context and the elements of play and user empowerment continue to be refined and distilled.
That should be how gaming gains credibility.