Games are increasingly becoming a popular way to tell stories -- there is no doubt about this. Narrative is becoming a mechanic, with the strength of said narrative retaining the power to make or break a game. A weak story can sap the enjoyment from an action-adventure title; an overly-complex plot will settle a cloak of tedium over an RPG.
A step beyond film due to their immersive and reciprocal nature, looking to games for thoughtful and entertaining experiences means that responsibility rests not only on designers and programmers but writers as well. If last March’s skirmish regarding Mass Effect 3 has proven anything, it’s that video games are beginning to face more demanding challenges as an interactive storytelling medium.
As the way we play games evolves, so does our definition of what makes a game “good.” New frameworks and fancy add-ins can cloud over a game’s soul if they complicate an already cluttered plot. Games created for the purpose of showing off new modes of gameplay should be built into the story they attempt to tell, not the other way around – if the game calls for a story, that is.
Games can and do exist without narrative – but once a plot or character development is introduced, the simple problem-solving foundation is bricked over. A complex story needs time and resources to properly tell itself. Mismanagement of these resources – poor character development or shallow characters, overly-involved backstory, lack of appropriate presentation for important climaxes and details ---results in the game’s total failure to captivate beyond shiny graphics and racking up bonuses.
Take The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, for example. Twilight Princess is a stunning game, a gorgeous piece of art awash in alternating shades of darkness and light – a testament to the Nintendo Wii’s graphics power (at the time) and the Zelda series’ visual evolution. However, playing TP was like the misguided building of a house; after settling on a solid framework and well-established foundation, cheap strips of plywood are nailed haphazardly to the walls before calling it a day. It won’t matter how beautiful the house looks in the end if the structure is flimsy and riddled with cracks.
In TP, Hyrule is under threat of being cast into perpetual darkness. Link and his latest special talent – transforming into a wolf – must counteract this threat in the most anticlimactic way possible: collecting bugs. Each area of the game can be restored to the world of light by killing any number of insects in a way that makes absolutely no use of Link’s special abilities. Pairing inappropriately under-scaled mechanics with the task of saving an entire kingdom makes the story feel cheap.
Zant and Ganondorf emit no sense of being a real threat, and the story carries no sense of urgency. The whole thing is a show-offy mishmash of new abilities and ways to worm the series’ trademark melodies into the greater content of the narrative. It’s obvious that the development team had wonderful ideas regarding the game’s story – they just didn’t run with them. Lack of proper execution and underdevelopment of its core idea did Twilight Princess in, making it one of the weaker entries in Nintendo’s beloved series.
Another numbered series that has suffered considerable blows in recent years is the Final Fantasy franchise. Final Fantasy XII featured the intriguingly immersive gambit and license board systems, a challenging hunt sidequest, and some truly beautiful environments. But there is absolutely no character development, and the player is suddenly and often slapped across the face with major plot points after little to no lead-in or further explanation.
It is unclear who the absolute main protagonist is, and very rarely does a character exhibit coherent rationale for their actions. The most glaring example is the subplot – or main plot, it’s hard to tell – of Princess Ashe’s quest to reclaim the Dalmascan throne. Upon first meeting Ashe is sure of what she wants but loathes using undue force. Five hours of grinding across the desert later, Ashe is volatile and tetchy in her hunger for power with no explanation for the violent shift. The game doesn’t have a clear villain either.
Deus ex machina runs rampant, with the deus part left horribly unexplained. The idea of the Occuria, a set of gods that choose what kingdoms live and die and possess powerful manipulative abilities, chills to the core. But the idea was left dead in the water, and again all the points on which the game’s grand narrative hinged failed to support it.
Creating sequels and spin-offs are dangerous endeavors, as narrative continuity is often lost along the way. The Kingdom Hearts series, ten years in the making, doubles and folds back on itself, reinventing its own rules and events and explaining it all away as character memory loss. Rewritten memories, time travel, alternate realities… All are relatively cheap ways to smash a lot of content together and call it a coherent story. The longer a single story is drawn out, the less meaning and coherency it’s able to retain. A concept or character can only be stretched so thin before it ceases to have meaning and its boundaries begin to fray.
Ultimately it’s the RPG genre that suffers most for writers’ negligence, but all games that strive to tell a good story are subject to the same crushing pressure. The kinds of players that don’t only want content and things to look at often want an emotional takeaway as well. Developers must ask themselves if the concept they wish to convey is worthy of an interactive medium, if paths of interpretation are open and if they are willing to give players complete control over certain elements of the story. If players immerse themselves in a narrative, it should give back to them in some way, whether that is an emotional catharsis or offering perfect harmony between story and gameplay.
Systems and minigames shouldn’t use a story to make sense – it should be the other way around. Burying broader details under sidequests and elaborate customization trees does a disservice to the world a game creates.