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Voltech avatar 1:15 PM on 03.27.2013
Do Video Games Need Good Stories?

Short answer? Of course they do. Post's over.

Long answer? The rest of this post.

If you’ve seen my posts before, you probably know what I’m all about. Good stories! Interesting leads! Ideas and themes explored in full! HnnnnnnnnnnghCHARACTER ARCS! My tastes should be obvious at this point; I’m the guy who’ll pound out multi-thousand word posts with a smile. I’m the guy who’ll severely knock points off a game -- and maybe stop playing it entirely -- if its story isn’t up to par. I’m the guy who’s got dozens of chapters of a web serial novel, and you should totally check it out guys, like, seriously. You know, if you like good(ish) things.

Given how much time, effort, resources, and manpower go into games, and how high standards have gotten (beyond the lowest common denominator, at least), it’s only natural that a good story on top of a good game makes for an incredibly-satisfying and memorable product. As you’d expect, a lot of my favorite games have good, if not great stories; granted my idea of a good story may differ from others, but I’d like to think that my standards are at least consistent and reasonable.

But a funny thing happened the other day. I was playing a game my brother borrowed from a friend, and thanks to its less-than-exciting story (at least in my eyes, and thanks to that opening), I decided to call it quits. As I got into bed that night, though, that game was still on my mind, along with the consequences therein. In the interest of not jumping on the hate train, I won’t say what game it is...though those familiar with what a certain Family Matters alum has been photoshopped onto can hazard a guess. What’s important is that that game -- and plenty of others -- got me thinking.

There’s no denying that games are getting bigger and better every console generation…well, bigger at least, but work with me here. What’s important is that games are trying to become something more than just quarter-munchers or slews of beeps and boops. There’s a level of ambition there that’s undeniably admirable; say what you will about the industry (I know I have), but there ARE people who are trying. There ARE people that want more for themselves and for others. There ARE…lots…and lots…and LOTS of stumbles along the way. There’s probably an argument to be made that video games are a terrible place to try and tell a good story; the sheer number of failures suggests that games with good stories are the exception, not the norm.

So with that -- and this post’s title -- in mind, I have to ask: if so many games are terrible at making good stories, should they even bother trying?

Now, hear me out on this. We’ve all heard things like “why do they even bother with the campaign if everyone’s just going to play the multiplayer?” I hear it from my brother all the time. And he -- and all the others -- has a bit of a point, whether we like it or not. The most that Halo 4 had going for it sure as hell wasn’t its campaign, but the multiplayer suite and all the options therein; one of them has a relationship that’d make Stephenie Meyer a little nervous, while the other features the chance to obliterate foes with a well-placed ATV bumper to the pancreas. I can and have named a good forty plot holes in DmC (and note the strategic omission of the subtitle), but I’ll gladly admit that the gameplay and the battle system therein was its strongest suit. Final Fantasy 13-2 is, in my eyes, an absolute disaster, but its saving grace is…uh…er…I’ll get back to you on that.

What I’m getting at here is that maybe there needs to be more, shall we say, “specialization” when it comes to games. Context is important to a game; that much is obvious -- and again, a good story can go a long way. But note that the key word here is GOOD, and too many games have faltered as a result of missing the mark, well beyond the examples I’ve named. Games exist to entertain us, and by their very nature they’re designed to make that possible via player control and interaction. That is, the effort and expertise lies in the gameplay rather than the story, more often than not. Grandia III’s story was painful, but its battle system was fantastic (for the most part). Gears of War has never been too keen on telling a heartfelt tale -- and I’m still not convinced that a certain heroic sacrifice in the third game was even necessary -- but to its credit the gameplay has been tweaked and fine-tuned (and copied) in the years since the first game’s release. I don’t think I need to remind anyone that the fighting game genre is a thing that exists, and has seen a HUGE resurgence in the past half-decade or so; even if the trailers suggest major happenings vis a vis the plot -- here’s lookin’ at you, Street Fighter X Tekken -- it’s a given that most of one’s time playing the game will be either practicing combos or taking the fight online. Or offline. Or on a skyscraper under construction, because it has the best music.

You know what game developers understand? Game mechanics. That’s their field. That’s their specialty. They usually know what they’re doing in that regard, and given the proper resources and time they can put out a product that’s well above par. In the same sense that you wouldn’t expect a fisherman to know how to bake a cake, or a basketball player to be an impromptu formula one racer, it might be a little unfair to expect game developers to create the next great epic. The game will be good (or good enough, I hope), but there’s going to be a gap for a while yet. Bringing in talented writers might help, of course, as can some genuine good ideas and dedication to a strong narrative, but that’s not the be-all and end-all solution -- at least if the minds behind Extra Credits are to be believed.

Given the news that’s been making the rounds recently, and the fact that “homogenization” is a worryingly-common concept, it’s becoming obvious that games have their limits. Not in a creative sense, of course, because like with any medium the canvas is infinite. No, there are politics that decide what can be made far more than one’s skill or vision. There are stories that the higher-ups want to be told. There are stories that gamers will bear without a second thought. There are stories that crumble under the duress of time, effort, resources, and even -- or especially -- communication. There are stories that are born from the hubris of their creators, and die by the ineptitude of their creators. Any number of things can go wrong at any time.

So why not simplify?

I’m not saying that every developer would stop making games with stories, because then we’d never get Persona 5, and that would be a complete friggin’ travesty. But this is a possible option, I’d wager: cut back on the stories. If you’re not going to make a good one -- if you’re going to go for the middle of the road, or leave it with plenty of holes and hope for the best -- then don’t even bother trying. Focus on what you’re good at, and develop your skills even further. Or focus on the very basest but most valuable elements of your story and make that the focus; don’t try making an epic if you can’t even tell a fairy tale. (See: Castle Crashers.)

Alternatively, there’s another option: put a HUGE amount of focus on the story. If it’s the weak link, focus on that. Pinpoint what’s gone wrong in games past, and figure out how to proceed from there. Making a good story isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible; consider the possibilities and answer the questions surrounding it -- and just plain put in effort -- and you’ve got a much better shot at making a better product. Treat the audience with respect and prove to them you’re the best for the job; game development is a competition of sorts, and as such adding a fantastic story is a good way to set oneself above the crowd. (What’s up, BioShock?)

My all-or-nothing approach may not exactly be the wisest move -- and not very far-reaching, given my inch-long sphere of influence -- but it’s a possibility, isn’t it? It goes without saying that I would LOVE to see games universally become better at telling good stories. And while I’m the Eternal Optimist and believe that things will get better, I’m also JUST reasonable enough to know that games have a long, long, long way to go before they reach greater heights.

Make no mistake, though -- games can get there. They’ve already started taking steps toward a new plateau. I know people give Capcom a lot of trouble, but they ARE at least trying. And sometimes they can put out something that’s actually genuinely affecting, even in games where the story should theoretically take a backseat. Say what you will about Devil May Cry 4, but its prologue is cut from a different -- and more impressive -- cloth than its rocking madness may suggest. And I still think there’s something deeply affecting about Cody’s transformation in the Street Fighter canon.

It’s almost enough to make me forget Resident Evil 6 ever happened. Almost.

But still, we can only go up from here. The technology is expanding; while it inevitably means that huge amounts of time and resources will be spent rendering that blade of grass in the corner juuuuuuuuust right, it also means that there’s potentially a bigger toolset to work with. The issues are being recognized; while change so far has been painful with no shortage of mud-slinging and finger-pointing, the fact that there are people all over trying to talk about the issues means that we’re more likely to evolve. And of course, the gamers are evolving; while the lowest common denominator may keep accepting the status quo, plenty of others are willing to clamor for more, and better, from their favorite pastime. Par is no longer acceptable. Standards are being raised. I’ve seen every time I go to gaming sites, and every time I read comments on my blog. There are people who want more -- and as long as we keep asking for it and striving towards it, we’ll get it. One day.

So. What do we do in the meantime? Forgo stories entirely? Cling to games that tell marvelous tales? Grin and bear it for the sake of some fantastic action? It’s safe to say that the answer will depend on the person. And I mean that in more ways than one; I have my own opinion on the subject of games and stories, but I’d bet there are those who don’t feel quite as jolly and hopeful as I do. So as always, that’s where you come in.

Let me hear your thoughts. Do games need good stories? Or should they focus more on gameplay? Or maybe they can find a happy medium? Maybe weave in gameplay and storytelling in a way no other medium can, as they have before? The possibilities are endless, after all; you just have to be willing to explore. Maybe get your hands a little dirty.

Get typing, if you so desire. As for me…well, I’ve got a bit more writing of my own to do.

Wait a second. Did I write a post that’s less than two thousand words? Damn, I must be losing my touch!

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