What does it take for a game to hit massive critical acclaim? Y’know, the kind that has journalists singing its praises for years after release. The kind that plasters its TV spots with wave after wave of 5 stars and 10/10s. Good graphics? A nice soundtrack? Fast loading times?
Well sure, these things help. But I’ve never seen a game reach truly divine status unless it’s had an ass-kicking storyline. Recent releases show this palpably. The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider: these were all hailed for their poignant plots and deep, emotionally rich characters.
That’s all fine, of course. These are elements that only ever enhance the immersion and playability of a game. Or do they?
Stories have been a common ingredient in video games ever since video games were a thing. 1980s text adventures and RPGs were basically just stories that you constructed on the fly – the story was the game. Point-and-click 90s PC gems like the Indiana Jones or King’s Quest series could only really be considered as interactive stories, told through that delightful VGA goodness. Which isn’t to say that good graphics and technology have made storytelling redundant: since the advent of motion capture, titles like Heavy Rain and the upcoming Beyond Two Souls are overtly blurring the lines between video game and drama movie. Even comic books are being spliced into a new species of story/game hybrids, as we’ve seen with Telltale Games’ (the clue is in the name) The Walking Dead.
At what point, though, does it go too far? At what point does this moviefication of games become more of a distraction than an enhancement?
First off, let’s not pretend that spinning a good yarn is necessary – let alone a defining feature – of every game. Games without narrative have flourished at every stop on the timeline between chess boards and circuit boards. Chess could well be the best 2 player game ever invented, and it’s still going strong all over the world. And despite the fact that Hollywood managed to wrangle the classic board game Battleships into a movie (albeit a terrible one), I doubt that the same could ever be done to backgammon or 4 in a row – no matter how many R&B stars you cast in it.
But despite the beautiful, timeless simplicity of many plotless games, there’s a distinct whiff of snobbery surrounding the concept of a plotless video game. At least, one that has things like people and buildings and explosions in it. Without a story, what’s the point, right?
Well, if you have to ask that, you’ve missed the point by a pretty massive margin. Which might lead you to say some pretty point-missing things, as demonstrated in Tom Bissell’s article Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Shooter. In the eyes of these point-missers, as it turns out, shooters are pretty much at the bottom of the dung heap.
“A shooter works by effectively training its players to ignore things like great characterization and thoughtful scenario-making.”
I guess that’s true, in the same way that chewing gum works by training you to ignore haute cuisine. They’re just different things. One’s existence does not depend on the other, nor does it negate or down-tread the other’s value. When you or I play Call of Duty, we’re not expecting a convoluted character structure any more than we’re expecting Mr Darcy to turn up and give a heart-warming speech. We haven’t been duped into not expecting this stuff; we knew perfectly well not to expect it in the first place.
By the way, I’m not for a moment suggesting that you can’t find great characterisation and thoughtful scenario-making in any shooters (and isn’t ‘scenario-making’ basically the core of what these games do?). Anyone who makes this claim has obviously never played the likes of Mass Effect. Or Deus Ex. Or Bioshock. Or Half Life.
But even to the uneducated gamer, a lack of story does not equate to mindlessness. The strategising, the teamwork, the reactions, the hand/eye coordination, the problem-solving: I hazard an assumption that these things will keep your neurons firing on more cylinders than watching The Artist.
In fact, there are times when a storyline is the last thing you want. There are times when you’d consider hurling your console out the window (and yourself after it) just to put an end to all the clichéd, mumbled, badly acted, unnecessary and self-indulgent sludge that we call cut scenes.
When would these times occur? When we’re playing demos, of course. Seriously, developers, keep cut scenes out of your demos. Please. If we wanted to watch 15 minutes of badly animated backstory, we’d go to YouTube. We wouldn’t spend 20 minutes filling up the precious real estate of our hard drives with 2 GB of demo if we didn’t think we’d get to see how it feels to actually play the damn thing. I hate to sound like an investor on Dragon’s Den, but the demo is your pitch. If you fill it with tedious and unoriginal storytelling (as unforgivably perpetrated in the demo for Mars: War Logs, by the way), you’re squandering your audience’s precious attention. No-one’s going to invest in the characters before they’ve decided whether to invest in the game.
Of course, doing away with cutscenes is a pretty hefty challenge for any game that needs to tell a story. But when that challenge is met? That’s where the real genius comes in. Skyrim, for example, tells its impossibly numerous and complex tales without a cutscene in sight. In games like this, narrative emerges from real-time interactions and events, as brilliantly demonstrated in the sandbox zombie-fest State of Decay.
The truth is that original story lines, told well, are a rare thing in gaming. Perhaps that’s why the titles that have them are worshipped the way they are. And that’s fine. But these games are not plugging the gaping hole in the market they think they are. So to address the leading question directly: No, not all games need stories. Not all games should have stories. And sure, games with stories need good storytelling – but only when the story is goddamn worth telling.