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April 16, 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 enough of my musing, 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 online, and is primed to include some manner of wombats, boxers, and neurotic teenage MacGuyvers soon enough.

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 Carl Winslow’s 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 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 the word “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 arguably 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 in the comments section.  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?  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...


  1. I'd say, yes and no. Depends on the genre of the game. A fighting game doesn't need a story. FPS games don't really need a story. The focus of these games are game play and multiplayer. Sports games don't even have stories, lol. Pretty much every other genre needs a good story, otherwise, it's not a good game. Just my 2 cents.

  2. I would contest the notion that fighting games don't need a story. That's the entire appeal of games like BlazBlue, and Capcom has commented that they want to add more story to future fighting game releases, since their fans have been clamoring for it.

  3. I think an approach that needs to be taken by certain developers is to not be so dismissive about plot but don't think you're plot is the next Shakespearian play. Maybe it's just me, but there seems to be a fairly sharp contrast when games are accused of having bad plots. Either the plot is so flimsy and stupid that many reviewers don't even mention or spend a ton of time criticizing, OR the plot is so contrived, concentrated, pretentious, and over-the-top that it takes itself too seriously. Both ends of the spectrum are really bad. But it's hard to pinpoint perfect examples for each side as everyone's milage varies. So it makes sense that developers have to appeal to what most people can tolerate, and thus more cash.

    As for where I stand... I'm on the fence.

    Some games I can play with a less-than-stellar plot as long as the gameplay is enjoyable. The Sonic games fall in this category frequently. Not that every single game had a bad story, but the franchise is more well known for the gameplay mechanics. Many Nintendo games tend to emphasize gameplay over story. Not that the suck in the later department, is they don't try too hard their plots can be enjoyable.

    But for games that have a better story than gameplay? It's happened to me a few times (Mass Effect had a decent balance of both story and plot, but the first game is a bad case of this extreme.) Persona 3 was like that for me. Persona 4...*OMGPLEASEDONOTKILLME!* is sadly not in this place for me. The gameplay is fun, really, but almost 30 hours in... and it's still not sticking (I'll admit, it's pacing issues that is the problem.)
    But I'm probably rambling.
    At one point you mentioned "homogenization." I read one of the articles you linked (the one about "no one wants female protagonists in games") and I think this is my greatest issue with the industry as a whole. Everything feels so darn same-y it's depressing. Maybe, just maybe, stories could be more interesting - not necessarily "better" - if there was a greater selection of games with stories with different premises. That one game in the second link about the "Bonnie and Clyde" thing could have been pretty cool if it didn't get canned.

    I dunno. So many problems, so little time. All the possible improvements... My head hurts. >_<

  4. "Persona 3 was like that for me. Persona 4...*OMGPLEASEDONOTKILLME!* is sadly not in this place for me."

    Nah, don't worry about it. I've got no problems respecting your opinion. *stows away halberd* Nope, none at all. Carry on.

    But in general, you've got the same opinion I do at the moment: there are a LOT of improvements that could be made. A WHOLE LOT. Telling a good story isn't exactly easy, but like I've said before, if you give it some thought you can come up with a pretty good product...which makes it all the more baffling, considering that there is so much ridiculousness in the industry. I know I keep harping on DmC (even after I said it wasn't worth remembering), but it really is just this glowing example of how things can go so wrong so easily. To its credit, it tried to do something interesting, and if not for its forty-plus narrative failures I'd actually think the reboot was a good idea.

    But the bigger issue here is, again, something you've got down:

    "So it makes sense that developers have to appeal to what most people can tolerate, and thus more cash."

    I'm really going to start harping on this in the future (and I'm pretty sure I've said something like it before), but I'll go ahead and emphasize it now: gamers as a whole need to raise their standards. We shouldn't have to put up with par-for-the-course, lowest-common-denominator BS in the guise of the next great cinematic epic whatchamacallit. We shouldn't, but we do, because "par for the course" is starting to become "top of the line." And that's pretty damn depressing, when you think about it.

    So I'm going to stop thinking about it and switch gears. I've got a post on female protagonists in the works, so you can look forward to me commenting on that in the very near future. Same goes for BioShock Infinite -- and while I have some notable issues with that game, I have NO PROBLEM giving my recommendation and approval. There's hope for this industry yet, make no mistake about that.

  5. Well, I was about to say "Don't forget platformers!" but now I can't be so sure. I'd qualify the Ratchet and Clank games as having good stories, and it's (arguably) a platformer. That, or a third-person shooter. Classification aside, they're still more than satisfying both gameplay-wise and story-wise, IMO.

    But in general? Yeah, I'm with you. If a game is going to have a story, with technology, resources, and effort constantly taking it up a notch I'd expect the story to be good. Otherwise, it brings the whole game down.

  6. Yeah, I heard about that. Pretty exciting stuff, in my eyes -- I genuinely believe that the Pandora element of Street Fighter X Tekken is the biggest amount of wasted potential I've seen in a while (with the Vita trailers rubbing salt in the wound). If Capcom's really dedicated to stepping it up, they might start repairing their reputation.

    Though they could do that instantly if they revived Rival Schools. Man, I always wanted to try that game...

  7. From my understanding, your "all or nothing" approach basically boils down to "go with what you're good at." If you can handle writing a competent story, by all means. Otherwise, focus on the "game" part of the game. Or music, if you make Touhou games.

    I feel as though this approach could be better applied to original IPs and budding game developers, where they've yet to make a name for themselves in the industry. But for AAA franchises, going all-out story or all-out game may be a little harder to implement. It's no secret that Halo's and CoD's successes stem from a meaty multiplayer experience. But if they were to excise their trashy fiction campaigns, I'm sure the fans would be in an uproar despite none of them really caring. And as for Final Fantasy... well, wait... they could go both ways, probably. Either hire people who know how to construct characters and settings, or get people to actually play test their stuff. Or hire Yakuza thugs to kidnap an Atlus dev team (I'm sure they have the money and connections). Either way, this would lead to a massive change in the status quo of ineptitude Square-Enix seems to have planted itself into. Fans might complain about how the game doesn't "feel" like a Final Fantasy, like they've done with FFII, FFIX and FFXII (though I'll admit there are also perfectly valid flaws in play here).

    I guess what my scattered brain is saying here is this: established identities in the gaming world have a reputation to live up to. Fans of these super-hot AAA titles are going to have certain expectations to fulfill, and while a break from status quo may be something this industry needs to evolve up out of the doldrums, I'm not sure if the fans content with this apparent complacency will agree. It may be that the only thing willing to make giant game companies move is money, and unfortunately internal improvements and changes are risky ways of spending it.

  8. If you're playing fighting games for story, then you're probably really disappointed. Games that are highly competitive and have a large community with tourneys, etc. don't care about a story. It's about playing against other people.

  9. To be fair, I suspect that kidnapping Atlus dev teams would make anything better. My theory is that it'd make for the greatest bar mitzvah ever.

    But yeah, I get what you're saying here. It irritates me that money speaks louder than virtually anything else when it comes to games (barring uproarious fan outcry, a la Mass Effect 3's ending), but I guess it can't be helped right now. Of course, I can only hope that devs are taking consumer input and lessons to heart; I mean, if huge amounts of effort and resources are being put into making the next CoD campaign, surely at this stage they're putting their heads together to try and figure out how to take it up a notch, right? Surely.

    That's what I choose to believe, given that the alternative is cripplingly distressing.

    I get that certain games and their creators have a reputation to live up to, but I'm starting to think that they need to change their mindset if they want to take it to the next level. Why be known for an awesome multiplayer and a terrible campaign when you can be known for BOTH? That's my line of reasoning at least...though in some cases gutting multiplayer seems like an option worth considering, buuuuuuuuuut that's neither here nor there.

  10. The points you are presenting here are interesting, but how about we see this from a practical standpoint:

    Both extremes (story focus and story ommision) haveproduced mixed results in the past. You are correct in your standing that game devs are not, in fact, storytellers and that maybe a proper writer could help save the story but the glaring truth of the matter is that an actual writer may not be good enough.

    Story-driven games (like the recent Walking Dead) mostly barely qualify as games. Telltale's recent success (no matter how well-presented and engaging) barely counted as a game. Sure, there were some 'riddles' and a couple of choices, but all this amounted to little more than a 3d-rendered, somewhat-interactive narrative that looked like a film only required installation.

    Story-lacking games, on the other hand, may be a ton of fun but I find them to quickly grow boring and tedious, since I was always into playing by myself and enjoying the made-up people spout nonsense and watch them driven forward by the cruel hand of linearity.

    The middle ground is a much better solution, if Half-Life 2 and Portal have taught us anything: to develop characters and provide exposition without ONCE breaking down the game's pace and always giving a player something to do. I recently realized that, as I was re-playing Fallout New Vegas, when I yawned and went 'Good God, there's a fuckton of text in this, isn't there?'

    Now, I could be getting older or I could just be reading this blog way too often and reaching some weird conclusions but here's what I've got so far: nobody, NOBODY wants to see all that text. Fluff in games is usually background noise in the form of text that the players will not get into unless pressured to do so, or they belong to the kind of nerd completionist cults I used to be in when I was 18 years old and friendless.

    But Portal 2 does pretty much the same, yet it feels awesome and effortless. How? Well, by integrating the story into the gameplay. Think about it: in the entirety of the game, there was not a moment wasted where you just twiddled your thumbs as someone vomited information into your ears. The narrative was instead streamlined into the gameplay, making you part of the story.

    Need another game that did the same, only with a ton of gameplay options? try Spec Ops the Line. Good god, that was like Apocalypse now meets not-shit Gears of War. Its story was like being run over by a Mac Truck made of bears! And what did IT do? Well, it presented a fairly simple, yet intelligent plot WITHIN THE GAMEPLAY.

    What I'm saying is that either extreme harms the videogame industry. It's that treacherous, golden line that's smack dab in the middle that needs to be tread if we're ever hoping to see a change anytime soon. So start wearing down your keyboard, dude. Our time may yet come.

  11. Man, I need to get my hands on Spec Ops. I've heard so much good stuff about it, not trying it seems like a disservice. I just hope my poor maiden's heart can take it.

    But yeah, I see what you mean. I like Telltale's TWD game (even through my brief time with it), but I'll gladly admit that in terms of being a game, it's...well, not exactly airtight. I mean, my brother and I have discussed the idea of doing a playthrough with a buddy where we make decisions together, but that seems to be about as interactive as it gets -- and even then, that's probably not the kind of game you'd EVER want to have multiplayer.

    That little tangent aside, I'm thinking -- thinking, but not 100% decided -- that BioShock is a pretty good example as well. It's been a while since I played the original, but I finished Infinite and I think there are lessons in that game that plenty of developers could stand to learn. There's a sequence in there that's one of the most harrowing moments I've ever experienced in a game, where gameplay and story come together perfectly. I won't spoil it here (I probably will in a later post, though), but it's truly amazing what can be done when devs use their heads.

    Though on that note, I wonder just how willing devs are to learn and branch out. You've got the right idea, no doubt, but it's the industry mindset that's problematic. I'm hoping that Infinite is enough (i.e. sells well enough) to send a message to rival companies, so that they'll start taking certain lessons to heart. In the meantime? Eh, who knows? I guess we'll just have to stay content with little chats over certain topics -- and pray that things get better soon enough.

  12. Yeah, I get it. I totally get it. There's no denying that making a game is a rough business, but it's one that's not impossible; more than anything, it needs focus. Focus on what you can do, and do it well; spread yourself out too thin, and you're more likely to run into problems.

    *glares angrily at Resident Evil 6*

    You know, now that I think about it you bring up an interesting point. The story could, and even should complement the gameplay -- enhance it so that the effect of both is improved. In the case of Pokemon, there's a thrust to it that pushes the player towards the game's goal, but also helps color and energize the world. I've read that the devs designed the world to be some sort of utopia, and given the dialogue and general nature of the areas the hero visits, they're doing their best to pull that off. Gameplay ideas beget story ideas, and story ideas beget gameplay ideas. They don't necessarily have to be separate, especially if they're working in tandem. Even a minimalist approach can work wonders if there's a strong relationship between the two.

    ...But with all that in mind, I think that a lot of games that try to tell a story would be a lot better off if they didn't take themselves so damn seriously. Crack a joke. Put a smile on. Something besides doom and gloom and grim determination and bad decisions. I'm reminded of a Jimquisition episode from a while back that talks about it a bit further. Give it a look if you get the chance.



  13. Hmm, I'm somewhere on the fence on this, to be honest. Most of my favorite games have a huge focus on the story aspect, and that will almost always be the big draw for me, but in some cases I'd wish a little more effort went into the gameplay. One I picked up on a couple months ago, Mother 3, has one of the most heartfelt stories I've ever witnessed in games, and it was the big drive for me to play it. And yet, the combat is sub-par compared to other games in the same genre. Maybe it's just that I don't particularly care for that Dragon Quest-style of RPG's where you can't actually see your characters attack the other guys, but I think it could have used some work.

    In any case, what I think can work is somewhat like what you're suggesting:
    1) If the focus is on the story, put all your effort into making it the best damn story you can tell. But after your done, go back and make sure the gameplay itself isn't boring or stale, to keep the flow moving and to keep the players from drifting away. (Unless it's a visual novel like The Waking Dead, in which case nobody cares about gameplay.)
    2) If the focus is on the gameplay, put all your effort into making it the best damn gameplay you can. But to keep it from being something like Pac-Man, put a simplified story that complements your gameplay. Not bad or contrived, mind you, just something to keep the game moving along with no hiccups. Pokemon is a master of this, their games' plots (usually) serve the overall purpose of the game, which is to be the best, like no one ever was, and their gameplay mechanics have been refined to a T. Even with Black and White 1 and 2, their more refined stories still serve to call into question why the player is playing and keeps them enthralled. At least it did for me.

    Anyways I hope that made sense, it's kinda late on my end, need sleep...