My stance on narrative in video games

As video games have become more technologically advanced and have consistently proven to be able to do all kinds of new, groundbreaking things with every year that passes, it’s only natural that the mediums ability to tell a good story has improved as well.

With the boundaries for impressive visuals always being pushed, impressive voice acting, cinema quality directing and ingenious ways of incorporating things like scripted sequences into the gameplay, it’s really impressive how well video games are able to tell an emotionally charged and engaging story.

But at what cost?

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If you follow me on Twitter, where I frequently discuss video games among many other things, you’ll probably already know how I feel about the integration of narrative in games. But in case you didn’t know: I don’t really care about it all that much, nor do I think it’s an essential component in crafting a good video game experience.

And I figured given that David Cage’s latest narrative driven game, Detroit: Become Human seems to be all the rage at the moment, that now would be a good time for me to elaborate on exactly why I feel this way.

Now, what I said above doesn’t necessarily mean that I can’t be moved or captivated by a well told story in a game, or that I don’t think a game can be overall improved by its story. After all, my favourite game of all-time, Tales of Symphonia, is my favourite game partly due to its well told story and relatable cast of characters. However, as a game Tales of Symphonia is still more than capable of standing on its own two feet. It’s fun, it plays well and there’s an insane amount of things to do in the game and its world outside of going from A to B to see an important or dramatic cutscene and move the story forward.

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My problem with stories in games is when they become the primary focus and the game stops being a game.

Because I’ve always held the belief that games are games and that as a result they should always be focused on the gameplay itself first and foremost. The story has always been secondary to me because it’s a video game and I want to play it. And while I can most definitely appreciate a game going out of its way to tell an emotionally gripping story, I also don’t want the gameplay to suffer at the cost of telling such a story.

People are always quick give Nintendo flack for including a minimal amount of story in the majority of their games and for choosing a “gameplay first” philosophy when it comes to the development of their games. Yet, I truly believe that Nintendo’s game are among the most enjoyable to play because they choose to make the gameplay as refined and engaging as possible. And even then, Nintendo has an uncanny way of making a games story come hand in hand with the gameplay itself, as opposed to simply placing dramatic cutscenes or scripted events in between the gameplay heavy bits.

Metroid Prime is an atmospheric first person shooter that’s all about exploring the planet you’ve been sent to, battling monsters and acquiring upgrades and power ups for your character, yet it manages to tell one of the best stories in the medium by integrating it into the exploration itself. You’ll be spending much of your time in the game using the handy scanning feature to acquire as much information as possible about your surroundings to help you progress. Yet by doing so, you’re also learning all about the place you’re exploring, the history behind it, the stories that have taken place there, the species of creatures that inhabit it, and all kinds of other little details. And while these details are all insignificant on their own, when put together they craft a narrative that is far more interesting and complex than that of a game like Detroit: Become Human or God of War (2018) because it manages to integrate it within the gameplay itself, without detracting from the overall experience and atmosphere. It tells an excellent and interesting story without breaking the tense, gloomy and unsettling atmosphere of the game, and it’s handled masterfully.

I understand that there’s more than one way to execute the video game experience, and I’m sure many will argue that making a game that focuses more on the story than the gameplay is just another way of approaching the medium. I get that and I’m not here to bash games for having stories, because that’s a really dumb thing to do. However, as I said a little bit above, games are games. They aren’t movies. They aren’t TV shows. They aren’t a choose your own adventure DVD. They’re games: interactive experiences that should encourage play. If there is no play there is no game. At least that’s how I feel.

The Last of Us was a great game back when I played it in 2013. It told an engaging story that was very unique for video games and got me feeling all kinds of emotions in a way that very few games have ever managed to. But if you strip away the narrative of The Last of Us, there’s not all that much of a game there at all. It’s just a whole lot of shooting sections, stealth sections and the occasional scripted puzzle or hazard event that isn’t all that interesting on its own without the narrative context. And as someone who’s already experienced the story, I have no real incentive to go and play The Last of Us again, because once you’ve experienced it there’s nothing else there because the gameplay can’t exist without its story. A story which I’ve already experienced.

Meanwhile, I can play a game like Metroid Prime ten times over and still not get fed up. Because even knowing all of the story and little narrative details I can pick up from the games many environments, the environments themselves are still fun to explore and the gameplay remains satisfying and engaging whether you pay attention to the story or not. It manages to be a fully realised, immersive experience regardless of the story that is presented.

Game designers like David Cage who pride themselves on crafting these kinds of narrative based games, constantly look down on the rest of the industry as though they create lesser art because they choose to focus on gameplay above story. Yet nothing David Cage has made could ever come close to touching the immersive nature of Metroid Prime’s gameplay, or the joyous experience of exploring the tropical paradise of Isle Delfino in Super Mario Sunshine, or the oppressive, unsettling, creepy and unparalleled atmosphere of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. These are all games with a focus on gameplay first, and yet they all manage to tell a more immersive, memorable and groundbreaking story than the majority of these supposed “masterfully crafted” narratives by presenting it in a way that allows the player to experience it all subtly through the gameplay itself. And that kind of experience is a million times more engaging than some emotional cutscene at the end of a level or a bunch of interactive popups during said cutscene.

But hey, that’s just my opinion. Feel free to disagree, I just wanted to get this out there I guess.

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What is your stance on narrative in games? Do you feel it should take priority? Or are you all for gameplay first? Maybe even in between? Let me know and thank you for reading!

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13 thoughts on “My stance on narrative in video games

  1. I think this highlights why the term “games” is so woefully inadequate to describe the complete array of interactive entertainment experiences out there today… and why it’s helpful to regard stuff like visual novels and even David Cage’s stuff as their own distinct media rather than “games”.

    “Games” are art, of that there is no question. But they can be art in different ways. They can be art in the sense that they tell an interesting story. They can be art in the sense that they are beautifully presented. They can be art in the sense that they are mechanically elegant. They can be some combination of all of the above… or none of those things!

    Herein lies the issue; I, too, love games where you “do” things, but I’m also “playing” (and adoring) a visual novel called Supipara at the moment, which has no choices in it whatsoever and thus no interactivity. I don’t see it as a “lesser” experience — although it is clear it is a *different* experience to something like, say, Shantae or Hyrule Warriors, which are the other games I’m playing right now.

    “Games” are now so broad as a medium that we can’t judge them all under the same criteria by any means… and this is where a lot of critics (and David Cage!) fall down. You simply *have* to judge them on their own merits according to what they are trying to do… or treat them as a completely different “sub-medium” in their own right where applicable.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I completely agree with you. My definition of a game has always been something that focuses primarily on being an experience that facilitates play more than anything else. Which is how games are defined in the traditional sense before video games even existed.

      Nowadays, that’s a rather narrow definition, because of things like Visual Novels and Narrative Driven games, which are a product of technology advancing and games now having more potential to be a medium that focuses on storytelling.

      I think it’s a good idea to try to view many of these “games”, like Heavy Rain and Detroit as “interactive experiences” or some other vague term as opposed to “video games”. Which is what David Cage himself apparently wants to create, as he’s very critical of video games and their focus on gameplay (which is dumb imo, but that’s another rant for another day).

      Games definitely provide all kinds of experiences, and that’s what’s so wonderful about them. What you’ll get out of a visual novel is completely different from what a game like Mario 64 would be likely to give you, and that in itself is a wonderful thing.

      But to expect the same thing or kind of experience from the whole medium, or to apply the same standards to ALL games is just… Not feasible at all and very narrow minded. Not every game needs to tell a good story or be challenging for example.

      Thank you for your detailed comment! I’m glad you enjoyed the post and sorry for the late reply! I’ve been busy planning my wedding! Haha.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love excellent storytelling in games, but I also play a game for that interactive experience that you can’t get from reading or watching a film. I think this is why I get bored with visual novels, which is a total personal thing. But The Last of Us was a game I loved because it had a remarkable story, but with very interesting gaming mechanics. A lot of the game requires stealthy and strategy, which I’ll admit I’m not great at. But that challenge and the intensity of the gameplay woven with the narrative, made it so all-encompassing.

    God of War (2018) is the new craze, but in all honesty, it felt like such a mediocre game. There is nothing new in it in terms of gameplay. It honestly felt like a rip-off of Horizon Zero Dawn. Normally, I don’t mind if games have similar mechanics or set-ups, as long as they have something to set them apart from that. God of War wasn’t written well either. I was so bored and felt disconnected to it almost the entire time that I played it.

    Killer is Dead is a game that most people I’ve spoken to either love or hate, with the latter being more the case. I loved it because it was a hack-and-slash that released during a time when people were moving away from that genre. That coupled with some other interesting traits and the strange as fuck narrative (thank you Suda 51) had me very intrigued. It may not have been the best, but I enjoyed the hell out of it.

    While I love an excellent, moving narrative, for video games, I definitely look for and appreciate the level of interactiveness that a game can provide me, for it is one of the things that makes video games so wonderful, and a work of art. Nonetheless, as Pete Davison has commented, in today’s day and age with the variety of games we have going on, you really can only judge a game by a case by case basis. However, I still feel gameplay and interactive experience are traits that can be judged across all genres and types.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Naturally, I completely agree with you there. I think that if the gameplay can go hand in hand with a good story, then that’s far better than just watching a bunch of cutscenes in between different levels or whatever. That’s why The Last of Us (despite me being critical of it in this very post) is such a memorable and fun time.

      I feel similarly about the new God of War, and while I haven’t yet played it myself, from what I’ve seen, it’s stripped away what was once a fairly unique story driven hack and slash game and turned it into The Last of Us with a God of War skin pack applied to it. And while that kind of gameplay worked for The Last of Us and its story, it doesn’t fit this IP. The story itself is even going the same kind of route and breaking away from what made God of War so memorable to begin with. It’s a darn shame.

      Suda51 always does a good job in weaving his wacko narratives into fun, experimental games. No More Heroes was insanely fun and over the top with some really crazy gameplay ideas, but it still communicated a solid story through its boss fights and the like.

      Thank you for your comment and for reading and sorry for the late reply! I’ve been busy planning my wedding!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. The story is why I play a game, but the key thing there is “play a game.”

    In the Zelda franchise, I especially love Ocarina of Time and Windwaker, but not Twilight Princess or Breath of the Wild, because of the narrative structure, or lack thereof, in each game. I also like the more coherent and straightforward narratives among the Final Fantasy games. Then again, the Super Mario games and those like them aren’t big on narrative structure, and I like them just fine. Asura’s Wrath is pretty much just a mildly-interactive graphic novel, and while I like that story, it’s kind of boring to play. I remember one of the Metal Gear games had 45-minute cutscenes and it was just ridiculous, while fighting games like Mortal Combat and Super Smash Bros have practically no story to them but are still great fun. Chrono Trigger tells an epic story while Banjo-Kazooie takes more after Super Mario.

    So, it depends on what purpose the story serves and how they approach it. If I’m playing by myself, I want a story that at least keeps me interested and motivated. If I’m playing with friends, I want something that can keep us all interested.

    It’s just a question of balance.

    Liked by 1 person

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