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?
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.
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.
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!