Why I (Almost) Always Care About Video Game Storylines
With all due respect to my new colleague, Crystal Kaba, I'm afraid I have to disagree with almost everything she wrote in her article Why I (Almost) Never Care About Video Game Storylines. I contend that story is not just a nice feature for a game to have, it's almost always essential. Without narrative, games are just pretty sandboxes that leave your memory as soon as you put the controller down.
This new direction in storytelling was adequate, but at its core, it was always just a patch job, a placeholder until technology caught up. Eventually, games such as BioShock demonstrated that you don't need to pause the game, play a movie and then resume the game to get complex plot points across. You are in complete control of your character the first time you see a Big Daddy eviscerate a Splicer, and can choose where to turn your attention, be it the gruesome violence center stage or the horrified reaction of the Little Sister in the corner.
Indeed, more recent games have turned interactive story portions into an art form. Who doesn't remember the beginning of Batman: Arkham Asylum, in which you must control Batman as he does nothing more than slowly escort the restrained Joker down the corridors of the madhouse? That single ten minute establishing scene not only provides great Batman-y moments (my friend and I nerded out when Batman grabbed Joker by the neck during the brief blackout), but it also accomplished the Herculean task of immediately immersing the player in the role of Batman and the setting of Arkham. If we had just jumped into the game with some voice-over saying, "The Joker has escaped - go get him!", I'm not sure it would have been heralded as one of the best games of 2009.
Will Wright is the poster boy and champion of the player-created narrative. At various times, he has spoken on the philosophy that people don't want to be confined by a game's story, that it drives a wedge between the player and his or her on-screen avatar. Further, he claims that the most memorable times a player experiences are when he or she does something spontaneous that the game developer did not pre-arrange. YouTube is littered with thousands of "machinima" movies that illustrate the truth in his words. People love to capture idiosyncratic gaming moments that make them feel special and unique. However, as The Sims has added more installments to its series, narrative has been creeping its way in. The Sims 2 introduced the idea of workplace scenarios, where making an on-the-spot decision could lead to beneficial or harmful results. The Sims 3 took this even further, introducing a new gameplay feature called "opportunities", which span work, skill and social-related tasks, complete with miniature self-contained vignettes. Suddenly, The Sims aren't just meandering through the day on the player's whims. They are living a more complete life, with some context behind their actions.
Another example is Sid Meier's Civilization series. Since the original Civilization, players have been able to lead their nation however they saw fit, whether through bloody conquest or peaceful diplomatic and scientific co-existence. Does a god game need a narrative? While all of the Civilzation sequels have been great fun to play, Civilization IV was the first to add "random events". Every turn or two, something unexpected would happen, ranging from a natural disaster to a diplomatic SNAFU with another country. Finally, there were good, story-driven reasons to go to war with Gandhi, rather than the usual "I'm bored" or "I want his horses" excuses. If my recon plane goes down in his territory and he takes the plane and crew hostage, you can bet your ass I'm sending my tanks in. And with that added bit of context, I no longer feel like a bloodthirsty warlord, so much as a patriot defending my citizens.
The question then becomes, "Do The Sims and Civilization prove anything?". Only in as much as sequels are usually an endeavor to refine and improve an established formula. I chose to cite these two games because they are primarily player-driven and would normally reinforce Crystal's argument. Yet the addition of small bits of narrative (and the seemingly welcoming response from players) seems to indicate that a game without story can be good, but it will always be missing something. Not only do players create their own stories when none are present, they thirst for stories created by talented writers that give meaning to their virtual actions.
The aspect that troubles me about Crystal's approach to gaming is one of involvement. When I play a game, I look forward to being engaged by it, challenged by it (both my reflexes and my intellect), immersed in it and rewarded for it. It's funny that Crystal mentions that the last time she cared about story was when she was 12. The last time special effects and action were enough to entertain me was when I was 12.
I have found through my own experiences that there are basically two kinds of gamers (and movie/TV watchers, for that matter). Those that want to turn their brain off (gaming passively to escape the strain of sustained concentration and involvement) and those that want to turn their brain on. Most "brain-offers" probably don't even realize how much they are missing out on as they furiously pound the A button to skip dialogue or the Esc button to skip cut scenes. It's a shame that they do so, but in championing the phenomenon, Crystal celebrates the "brain off" mentality and that escalates it from being a shame, to being a travesty.