Stories are a huge part of my life. I have worked with books for a little over ten years now, selling and reading them, and it continuously amazes me when I have the privilege of seeing the finished hardcopy of a novel. Living in a town filled with writers can lead to interesting conversations, encounters, and great recommendations. Stories are never far from my mind.
The topic of stories has been brought up a few times in the past week. There was the countdown of the best narratives of 2011, and another piece on why Bioware tells the best stories. Stories are becoming an ever-important part of video games, something as critical as how the game looks, sounds, and plays. I admit that good stories are what brought me into video games, but at the same time, I can't help thinking that stories might also be pushing some people away from gaming as a hobby.
Personally, I like stories in video games. The stronger the narrative, the more engaging the setting, plot, and characters, the more likely I am to want to play the game. I return often to games that I've beaten several times simply because I like the stories. It's the same reason I reread books; if a story makes an impression on you, sometimes you want to experience it from a different angle, or perhaps take some time away from it so you can appreciate it anew.
That said, I don't think that every gamer appreciates storytelling in games. Video gaming is ultimately about interacting with a console, controlling the actions of a character, and moving along a set path, from Point A to Point B, and so on, to reach a goal. Interactivity makes gaming different from movies in that it requires the input of a person pushing buttons, or applying pressure to analog sticks, to make something happen. There is nothing that says that a story must be present, and nor is there a rule that says, if there is one, that it must be overly complex or engaging. A story is a bonus for some people, but it might as well be a hindrance to others.
The Uncharted games are not a series that I've had much hands-on experience with, however, I do like the stories in the game. They remind me of the types of novels that I enjoyed reading when I was in high school, and still do read when the occasion calls for it. Uncharted is brain candy in the best way. It might be silly and over the top, and I might not necessarily like Nathan Drake as a character, but I do find the stories fun. Should a film of these games ever be made, the studio organizing the project should look at Australian writer Matthew Reilly to pen a script. If you're in the mood for a fun, somewhat ridiculous, but ultimately exciting thriller, his novel Temple is sure to get you through a weekend quite nicely.
While Uncharted benefits from a story, there are some games that offer narratives that simply leave players scratching their heads. The first time I played Bayonetta I kept wondering why there was all this bizarre stuff happening in the background, and why I should care. The game play was fun and engaging, so why did the story have to be so complex, convoluted, silly, and, ultimately, just plain weird? At one point, I wondered why there even was a story.
Final Fantasy XIII is another example of a story that got away from itself. While I loved the characters, the story eventually shifted from 'huh, this is interesting' to 'okay, I'm beyond lost' territory. The conflict within Cocoon was fascinating, and the mythology involving the fal'Cie and their chosen acolytes, the l'Cie, is one of the most interesting story components that I've ever seen. It was when the smaller stories - Sazh's hunt for his son, Hope's determination to hold Snow accountable for his actions - began to outshine the primary narrative that I started to lose my interest. While I think Final Fantasy XIII has some of the best examples of character development I've seen in a video game, I wouldn't go so far as to say it has a great story. It's a confusing one with lots of potential, yes, but not a great one.
Some games don't need stories, and yet they are present anyway. The first Modern Warfare game has a simple, easy to follow military narrative. So why do the two subsequent games allow their narrative to become so convoluted that it would embarrass a first-year creative writing student? Military shooters don't need stories. Dropping in from location to location with a strict get-from-Point-A-to-Point-B mission is just fine. I think a story is the last thing I'd be looking for in a military-themed game.
There are other times where the emphasis on story can detract from what a video game is ultimately about: game play. A great story in a game with terrible game play is a step in the completely wrong direction. The best example I can think of is Enslaved.
Enslaved is a game that had all the right elements: a story written by a great writer, Alex Garland, he of The Beach (read the novel, just do yourself a favor, and read it) and 28 Days Later... fame; two engaging main characters in the form of Monkey and Trip; and a fascinating world to explore. Garland's writing talent, and the involvement of actor Andy Serkis (Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, and King Kong himself), made Enslaved sound like the perfect mix of story and game play. It should have been great. It was not.
As good as the story was, as exciting as Monkey and Trip's reluctant association was, as beautiful as the game looked, the game play was cringe inducing. The platforming was too familiar, and the combat was awful. The game play system itself was bad, and despite the fantastic story, I could not play past the game's first act. I did not want to sink hours and hours of time into a game that gave me repetition and uninspired combat. No matter how good the story, I could not do it.
If stories are becoming the primary component by which we are expected to judge video games, then maybe it's time to take a step back and look at what draws us, as players, into the gaming world in the first place. I appreciate a good story as much as the next person, but I can't help thinking that there has be a happy medium between game play and story. I think that medium, the sweet spot of game play and story telling, might be found in one of the more deservedly popular games of last year, Bastion.
The story of Bastion unfolds as the player traverses the world. The world itself is colorful, coming to life before the player's eyes; the main character of the Kid is engaging, his story narrated by the perfectly voiced Rucks, who has his own story to tell along with the Kid's. As the player progresses, more of the story unfolds. You don't know what's going to happen until you get there, controlling the Kid as he fights his way through area after area, filled with monsters and enemies. The game hits that perfect mix of engaging game play and strong narrative, offering something for everyone, and ensuring a great gaming experience. With those all in the mix, Bastion might be leading the way to where games need to start shifting.
A story is important, but it doesn't have to be complicated, over the top, or so enamored with its own legend that it overtakes all other aspects of the game. A game must, ultimately, be about the interactive experience of gaming. I think Bastion hits the sweet spot of story telling and game play. I also think that the big kids on the playground, even the ones I have immense respect and admiration for, like Bioware and Bethesda, could learn a thing or two about telling a good story, while still ensuring excellent game play, from the little guys like Bastion.
Serious Infotainment runs on Mondays. Follow Alexandra on Twitter @Al3xandra_G.