I usually lose interest in a story-driven game because the tale it spins is a pile of shit.
I’m tired of hearing the sad excuse of “oh b.. but games are still so young, just give it time.” We’ve had decades of experimentation, and it doesn’t take a genius with majestic balls (i.e. me) to figure out some strong storytelling practices.
I’m going to blow your fucking mind right now. Are you ready? Are you sure you’re ready? You don’t look ready, but whatever, check this out…
Video games are interactive, meaning that you can’t apply static storytelling to them and expect to create something interesting.
BOOM! *confetti* A thousand virgins just screamed in beautiful ecstasy.
If your game has to rely on clichés, arbitrarily taking control away from the player, or story-critical DLC, your game has fundamentally failed to tell a coherent story. Video game stories are shit way too often, and it’s a real shame.
Writing for Games is Goddamn Hard
When you develop a game, you write scripts, item descriptions, journal entries, flavor text, background chatter, ui, tutorials, and a lot more crap I’m too lazy to list. Then the writer has to work in collaboration with artists, gameplay programmers, creative directors, and producers.
What may have begun as a grand vision worthy of my time inevitably gets diluted when an entire team of hardworking nerds struggle fucks it into the Andromeda Galaxy. If you’ve ever worked on a team with more than 2 people, you know that it’s damn hard to maintain consistency and stick to the original plan. Opinions and egos are plentiful.
Think of it this way- you like to finger bang your partner. You might even like to watch others finger bang your partner. But do you want your partner to be finger banged so much that it breaks them and they never want you to finger bang them again? How many times can I say finger bang? Finger bang, finger bang, finger bang.
Sometimes the writer you hire sucks. Sometimes they’re really good at writing character descriptions but shit at writing dialogue. Sometimes they leave mid project. Sometimes upper management gets involved and slaps your ass until you cry. There are a million things that could go wrong when writing a game.
But guess what assholes, none of this excuses the fact that most game writing is still a petri dish of runny shit with a dash of cinnamon.
Yes, video game stories are shit… but they don’t have to be.
Ah yes, I love saving the universe (again) from an ancient alien race which cleanses it every now and then. What were they called again… Protheans? Forerunners? Xel’Naga?
Too many games like Mass Effect make the basic mistake of acting like the player is the center of the universe. Just because you’re in control doesn’t mean that every little event has to revolve around your sweaty ass. It’s such lazy writing.
How many times am I going to go through the exact same motion of saving the world from some apocalyptic bullshit that strokes my ego and makes me feel like an all-powerful god who can command anal sex at a moment’s notice? I already do that every Tuesday at 8:39 PM at my local 7-Eleven.
It’s mind numbingly boring, especially when games like Bastion and Life Is Strange exist. These 2 games do have you make world-changing events, but the story they tell is framed from personal perspectives. They try to offer something different, something new to think about, something to keep your brain from entering a vegetative state.
There’s always room for blockbuster adventures, but our industry needs more balance to keep it healthy and intriguing. If everything you play relies on the highest stakes to tell its story, dramatic events and themes lose their impact. Getting killed for the first time in a Call of Duty story was novel and seemingly meaningful, but not so much when it happened again.
Film figured it out to a degree. We have the cookie-cutter summer blockbusters every year, but we also have hundreds if not thousands of small budget movies covering any theme or topic you thank think of. Including sexy pirate lesbians. Woo!
The game industry is seeing more diversity with the contemporary rise of indie developers, and hopefully this trend continues.
Other lazy-as-fuck clichés that permeate popular games include the unlikely chosen one hero archetype, overturning the established order, doing something at exactly the right moment over and over again, and much more. It makes me angry just thinking about it, I should go fight a bear or write an entire article on game clichés. Maybe both. But I digress, so let’s move on.
Arbitrary Loss of Control
When developing a game, creators decide if player actions will affect the story, or if the player is guided through the crafted experience. But too many games flip flop on this design choice and don’t respect our intelligence and availability.
Remember all those times Gears of War put a halt to the action so you could walk at a controlled pace in order to listen to story critical radio info (or to mask loading times)? Remember how annoying that was? Goddamn! Those sections made me want to set the disc on fire.
Gears’ legacy is that it has a gun with a fucking chainshaw on it. For better and worse. You might make the argument that story doesn’t matter in a game like Gears, but then why put out trailers like the famous Mad World one and why hype the amazing world we’re going to see? Talk shit, get shot.
Remember when you met whatshisface Starchild in Mass Effect 3 and he gave you 3 palette swapped endings and a half-baked fourth? For a franchise supposedly all about choice and consequence, they sure made you feel like a dipshit for liking it by the end.
Mass Effect could have gone down as one of gaming’s greatest achievements, faults and all. Instead, one of the most interesting interactive worlds ever created was reduced to the player walking towards the color they like. Choice!
Games like Mass Effect or Walking Dead have a diamond shaped story. They start at point A and branch from there, they peak in width midway, and then they have to start closing up. The challenge here is to make sure that the final point can somehow satisfy all of the possible threads within the diamond. The way you do that is through writing and developing endings which honor the player’s chosen path and decisions. If you’re a studio and can’t afford to create 4 custom endings, don’t make games in which you promise the ultimate player choice. If you do cater to your audience in a respectable way and they don’t like your artistic vision, that’s fair.
The lesson here is simple: either give the player real agency or don’t. I definitely just won the Nobel Prize for a scientific breakthrough or whatever. Please excuse me while I drown in a sea of scientific pussy.
DLC and the Death of Artistry
I’m genuinely terrified of story critical content being locked behind paywalls. Sometimes, I wake up screaming in a pool of blood wondering where did we go so wrong with video games. Should we blame business people for wanting to make a profit? Should we blame consumers for buying into it? Should we blame marketers for their campaigns? Does everyone suck?
The games market has set a frightening precedent: shipping incomplete products is tolerable. Yeah, you have legions of angry internet comments and threats of boycotts, but then the sales numbers come in and you realize it was all for show.
I’m going to make a wild assumption here and guess that most video game storytellers would rather share their art with the world instead of spreading it thin across DLC, micro transactions, season passes, and whatever other bullshit marketing term we can come up with for paid content.
Chopping up video game stories creates a shitbox user experience, it’s disrespectful to consumers as well as artists, and it makes us lose faith in the medium over time. I don’t want to have to question a game’s artistic and business intents when playing it, I just want to enjoy it. I understand that businesses have to experiment with revenue models as new opportunities arise (get rich or die trying motherfuckers), but this should not be done at the expense of the consumer’s trust and product enjoyment.
Stop selling story critical content. If you’re going to sell story content, figure out a way for it to be a value add (e.g. prequel DLC) that doesn’t negatively impact the core experience.
Don’t Forget, You’re Shit
If you support craptastic business practices, shitty writing, and bad gameplay experiences, you are shit. By handing over your hard earned cash (or your mom’s credit card), you encourage companies to continue putting the least amount of care into their games.
Video game stories are at a really strange crossroad right now, they’re locked in a raging battle between business and art. I hope we strike a balance before the inevitable destruction of our civilization by an all-powerful precursor alien race.