Why are the stories in video games so bad?

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and yet there are playwrights searching desperately for jobs … or really any kind of paying writing gig. i suspect that neither side really realizes that the other is out there …

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I’m pretty surprised he wrote a piece on writing in games with an entire section devoted to theater & plays and didn’t mention Kentucky Route Zero

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Kentucky Route Zero has a wonderful story and is beautiful. As I recall, it had one (easy) puzzle near the beginning. I hope it is released as a graphic novel someday.

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I don’t accept the premise. I don’t think stories in video games are bad. Indeed, I think ‘bad’ is kinda an entirely useless adjective, and that we could do a lot better to improve the level of discourse until we understand what is really going on.

In the majority of the cases, stories in games are simply unobtrusive. Or even non-existent. This sort of accounts for a lot of the stuff like Call of Duty games. The story just fits in the gaps between shooting men in the face. Is that bad? Not really, I don’t think. You don’t play the games to have feelings about characters or to think about global geopolitics - that would get in the way of the man-shooting. You want the story to just get out of your way. I think critics who attack the stories of those games are really about attacking what those games are trying to be. (This is in some cases a legitimate criticism, the politics of CoD is often odious. But it doesn’t mean the object itself isn’t successful: the US army uses CoD to recruit for a reason.)

In other cases, I think people who think a particular game’s story is ‘bad’ is just a loud minority. The fact is that no story can appeal and resonate with everyone. No story should. What protects books etc from the criticism of having a bad story is at least in part the narrowness of the appeal of books. To purchase a book, usually you are already in some sense professing a belief that you like the story. Games however are different, people can buy games without knowing anything about the story, just because they like shooting men in the face, or because the menu graphics looks cool. So when they find out about the story, of course a bunch of people are gonna hate it.

Finally I think there is an element of elitism in play here. People don’t respect games. So they don’t respect game stories. They certainly don’t respect big companies, so the representation of games as a product of a company, as opposed to an artwork by an author lowers games automatically in people’s eyes. Do people think of a big budget AAA game as a large scale collaborative writing project illustrated by hundreds of artists making big strides in technology in the process? No, we think of it as if some entity called ‘Activision’ made it, which lets us erase the effort and artistry and sacrifices of the creators. We decry the idea of making art for profit, as if no artist in history tried to make money, as if profit was the sole motivator of the hundreds and thousands involved in making these things.

I think that given time to acquire perspective, we wouldn’t look at the stories of games nearly so harshly. Which is not to say that storytelling in games can’t be improved.

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I don’t think this is an issue (could have stopped here…) peculiar to video games. In fact, the similar arts to video games like musicals, operas, puppet shows, ballet, action movies, amusement park rides, fireworks displays, sporting events all could have been easily described by the same “mechanics first, story second” characterization. Some manage to tell a brilliant story, some evoke just enough nonspecific, yet still powerful emotion to not need a cohesive tale, while others trip over their own efforts to say too much. And of course, some just fall flat and feel rote.

In most video games, if the tension and challenges build satisfyingly, to me, the story has been told. If you are shaking when you reach the final boss, and scream and jump around upon their defeat, job done. The classics all nail it, the forgettable are forgotten. Mario brothers’ blue collar everyman enters a surreal world that becomes more arduous as you near your goal, all in the service of love/love of queen and country. Zelda similar but with the story of growth and discovery of weapons and tools. Megaman, absorbing the abilities of fallen warlords who live in world that reflecr their idiosyncratic bodies, personalities and obsessions. Sure, these plots and devices have played out over and over throughout the genres, but the same can be said od the other arts as well.

And that’s not even to mention the writerly ones. Dang, I was straight up moved by final fantasy 2 as a lad. Monkey island, Grim fandango, loom, myst, quest for glory, gold rush, kings quest. Sure, none of them was written by Maya Angelou ( note to self…) But nether was Guys and Dolls. Yes, the writerly attempts often fall the flattest for their overreach, but the same is true for plenty of ham fisted operas as well.

The final thing I’ll say is that you know what a lot of plays suck at? Creating a sense of fun, adventure, challenge and personal growth and investment that keeps you coming back again and again. Maybe they should hire some game developers…

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Stories and games are opposites. The least interactive story is the worst game (ie: a movie). Add a little interactivity and you get a worse story and a not very good game (ie: the movie Clue). The more gamelike you make it, the less storylike it can be. Games are all about the sense of agency, that it is us making the decisions. Stories are about removing that agency, preferably in positive and/or surprising ways. Most modern games with a story reputation in actuality simply alternate between the two (ie: Mass Effect).

All that being said, my favorite game/story recently is the Assault on Dragon Keep DLC in Borderlands 2. Zero actual agency (ie: if you don’t do what the game needs you to do, you can’t progress the story), but it did succeed in simulating agency. I laughed, I cried, etc.

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I disagree. I get your premise, but I disagree none the less. Probably my two favourite games over the last few years have both been so exceptional because of their stories. The first, Red Dead Redemption provided plenty of agency to the player, but still none-the-less pushed players in an eventual inevitable direction (provided you actually played the story component of the game). I guess that fits with your final statement about “alternating between the two” but to me that just highlights the inaccuracy of your earlier statements.

The second of my two favourite recent games was almost entirely linear. The Last of Us. The benefit of the game being so linear is that the gameplay was exceptionally polished and the story was very strong. Sure it had almost no agency, but it was still exceptionally enjoyable to play through.

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F

(“Post must be at least 6 characters long”; the anti-artistic, fascist tyranny of the bbs prevents me from simply making my elegant retort.)

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Kentucky Route Zero wears its play-ness right on its sleeve, and is the only game I’ve ever replayed for story alone (rather than for the gameplay experience). I think one reason story suffers is that in most AAA games, the player character is a mass murderer. Writing a plausible narrative around that without acknowledging it makes for poor storytelling.
I also think that games haven’t embraced emotion enough. Games are great at making players feel empowered, and elated (in the case of finally defeating a boss in Dark Souls), but any other emotions are rare. Games are “supposed” to be fun, so grief, melancholy, anger, ennui, or other negative emotions are rarely evoked. Again, that limits the stories that can be told, or how well those stories can be told.

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Anything by Wadjet Eye Games: mainly because the characters are so believable.

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I think the initial statement that they are opposites is a bit oversimplified and exagerated for effect, but that the tension between agency and cohesive story is very real. I’d Just say that this provides a deliciously complex challenge for story-driven games, rather than being am existential threat.

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Im not sure you can paint the whole industry at having bad stories. This is a bit of a click bait pit. There are plenty of games that offer awesome stories. In my personal opinion final fantasy 6, snatchers, Metal Gear Solid series (although convoluted at times the story is the main driving force), The Walking Dead by Telltale, Final Fantasy 7 (plot twist!), and many more. I think that just like movies you have to seek out the story driven games. People can watch a huge budget action block buster or see an independent film with a great story. The same could be said of games.

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With “The Walking Dead” I found the game element so annoying it stop me enjoying the story.

I just don’t think games have to have much to do with agency. I think more accurate is a sense of responsiveness.

There is an IF work called Ramses, which famously can be completed by typing WAIT about twenty times in a row. But if the player tries to do anything, the protagonist gives the player an excuse why he couldn’t possibly do that thing, even as it becomes increasingly compelling for the player to want to act. The player has literally zero agency in the end, but that is the point of the game, to evoke that sense of frustration with the protagonist. That’s a narrative experience that would be very difficult to evoke in any other medium.

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I could see that. I thought it was better on pc than touch screen or console versions. It still did a good job at developing characters and making you care about them.

Stating “all video games have bad stories” is akin to saying “video games can never be art”. It’s not true and is a provocative statement made for clicks and comment-rage. They can absolutely have good stories, but they’re a very different kind of story than a book or a movie. Games like the latter GTA series and Red Dead Redemption have pioneered a new kind of storytelling, one that lets you, the main character, walk away from the story at any time and then return at your leisure. The characters and storylines of these and other games still resonate, which is a testament to how much skill went into creating them.

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I agree completely. It seems this author is good at making clickbait titles to get everyone riled up. Just like the article they wrote about CAH. That was a storm of nonsense.

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Sadly, this gets clicks -> ad impressions -> money.
Which explains why we see more and more of that, everywhere…
…and why it is unlikely to get any better…

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A lot of the time the disconnect between the game and the story is too big. Writing for games does not necessarily mean having a story, that you force on players to watch! Sometime the best writing in a game is in the small bits of conversation between characters in some irrelevant way to the overal plot - like the conversations of your party members in Dragon Age. Sometimes is on the description, the set up. Sometimes is on the reactions for the branches. But normally, if you going to find the weakest writing, is always in the same places - in the “and now watch THIS” cutscenes, in the heavy-handed this-is-my-story-to -tell moments that intrude on your experience of the game.

That doesnt mean that kind of moments are necessarily bad, but that great care has to be taken to make them flow normally from the game. Hell, even mechanical considerations have an important role in this - how many times you can find a cutscene interesting and the dialog and story amazing when it is said OVER and OVER and OVER again every single time you have to retry?

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