The Unsettling Evolution of Video Game Storylines

Hear the Secret Cave writers discuss this topic on episode 1 and episode 2 of our podcast.

Last week on the first episode of the Secret Cave podcast, I decided to start a bit of an argument. The statement was as follows:

“If a game doesn’t have a storyline, it’s shit.”

It’s not my opinion, or even something I’d thought deeply about, but I did have a bit of an idea what I meant by it.

For a start, I want to differentiate between the types of story games can have:

  1. Implied story: A story that can be gleaned from sparse dialog, box art, visual clues, and wider context
  2. Forced story: A story that is inextricably part of the game, like many RPGs

An example of type 1 would be Minecraft, where paintings and hidden content tells the story.

Type 2 stories are your traditional RPGs, where the story isn’t only a bit of flavor to the gameplay mechanics, but a major factor. Think of it in terms of Final Fantasy IV, where the mechanics are limited by the SNES’ ability.

Do storylines have anything to do with console processing power?

When considering the early days of role-playing video games, it’s interesting to remember that the SNES has an extremely limited capacity for gameplay mechanics and graphics, but can hold as much text as you like. It made it the perfect platform for games that inherit the pen and paper mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons.

As Auronlu describes:

“D&D’s game mechanics were adapted by Final Fantasy (and many other early video games): hit points, gold pieces (“gil”), stats like strength and agility, spells, character classes, “equipped” armor and weapons slots, maps, encounters/battles, turns, and resting in inns/pubs to regain depleted health and advance the story. Also, of course, dungeons.”

Other than make platformers, there wasn’t much else you could do with the console’s constraints. Relying on story as an integral part of the game, RPGs sold like mad in the ’90s and many have become enshrined since for their gripping storylines.

But where are all the games like it these days? While the demand for nostalgic indie games is rising, there’s a worrying trend that Lee describes in his article about the death of Mario

And, unfortunately, that trend is that we’re moving away from the tenets of traditional gaming: gameplay challenges and storylines. Now we’re moving towards huge sandbox universes, RPGs that would boring without combat dynamics, and countless other gimmicks that seem to prove we’re too busy and entranced by flashing lights to sit down and enjoy a good old fashioned RPG.

Of course, the genre has evolved. As much flak as I could give it, I’m not about to start off about WoW for ‘relying on multiplayer gameplay as an excuse for dynamic gameplay/storyline’, because that wouldn’t be the truth.

Storyline isn’t always king, and of course it has to be supported by gameplay…

What about when a game is 100% story?

Last weekend, I had the hilarity of seeing a pissed off Lee playing Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.

Like Lee, I expect games to be games. I don’t believe it’s reasonable to fob gamers off with the dull equivalent of a rails shooter without the shooting and a cut-scene every 5 minutes.

I blinked and missed the midpoint where storyline was a supporting character in the cast, not a tool for a flippant studio to bang out a game that should have just been funded as a doomed short film in the first place.

Is any game 100% gameplay?

With such a loose definition of ‘story’, it’s impossible to say that any game has no story. If it has box art, it’s a story. If it has any kind of character or even mechanical development, it’s a story.

The exceptions I’d call out are games like Call of Duty.

If you were ever in doubt that they have a storyline, you can check this shit out:

cod_press_f

What matters most isn’t the cursory, shallow inclusion of a storyline but what is absorbed and discussed by the players.

And I’ll tell you exactly what kind of shit is absorbed and discussed:

cod-outrage

Gracefully balancing story with gameplay

The game that I’d say is the best at striking a healthy balance between story and gameplay is Portal.

First of all, what a fucking excellent game. Second of all, I’ve never seen such a perfectly designed trade-off between gameplay and storyline. Complex and rewarding gameplay with voiceover storyline and hidden rooms to explore. It’s like an even better version of how Doom does it, and Doom is the last game I’d have expected to care about world building when I know its history.

doom-ps4

Doom’s storyline is riveting, and extremely well narrated throughout the game. Even if you’re not paying attention, you’re still going to get into the flavor of the universe. If you do care, and want to read up on it, you can check room for secrets, download data sets and read them about them in the same menu where you upgrade your weapons.

Parallels can be drawn between this and the whole suite of games set in the Half Life universe:

Good job lads. You didn’t sacrifice gameplay for storyline. You managed to make something with an outstanding story, and compelling gameplay.

Are you being told to just ‘make your own storyline’?

Games like Minecraft, 7 Days to Die, and Rust throw you into a universe that obeys the coder’s rules but lets you get on with your own thing. Build what you like, play as a hermit or an explorer.

The same can be said for multiplayer arena games like Paladins. You move from being the struggling up-and-comer to paving your own way and competing against tougher competition. If you stretch the analogy far enough, you could argue that almost anything is a story, even the box art on Tetris.

What's that rocket playing at?

What’s that rocket playing at?

Open world games with discoverable stories came from the framework laid out by 1986’s Ultima: explore, develop, discover, etc. As Engadget’s Rowan Kaiser puts it:

If you’re playing an open-world game, you’re dealing with Ultima. If you’re playing a massively-multiplayer game, you’re dealing with Ultima. If you’re playing a game with a morality system, Ultima.

And so, since 1986 we’ve been striking a defiant balance between two different styles of story telling: implied stories, and forced stories. Whichever category any particular game falls into is anyone’s debate and the entire canon of every video game ever is a daunting thing to talk about.

Why does such a contrast exist? The limitations laid out by the SNES’ processing power are long gone, but you still get games that fall into these two camps…

Is marketing being used as a crutch for storyline?

There are so many games and so many platforms that you’re in a world right now where only the most well marketed games can compete, whether that’s on the AAA circuit or the indie underground.

In an age where everything has its own ‘mythology’ even before release, we’re all making stories in our head, having expectations, and getting on board with 2-year long release cycles that end up as shattering disappointments.

There are countless tales: Kickstarter campaigns crashing and burning, early access releases becoming abandonware, AAA titles spending more time on over-polished ‘real’ gameplay trailers and not enough time making the game worth playing.

Something I should have said at the outset but makes more sense here is is that everything is a storyline. The castle you built on Minecraft isn’t any less real than Castle Wolfenstein. The story in your head while you wait for a release is directly affected by the developer’s PR money. In a world where only the most hyped survive, tweets are the new in-game tidbits and E3 release trailers are your hidden rooms in Portal.

portal-hidden-room

Post-story

Without story, we’d really be admitting that gameplay reached its pinnacle with Mario — a series that focused so much on gameplay its storyline is basically a parody of itself.

And, as much as I love Mario and can get stuck into a technically engaging platformer, I’m not ready to leave behind the complexities and thick mythology of the past in favor of walking simulators, overblown space sims and getting shot by mouthy adolescents ‘going beserk’.

Space landscape-obsessed dreck penman. Appears on TechCrunch, The Next Web, and on Secret Cave in a far less restrained capacity.