Why Storylines In Video Games Just Don't Work

By Rich Knight 2008-09-28 16:02:37 discussion comments
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I might get a lot of flak for this, but I think a lot of people will agree with me when I say that the storylines presented in video games just donít come off right when some busty bit of sprites is telling you why sheís seeking revenge for the death of her family or whatever else happens to be on her smoothly rendered mind. Being a gamer for, jeez, I canít even remember how long (I remember first playing Donkey Kong in an airport though), Iíve come to grips with separating my literature from my video games. The two normally just donít go well together, like peanut butter and haggis, as the aspect of gaming is a whole different dimension to storytelling than reading a novel or watching a movie.

I think a lot of this has to do with where weíve been taken with video games over the past 30 years or so, and how weíve been taken there specifically. In truthfulness, I can honestly say that over the years, some video game storylines really have made an impression on me, Chrono Trigger, Shadow of the Colossus, and Bioshock being good examples of this. But those were the exception, and certainly not the rule, as those games pretty much relied on their storylines to pull them through rather than their gameplay, which for the most part was pretty simplistic if you think about it. I think the reason for most weak storylines, though, is that gamers, at least in the past, werenít typically the kind of people who wanted to read in the first place.

While movies are made specifically to take you somewhere from beginning to end while you sit there in your seat and watch, the purpose of a video game is very different, even if itís a thinking manís video game. Video games are meant to be interactive and are purely based on your involvement in the setting youíre presented with, but quite frankly, most video games move too fast to tell any sort of story other than shoot this or open that. Really, the only genre of gaming that is close to giving you the sit and observe appeal of a novel is a point and click adventure, as those are the types of games that typically demand to be carried by narrative and narrative alone, Myst being a good example of this. Space Ace being a much crappier one.

And thatís because with video games, gameplay will always come first - way ahead of any kind of intense story arc or anything like that. And thatís the way it has to be, really. RPGs, while the gold standard for the infinite possibilities of storytelling, normally donít take the massive leap that a novel or a movie might make because they know their target audience doesnít really care about that. Sure, people who play video games might also read books (I do, for one), but companies know that their target audience (which is pretty much anybody with money) doesnít really care about the storyline if theyíre buying a game. As long as thereís some kind of reason for the mission, heck, even if itís just rescuing your princess from another castle, thatís sufficient for most people who just want to bounce on turtles or summon Leviathan and watch the nifty cut scenes that follow.

Okay, so I know youíre going to pummel me with games with real narrative pull now (Grand Theft Auto! Final Fantasy!, umÖDouble Dragon?), but just think of what youíre saying for a moment. GTA, while a great franchise known more for its sandbox gameplay and killing hookers, is more a rehash of many of your favorite Mafia movies than anything else. And Final Fantasy has about as much story going for it as the Shonen Jump your little brother is reading in his room right now, as none of the games in the seminal series (not even twelve, which some point out to be the most mature in the saga), really ever reaches War and Peace status. Itís all really a matter of how video games started out as something meant for kids, and how theyíve never truly grown up in many peopleís minds, even if the themes certainly have. Sure, cartoons were that way, too, at one point, but theyíve managed to break out of that confining shell, as have comic books. But video games, well, video games canít do that, and the reason for that is because people really donít WANT them to do that.

Back when the Sega CD was making live action games like Night Trap, video games truly had a shot at breaking from the mold and becoming something more than just interactive thumb grinding. While a total piece of garbage, it represented a broad new step into what video games were capable ofóan interactive movie played out at your command. In a way, you were almost like the director. Almost. But that Choose Your Own Adventure game was crapped on, and for good reason, it sucked. But thatís where the video game industry just gave up. Sure, they could have continued with the format, pushing the envelope more and more until lines like, ďYouíre the master of unlocking locks,Ē didnít have to become a video game staple, but nobody even bothered to. Why do that when a company could make just as much money with a blue hedgehog that has an affinity for collecting gold rings and bashing into oddly placed computer monitors? Exactly! Thatís just my point! Why indeed? And video games to this day still havenít figured out an answer to that rather perplexing question.
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