Stories in games are, 90% of the time, about as needed as stories in pornos. Much like in porn where there’s only so many reasons you can give for having a guy nail a woman other than he’s a TV repair man\pizza delivery man\door to door dildo salesman\born with penises instead of fingers etc, there are also only so many excuses you can have for guys needing to kill things in games.
In the beginning, the story was only the setup for several hours of platforming/shooting/puzzling etc with little to no story to speak of. Early games such as Mario or Doom had no discernible story at all, aside from whatever you could pick up from the game manuals, and possibly an ending credits bit of congratulatory text. You didnt need any motivation outside of ‘shoot bad guys until they die’ to play Doom.
But, times have changed, and advancements int echnology and gameplay have meant that now, we as gamers demand some sort of semblance of story, no matter how nonsensical, no matter how ham fisted, convoluted, incomprehensible, or downright fucking crap it is.
The worst offenders:
Heavy Rain is touted as a true marriage of gaming & cinema, and on paper, it’s story sure sounds interesting enough.
Heavy Rain‘s story is a dramatic thriller modeled after film noir, featuring four protagonists involved with the mystery of the Origami Killer, a serial killer who uses extended periods of rainfall to drown his victims. Ethan Mars is a father who is trying to save his son from being the next victim, while investigative journalist Madison Paige, FBI profiler Norman Jayden, and private detective Scott Shelby are each trying to track down clues to the Origami Killer’s identity.
Holy shit! That actually sounds fantastic! It’s like Se7en the videogame, only i dont have to put up with Gwyneth Paltrow! Right?
Heavy Rain falls foul of what seems to be the problem with alot of games that try in any way to have a story that resembles a hollywood drama, in that after the initial concept is laid out, the developers throw in as many ridiculous fucking scenarios as humany possible to try and keep the player entertained. So you go from a story of a man whos child has been kidnapped by a serial killer, which is the hollywood part, to the game part, where without any sort of explanation, shit like the crime solving sunglasses get introduced. This kind of crap is introduced to add in some sort of interesting gameplay element to wow the player, but just serves to take you out of any kind of immersion you had down to just how absolutely fucking ludicrous it is. It’s even more jarring to when you consider that if they’d just figured out some sort of actual way of working in some detective work into the gameplay, it wouldve been 100% more believeable and wouldnt have suddenly yanked you out of the games world like a drop kick to the face.
Not content with including one immersion shattering element, the writers (at least, im assuming this game had writers and wasnt just pieced together from random pages of True Detective & Doctor Who magazines), stupidly decide to follow whatever trend seems popular with Hollywood movies these days, and the game devolves into completely ill-fitting, and just downright stupid torture porn. Right, so what the origami killer did, was find the worlds longest furnace, drag a dead body right to the end of said furnace tunnel, then crawl back, get a sack full of broken glass, crawl all the way back to the dead body, and then crawl backwards laying broken glass as he goes. Makes perfect sense. Then to cap it all, the game tries to emulate yet another hollywood trope, and goes for a twist ending by making the detective hunting the killer, the killer all along. Twist endings, when they work well, generally make you realise something that you overlooked all along, e.g. the 6th sense, all the signs were there that Bruce Willis is a ghost, you just dont notice them until youre shown. Twist endings, when they’re done shit, make you realise how fucking crap the writing is when they just pluck someone at random and say OH MY GOD HE WAS THE KILLER ALL ALONG.
If further proof was needed that game plot writers need to spend more time plotting and less time smoking crack, you can also point to the lead characters Dream Sequences, which were initially included as there was supposed to be a more supernatural element to the link between the killer and the lead character. But then they decided that shit was wack, so took out the supernatural element, but didnt bother removing the dream sequences, which leaves you with several parts of the game just have no god damn purpose or explanation.
Final Fantasy (all 13 of them)
No other game, besides maybe Metal Gear Solid, is quite as masturbatory in its desire to be a movie as much as the Final Fantasy series. From the lavish cut scenes to the scripts that run to thousands of pages (of gibberish). Any one of the FF games would be a prime candidate for crimes against storytelling but for the sake of it, we’ll choose FFX.
Set in the fantasy world of Spira, the game’s story centers around a group of adventurers and their quest to defeat a rampaging monster known as “Sin”. The player character is Tidus, a blitzball star who finds himself in Spira after his home city of Zanarkand is destroyed by Sin. During the game, Tidus, along with several others, aids the summoner Yuna on her pilgrimage to destroy Sin.
That, is the super, super condensed, abridged version of the story. But you can bet your ass that what starts out nonsensical, ends up just plain ‘what the fucking hell is this shit all about’. And you can bet even more money that it turns out that the big bad guy, yup, it turns out it was TIDUS’ DAD ALL ALONG.
The Final Fantasy games in general, tend to have fucking terrible stories that are ridiculously hard to follow. This comes from the games length generally weighing in at about 60-70 hours. The end product is a game that starts out at least somewhat understandable, (i.e. FF7, a group of eco warriors plot to bring down an evil planet drstroying company), but ends up batshit fucking crazy and utterly incomprehensible, ( i.e FF7, eco warrior is an impostor tool of aforementioned evil corporation, trying to stop super villian who is a genetic experiment from reviving his dead mother who is an alien by crashing a comet into the planet, and also eco warrior is a failed clone of super villain but noone noticed).
The main problem here is that you can’t write a convincing, believeable story and make it 60 hours long. The longer the plot strands go the more they unravel. What starts out as a simple idea for the first hour or 2 is an incomprehensible mess by the 60th hour, as writers keep adding plot points, and forgetting about earlier stuff altogether, so in the end none of them come to any kind of satisfying conclusion. I honestly think Final Fantasy would be better off writing a believeable 2 hour story, and then just adding in 59 hours of sidequests and mini games so you dont have to spend most of your game agonising over dialog so bad Shakespeare would regret ever inventing English. And then of course you have acting of this calibre to contend with:
Metal Gear Solid
Metal Gear Solid set the bar for stories in videogames. And of couse by that i mean completely incomprehensible stories in videogames.
Metal Gear Solid follows Solid Snake, a soldier who infiltrates a nuclear weapons facility to neutralize the terrorist threat from FOXHOUND, a renegade special forces unit. Snake must liberate two hostages, the head of DARPA and the president of a major arms manufacturer, confront the terrorists, and stop them from launching a nuclear strike.
Sounds normal enough on paper, and yeah, MGS1 was the most understandable of all the games. But there’s a reason why film makers make films, and game makers make games, and never the twain shall meet. Series director Hideo Kojima may have come up with some fantastic gameplay ideas for MGS1, but hoo boy, did he ever fuck himself in the ass when he decided he was a hollywood director.
MGS2 was billed as the moment when cinema and videogames became indistinguishable. Billed as such by people who have obviously never been in a cinema.
There it is ladies and gents, gaming and hollywood colliding head on in a complete car wreck that leaves no survivors. Any real director would be embarrased to have both acting and dialogue that bad in any film that wasnt a straight to DVD action film starring Steven Segal. But it gets worse. The story of MGS4 isnt just bad, it’s literally unintelligible. Im not even going to attempt to copy and paste a synopsis as it would take up the entire internet, but heres the link if youre interested and have an hour to spare:
The epilogue of MGS4 is almost 2 hours long. The end credits alone are over 10 minutes. If you thought the multiple endings of Return of the King were bad, you’ll literally want to pull your own head off at all the different endings in MGS4, none of which make any fucking sense. Again, i would link to a video but theres nothing even remotely shorter than 10 minutes and i wouldnt want to subject anyone to it. Much like the Final Fantasy stories, what started out relatively easy to follow in MGS1, is an absolute convoluted, incomprehensible, mess of stories, side stories, clones, clones of clones, clones of clones of clones, fathers who are actually brothers of their sons, and all manner of just ridiculous garbage. I actually sat through the entire 2 fucking hours of the ending of MGS4 and by then my arse was numb and i was still none the wiser. In that amount of time i could have watched No Country for Old Men, or The Departed. You know, actual films made by actual film makers.
What a beautiful world we’ve destroyed..
Even the best games, with the best stories, fall flat on their arses at times. Bioshock, a game with one of the best narratives in recent memory fell foul of the curse of the game designers over the storytellers. At a point where the game’s story had reached a natural, reasonable, and satisfying conclusion, the developers realised that at 6 hours or so running time, this wasnt acceptable, so tacked on another couple of hours worth of unnecessary padding. And not only that, then fell foul of yet another videogame trope of turning the games human antagonist from a beleiveable, manipulative, human bad guy into a roided-up superhuman monster just so you can finish the game with a comepletely unneccesary boss fight. Recent games like Assassins Creed: Brotherhood, which was remarkable from a gameplay standpoint, but has a storyline thats devolving rapidly with every subsequent instalment, falling into all the usual standards of twists, betrayals, and futuristic nonsense, is another example of a story only a masochist or someone who’s never read a book before would claim is well told or even enjoyable.
There are a few exceptions to the rule, however, and generally it’s the games that arent trying to be hollywood blockbusters, or to have the richest most engaging narrative, that succeed in being the most believeable, and enjoyable stories. Shadow of the colossus (and its spiritual prequel ICO) for example, a game with very little dialogue, (and all dialogue is spoken in a made up language, so you dont have to worry about poor acting or silly accents) and very little in the way of explanation, is still 6 years after release one of the most memorable stories ive had the privelige to play. SoTC didnt feel the need to bore the player to death with endless cutscenes or mix up the gamepaly by adding in some immersion breaking features like suddenly turning it into a rhythm action game or giving you homing missiles to shoot down the Colossi. It’s a perfect example of a simple story told well, and leaving it up to the players imagination to fill in the blanks. Something Hideo ‘hour long cutscene of Solid Snake explaining his every motive in painstaking detail’ Kojima could stand to learn.
Recently Metro 2033 was another game that told a simple story well, and kept the player engaged without feeling the need to have gigantic boss battles or turn the story on its head by adding a twist that OMG ARTYOM IS ONE OF THE DARK ONES ALL ALONG. It’s story is told through monologues which are well acted and mercufully brief, everything else you need to know about the world Artyom inhabits can be gleaned just from listening to the conversations of people who inhabit the underground Metro stations, or even eavesdropping on enemies conversations. Snatches of NPC dialogue are lifted almost directly from the book too, which gives it a much better standard of dialogue than most games.
Dead Rising was also, and surprisingly, one of the few games of recent memory to have quite an enjoyable storyline. Obviously a game about zombies is never going to win any pulitzers for its narrative, and DR was no different, but unlike MGS which rams every inch of its anti-nuclear war message down your neck like and engorged, tumescent phallus, DR made a quite clever swipe at western consumerism with its antagonist, whose village was destroyed to make way for grazing land for cattle destined for fast food chains. His revenge? To unleash a zombie virus turning the people of America into animals who just eat, and eat, and eat. It’s a clever bit of political commentary, and leagues ahead of most other games that attempt satire or political commentary in a far more serious manner a la MGS.
So will we ever see a story that’s genuinely worthy of winning awards? Because as much as i’ve loved the stories behind games like Mass Effect & The Darkness, when the credits roll on 99% of these games you cant help but feel like you’ve slept through the middle of a film and have no idea what the ending was about. Wether this is down to poor storytelling, or maybe just a lack of connection or inability to really empathise with a computerised avatar the way you can with a real human being with emotions and fears i dont know. But i hope we will eventually see a game who’s story is consistently brilliant and engaging from start to finish without feeling the need to pad things out or add in torture porn just cause its what the kids love nowadays.