Peter Molyneux once famously stated that the best story every told would be delivered by a videogame, and I'm inclined to agree. In fact, the likes of Chrono Trigger and Deadly Premonition arguably already have. However, we now live in an age where we frequently slam games for not delivering an engrossing plot... even though most classic games never attempted to do so. Critics, consumers and even developers become completely obsessed by the idea that every game has to deliver a storyline- and I'm here to argue that its actually holding back the creation of great titles.
Context, Plot & Narrative Are Not The Same
We frequently bandy the term "storyline" around like it's going out of fashion, but it's worth noting that we frequently use it incorrectly. Rather than a catch-all term, it's actually a fairly specific concept that describes a single component of a game's narrative. Before we continue, let's take a quick look at three key concepts that contribute to the gaming experience.
Context is reason why we play. It can be provided by a sweeping plot that's full of luscious FMV and twists galore- or by a few lines in a text file buried in the installation folder. It can be as basic as "getting as many points as possible." Context is extremely important as it gives us a motivation beyond simply exercising our thumbs... but it doesn't require a storyline. Just ask Space Invaders, Pac-Man or even the early id Software games.
The Plot, scripting or storyline is the scripted portion of the game's events that's delivered through cutscenes, text or other linear devices. It's written in advance and designed to... well, tell a story. Duh.
Narrative is something completely different. It's the sum total of what happens in a game- including both context and plot along with gameplay, art direction and sound design. For example, we know that we're fighting a desperate war against the forces of hell in Doom or Doom 2 without the marine having to spend a few minutes telling us. Every enemy kill, every health or ammo pack and every brutal skirmish adds to the narrative without needing a scripted story to dictate it. The infernal imagery and demonic roars delivers more exposition than a cutscene ever could.
Part of the reason that we demand storylines these days is because we've mixed up these concepts. Games should provide a decent context for the action, but they aren't obliged to tell a story per se. However, many studios are convinced that they are... which leads us to the crux of the argument.
So What's Your Point? Basically, Less Is More.
I've nothing against games that go out of their way to tell a great story. In fact, I both love and applaud the bountiful cornucopia of titles that successfully manage it. However, this perceived need for a game to have a storyline frequently works to great disadvantage. Many developers throw one in for fear of being criticized, and this is where things start to go to pot.
This phenomenon can be seen everywhere- from shooters to strategy- but it's most obvious in the least obvious of genres. Simulations. HAWX 2 and Front Mission Evolved are two blatant recent offenders. One's an arcade flight sim that's supposed to offer console gamers the joys of flying military jets, and the other is all about brutal mech-on-mech combat. Both have solid mechanics and generally deliver on their promise... but then Ubisoft and Double Helix made a critical mistake. Fearful of critical backlash, they decided to shovel a hackneyed unskippable conspiracy plot into their singleplayer campaigns... even though they absolutely didn't need one. All we want from a flight sim is to fly a damn plane. And all we want from a mech game is to crush our opponents beneath armoured heel. Just telling us that we're fighting in a war would have provided enough context for the action to be enjoyable!
This leads on to other problems. Telling a lacklustre mandatory story still requires scriptwriters and voice actors... but when you've just thrown one in, you'll go for the cheapest option every time. Weak VA and hilariously poor dialogue doesn't do anyone any favours- and quite frankly, we'd rather that they didn't bother showing up! Less- or even nothing- can be infinitely more.
The moral of the story- whoops, I mean this article- is that just because videogames can tell a story doesn't mean that they all should. Developers should seriously think twice about shoehorning an inappropriate plot into genres that don't really need one- and should instead concentrate on providing a bare minimum of context rather than a half-baked yarn. We, as critics and consumers, should be willing to accept that omitting or glossing over a weak story is usually better than telling it in the first place. By doing so, we'll allow developers to get back to concentrating on mechanics and gameplay uber alles... and the great storytellers to do what they do best when- and only when- it's appropriate.
Are we overly obsessed with story and plot- or are we right to demand it? Have your say in the comments!