The Alabaster Sock

We Will Fight the Threat with Fighting

Posted by Matt on April 10, 2010

I think one of the fundamental problems with story in videogames is the same fundamental problem with story in mainstream comics: the current generation of writers for these mediums only have these mediums as their inspiration. Essentially, a person who wants to create a story for a videogame only has knowledge of past videogame stories that they loved, so they’re only going to do it like they did.

Adding to that problem is the fact that the previous generation of videogame writers swiped ideas and storylines wholesale from other sources, especially movies, because they wanted to make a version of that story that you could control (or out of lack of creativity. Both are applicable). So there’s the dilemma: the people making games now only have games made before as their inspiration, and those games were blatant knock-offs of other things. So we’re getting to the copy of the copy problem.

This is one of the reasons I tend to ignore the RPG genre these days, even though I played and loved FFVI and Chrono Trigger back in the 16-bit era. Now for those two, I would not defend their stories as anything other than Saturday morning cartoons stretched out over 30 hours. They were fun when I was a kid, and I still find parts of them fun today, in a sub-Star Wars kind of way. But both plots are simplistic, broad, and cliche-ridden; I can’t imagine taking them serious at all. Today, what seems to have happened is that the people who played those games thought they were totally awesome and now that they get to make videogames, they’re going to make those games again only, totally more hardcore.

So we’ve getting the same fan fiction themes and ideas about evil empires and steampunk technology and generically conflicted heroes and then at the end you get to fight some sort of evil god. I’m sure there are nuances I’m missing because I haven’t played a Final Fantasy since VII, but that’s the impression I’ve been getting, and it’s made me disinterested. Considering that these games are supposed to be storyline-driven (the gameplay is often so archaic and muddled that it is only enjoyable to people who like balancing spreadsheets), having the storylines boil down to a series of cliches that take themselves way too seriously and painfully archetypal characters is quite a blow against them.

It also doesn’t help that most RPGs barely qualify as real storytelling videogames, but rather feel like movies with D&D nonsense thrown in so the player doesn’t think they just bought an overpriced DVD. I’ll be blunt: cutscenes kill videogame storytelling, because they remove the player from what makes videogames a unique medium. Whether or not you think of games as high art capable of telling stories on the level of movies or novels, that’s just obvious. If you’re going to be telling a story in a videogame and hope us to take it seriously in any way, actually try to integrate the story into the game, rather than interrupt the game with the story. If you want to make a movie, make a movie. Considering the general quality of the plots in these games, it would likely be a bad movie, but at least you’d be honest about your goals.

And again, this all seems to be because the people who make the games today take pieces from the games made before and then rearrange them. It’s one thing to take some inspiration from past videogame stories, it’s another to base your entire career as a writer only on experience with videogame stories. That goes for all mediums as well: you need breadth. You need to read a book. You need to see movies. And you need to do both outside of specific genres. And you need to learn to use them as inspiration for your own ideas, not simply recreate them. It’s one of these things I like about Grant Morrison: he likes superhero comics, but he also knows WHY he likes them, what elements he responds to the most, and then tries to write stories that not only gleefully create with those as a base, but also tackles thematic issues these ideas bring up. He’s still a very postmodern writer, and at times his more mainstream output veers off in directions that lose some of the more interesting elements of his work, but he has his own ideas and doesn’t just rewrite older stories.

Not everything is entirely gloomy. I’ve heard good things about Mass Effect 2 in terms of story, character, as well as gameplay (I could easily play it myself, but I’m busy now and I still have problems getting into longer games these days, which is entirely my fault). As in, it has interesting and fun characters, and aspects of storyline and character interaction actually exist in-game. And I think if more developers could hire people with greater experience with a wide variety of work AND can integrate them more into the actual game development process, things could improve dramatically. This way, not only would you be more likely to have an at least decent story to tell, but you could make it so that the game and the story complement eachother rather than exist in two different universes that just happen to share a disc.

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