When it comes to story, some of the best ones have come from the gaming industry. Now I’m not saying that we should expect the next Hemingway or Dickens to come from a gaming background, but what I am saying is that storytelling and narrative have improved dramatically over the years. From the 8-bit arcade heroes all the way to the modern triple A game, I believe that story has played its part in keeping the gamer hooked onto a game, even when the gameplay or the flaws of a game are beyond forgiveness.
It’s probably best to start 8-bit. Arcade games generally didn’t have much in the way of story; all you needed to know was the basic plot line of any of the games and away you go. Allow me to summarize the main plots of any arcade game:
There are (bad guys/zombies) in need of being shot, sometimes with added rescue mission (President’s daughter, etc.)
You’re a racer in some sort of car/motorcycle based tournament (with varying degrees of legality).
You’re some sort of combat specialist in a tournament (again, with varying degrees of legality).
You’re in space and something needs to be shot – asteroids, aliens, take your pick.
You’re in some sort of situation that calls for avoiding death by barrels/ghost/etc. in general.
Okay, these are sweeping generalisations (and there’s a chance I’ve missed one classic arcade game plot point), but generally, story was a bit light given that the aim was to milk gamers out of their coins, and you’d have to add that graphics and the tech available didn’t really give much scope for the kind of games we play now. Though, as a gamer from the late 90s, this was changing come the age of the polygon and with better tech available. After all, 1998 was the year that a lot of the classic story-based games came out – so that’s Ocarina of Time, Half-Life and Grim Fandango to name the obvious ones. Even arcade classics like Street Fighter were now on the home consoles by that point, with each fighter having their own story no matter how vague, and platformers like Banjo-Kazooie and Spyro even had an overarching plot line that was basically saving someone (friends, sister, etc) from some evil entity or another. We do also have to include the point and click adventures here as well -like Grim Fandago- because they’re entire deal is story and puzzle, even if it can get ludicrous at times. If the story can’t hold your attention, then there’s no guarantee that the gameplay will.
However, there is a genre of games that has always understood the importance of a good story to go along with the gameplay. That is the role playing game, though with particular attention to those that came from Japan. Case in point, the Final Fantasy series.
Okay, sure, the premise of a Final Fantasy game is pretty self-explanatory. A ragtag team of characters, all with varying powers and abilities that cover each others strengths and weaknesses -so the knight/warrior character to cover the mages, the black mage to be the glass cannon, the white mage making sure everyone is in tip top condition, and the monk/ranger/thief to be general nuisances to the enemy, or a formation similar to this- joining forces to take out the Big Bad and saving the world in the process. But this is the thing, the formula works because a story about good triumphing over evil is universally appealing to everyone – seriously, think fairy tales, the ultimate stories about good versus evil, especially once Disneyfied. However, even though you know what the general end story will probably be, what any good RPG will do will have character driven plots to not only flesh out your team members but also weave other narratives into the overall story. Again, Final Fantasy has this down to an art form; of the few occasions where character driven arcs have either not existed or been thin on the ground, there are more entries in the series where characterisation and character driven plots have actually been more interesting than the overarching plot line itself.
There is a reason why Final Fantasy VII is considered the Final Fantasy of choice for most gamers after all.
Of course, storytelling is not just the boon of the RPG. Nowadays the most successful of games, from horror all the way to shooters, have got a story to tell, even if some of them are just plain bizarre (step forward, Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid). Even if someone comes into a game just for the sake of playing -whether that is running like a madman away from some zombie or other, or taking down enemy NPCs in a military camp- the story does have to play a part in keeping a gamer’s attention. Let’s put it this way: if you’ve completed the story campaign of a Tom Clancy game, are you going to go through the campaign all over again, or are you going to just keep the game so to play on the multiplayer every so often? Myself, I tend to move on once a story is finished, or indeed drop a game altogether if I lose interest in the story of the game – I actually completely abandoned Final Fantasy Type-0 on the PS4 because of its lazy storytelling and absolutely shoddy gameplay, instead concentrating on the Final Fantasy XV Duscae demo that came free with it (or maybe in reality I had paid for FFXV demo but had Type-0 thrown in for free… who knows). It was the same with Bloodborne. I just lost interest because I couldn’t get into the story or indeed the game, even though the game is an exquisite example of game development.
Though, it can go the other way.
I’m speaking from my own experience, with a certain entry of a certain series from Ubisoft that caused quite the controversy. Assassin’s Creed is not the most artful of stories; even for a game there is a lot of suspension of disbelief needed in a story that does stick to historical research… and then rips it apart so that it can insert its own content. However, after the master class of game design that was Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag – and to be frank, given Black Flag’s subject matter, you could forgive it for a lot of the suspension of disbelief needed as they probably chose one of the most loosely documented moments in seafaring history – there was a lot of expectation for AC: Unity. It had probably one of the greatest historical backdrops to play around with, ripe for a great piece of storytelling, and even though the main meat of the game would be in Paris, you forgave it because the city was absolutely sprawling and filled with all sorts of activities and side missions to do. The main Assassin looked cool, interest was piqued in the female Templar that he had saved from execution during one trailer, the trailers dealing with how the Assassins used the revolutionary mobs’ fury to their advantage painted a picture of this being a full out declaration of war against the Templars. Hell, I was convinced that tensions in both sides of the secret war would be palpable, meaning that perhaps there was going to be in-fighting on both sides. I was even convinced that perhaps the royal family would even play a key role to the story; the Templars were using them? They were Templars? The Assassins had been trying to protect them but ultimately failed, hence a large scale covert revenge operation on their part?
Well no. What could have been an incredible story of what was going on in the background, and how the French Revolution affected the two groups, ended being a substandard tale of revenge and romance that just happened to be during the French Revolution. Literally, you could have taken the story out of the French Revolution and put it anywhere else in the world with only a few minor tweaks needed. I played through the entirety of the game, willing it to get better, only to be bitterly disappointed by the absolutely unsurprising end. I didn’t even bother playing the Dead Kings DLC -given to us free by the way because of its appalling performance come launch day- in the end because I just couldn’t bear the thought of having to play as a mopey Arno for another few hours. You know you’ve done a bad job when you start giving away content that should have been a payable extra as recompense, or a free game to the poor saps that actually bought the downloadable content as a pre-order. You know its even worse when your main character is barely likeable, and your most likeable character only appears in a few missions during the game (that likeable character, ladies and gentleman, was the Marquis de Sade, and I give kudos to the voice actor who brought him to life despite his significantly smaller script). To be honest, it is a wonder I ever played the game for as long as I did because the gameplay wasn’t particularly great either; I was one of those players that actively avoided multiplayer because it was so shoddy and played havoc with my internet connection, and I also tried to avoid large scale combat situations when I could because the controls were just so so bad. It’s only saving grace was the free-running across the city and the murder mysteries, and that was it.
Hence why story is important. Because even when you have a really bad one like AC: Unity did, it still managed to keep my attention all the way through to the end. And a brilliant one will make you want to relive the experience all over again; why do you think people are so excited for FFVII being remade for the modern era?
Over to you guys: what game’s narrative kept you hooked? Any appalling stories that were so bad that it kept your attention? Any games you dropped because of uninteresting narratives? Drop a comment below! See you soon!