I’m a realist. I understand why it’s so hard to craft dynamic stories and relationships in games. With all their random behavior and nuanced feelings, people are hard to track and systematize. I’m willing to look past the fact that Mass Effect might not allow my Shepard to live out her life as the owner of a space vineyard. It’s fine that I can’t start a truly intimate, emotional relationship with every NPC in Dragon Age. I accept the fact that, given enough time and experimentation, the affection that my Sims feel for one another could be expressed numerically.
In the absence of infinite diversity in infinite combinations, an interesting plot can spice up even the most familiar gun battles and scavenger hunts. This is one of the reasons that Red Dead Redemption is one of my favorite games. In a ludic sense, it’s about as “video game-y” as the come, but its story content and dramatic themes convey an interesting (if dismal) message about the human condition. The problem is that many story-driven games don’t bother to do anything interesting with the plot, which in turn does nothing to help alleviate dull or well worn game mechanics.
I’ll again bring up The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword as a game whose flaws make it an important case study. Early on, it looked like Nintendo intended to give the series’ familiar story some more depth. Why else would they inexplicably acknowledge and then rule on the series’ much-disputed timeline?
After playing the game for a few hours, I remained hopeful, largely due to the character Groose:
Early in the game, Groose is a large, dark-skinned, red haired, antagonist whose rivalry with Link stems from his romantic interest in Zelda. Groose is Skyloft’s resident bully. He is always accompanied by his sycophantic henchmen and continually looks for ways to disparage Link and capture Zelda’s affection. He is boldy arrogant, whereas Link is humble; forceful, whereas Link is brave; brash, whereas Link is wise. In other words, I thought he seemed a lot like this guy:
What a revelation this would have been! A Zelda story that actually sets up the eternal conflict between the series’ main characters, one that provides a motivation for one of gaming’s most one-dimensional villains, one that might even make Ganon/Ganondorf appear retroactively sympathetic (or at least understandable). Even if Z-targeting, fairy-catching, and dungeon crawling remained the same as it was in all other Zelda games, this tweak to the usual plot could have added a new sense of dramatic weight to going through the old motions.
Unfortunately, none of this comes to pass in Skyward Sword. Groose turns into a bumbling ally. The game’s big bad guy turns out to be a malicious spirit-being whose characterization and actions are little more than hackneyed tautology. He does evil things because he’s evil, you see. None of the game’s characters experience ambiguous decisions or face any lasting ramifications because of their ordeal. Link and Zelda willingly start to colonize the earth, and the Skyloft citizens float on through the sky without ever having to make any sacrifices to do so.
Every one of these points could have been addressed by making more sophisticated plot choices. Even if the game’s rule system remained mechanically identical, this more nuanced plot could have imbued the dynamics with narrative weight. Instead, we have a boring plot doing nothing to support an aging gameplay system.
Lest I give the impression that this storytelling problem is limited to the Zelda series or perhaps Japanese games more broadly, I’ll provide a more current, western example of a game that gets undermined by a weak story. The recently released Starhawk does an excellent job of visually and aurally crafting its space western world. The world is both futuristic and dusty, a futuristic marvel and a lawless frontier. Guitar twangs turn into angry riffs when the action heats up and ominous bells echo across the desert landscapes.
Like Skyward Sword, Starhawk’s plot initially promises some complexity: both the protagonist and antagonist are black, an extreme rarity in the video game world. The game is set in the middle of a futuristic gold rush where miners and claim jumpers battle to extract and sell “rift” energy from various planets. This rift is defended by the “scabs,” humans so transformed by the rift energy that they have become a feared alien species. The scene is set to explore some of the classic Western themes: race relations, the conservation and exploitation of natural resources, the dehumanization of those that would stand in the way of industrialization, the portrayal of indigenous cultures as being both part of nature and as a threat to colonial hegemony.
None of this ever materializes. The scabs remain one dimensional enemies and the space wild west seems to exist in a bubble that is cut off from larger political, economic, and philosophical questions. The game is still a very enjoyable shooter/vehicle-combat game, but its plot does nothing to elevate the more pedestrian aspects of the mechanics. What could have been an interesting experience in playing as a colonist or a homesteader is ultimately a shallow revenge story about shootin’ dudes.
I’ll end with an ironic quote from Ken Levine, one of the masters of utilizing story as a tool to augment game systems. While discussing story design in games, he once famously stated “The bad news is, for storytellers, nobody cares about your stupid story,” as a way to remind people that a game’s environment and the systems that a player uses to explore it are as important as anything that a writer can construct (Chris Faylor and Nick Breckon, “GDC 08: Ken Levine on Storytelling in Games”, Shack News, 20 February 2008). It’s hard to argue with this, as games are defined by interactivity, but such a statement discounts one of the main reasons BioShock has been enshrined as one of the medium’s most respected games.
What will BioShock be remembered for? It’s gunplay is competant, but not radically different than most other shooters. More important is the city of Rapture, whose crumbling walls and blood stained floors hint at countless stories without ever saying a word. But just as important (if not more so) is the story that tied everything together: Andrew Ryan’s blind devotion to ideology, the moral dilemmas inherent in the city’s commitment to genetic research, and the question of free will itself make the game more than a graphical showpiece or mindless maze shooter. Without BioShock‘s “stupid story,” it may have gone down in history as simply a pretty game about shootin’ dudes.