All a story really needs is an intro to establish context and that can be enough to make a game feel unique.
As the title implies, a little bit of story goes a long way in separating a game from its peers. Whereas the mechanics of a game are limited by its genre, platform, budget, or other factors, the story isn’t limited by anything practical. All a story really needs is an intro to establish context, and that little bit of context can be enough to make a game feel unique. For example:
Life Goes On
Life Goes On is a cute puzzle platformer in which you have to sacrifice countless knights to spike pits, flame throwers, bottomless pits, burning by lava, freezing by icy gas, and more, all in search of a shiny trinket. Mechanically it’s similar to a lot of other puzzle platformers in which you make copies of yourself: The Swapper, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, Swarm, or Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time. Which is to say that mechanically it is a game you’ve played before, but thanks to a change in context, it feels like a very different game altogether.
Whereas The Swapper is a moody philosophical puzzler, P.B. Winterbottom is storybook cartoon, Swarm is about the reckless disregard for alien life, and A Crack in Time (or at least the Clank puzzle sections) is a time-travel adventure, Life Goes On stands out as a parody of early English tales of noble knights in search of noble treasure.
The main menu shows a king guiding an endless procession of eager knights into a portal, one at a time. Each knights hops into the portal without a second thought, even as the death-screams of their predecessor can still be heard. Behind the king is a poster of a golden chalice with “Cup of Life” written on it, and it’s clear that these brave/suicidal knights are sacrificing themselves for this priceless artifact. Except it's not priceless. There are piles and piles of golden chalices everywhere, yet the knights still jump through the portal at the behest of their king.
That’s all the story you’re going to get in Life Goes On, but it’s more than enough. Thanks to that menu, as I play I’m not thinking about the philosophical implications of rampant cloning, collecting cartoon pies, or killing as many minions as possible. Instead I’m thinking about my actions as they relate to the tropes of King Arthur stories. With so many dead knights needed for victory, it’s clear that the supposed hero at the end of these stories isn’t necessarily the one that did all the work. He’s just the one that survived to tell the tale. There’s both a reverence and disrespect for the dead present in the game. After all, you need the bodies of the dead to progress, but that often requires you to put them through a profane conveyor belt of spikes, gravity lifts, and freeze gas.
All of this gives Life Goes On a distinct tone that separates it from its peers. Even if its mechanics are similar, its style and story is its own.
This War of Mine
This War of Mine is a war game in which you play a civilian. You want to avoid soldiers while struggling to eke out a life within in war-torn city. I got to play a demo of it at PAX East, and I was surprised at how familiar it felt. Aesthetically, it could be one of any number of post-apocalyptic survival games, and mechanically it could be one of any number of hardcore survival games. It’s like State of Decay without the zombies and in 2D.
But while it doesn’t immediately look or feel different, the context of your actions is different and that means you play This War of Mine with a different mindset than you would State of Decay. Even if your practical actions are similar, the thoughts they evoke are different.
As with any post-apocalyptic survival game, in This War of Mine, you’ll have an immediate suspicion of fellow survivors. Supplies are limited, and if Fallout, The Walking Dead, or The Last of Us have taught us anything, it’s that violence is always an answer. Yet as I explored new areas I found myself oddly reluctant to fight with other survivors. I gave supplies when I could, and I avoided combat when I could, not just because it was practical for survival but because it felt right. Games have shown us that the post-apocalypse is filled with victims and aggressors, but since this game takes place in the aftermath of a war, I viewed all other people as victims. I was understanding with survivors who attacked me, noting that my actions probably made me seem more aggressive than I intended (like walking through a guarded door without an invitation (I just wanted to explore but my killer didn’t know that). I consciously suppressed my inclinations towards violence, inclinations that other games have fostered in me, because I didn’t want to perpetrate more violence.
Since this was just a demo, there’s a chance that the final version of the game may stray too far into post-apocalypse clichés and the story context will lost its power, but for now This War of Mine, is a perfect example of how a little change in setting and story can go a long way.
However, a little bit of story doesn’t automatically make a game better. If the story is nothing more than a bit of context around the gameplay, it’s that much more important for the player to understand that context before playing.
Titanfall doesn’t have a single-player campaign. It has a “Campaign” option on its main menu and that Campaign purports to tell a story about two armies at war. However, thanks to the game’s mediocre presentation, the story fails to provide any meaningful context for your mech-on-mech battles.
Much of the story takes place in voiceover, so it ends up feeling disconnected from the world you’re fighting in. The conflicts and characters mentioned in the narration just don’t matter. As a result, the surprising variety of levels isn’t actually noticeable. It’s so easy to move from match to match with a laser-like focus on objectives and opponents that you’ll likely miss many of the neat environmental details that make the setting of Titanfall unique. One level has giant alien birds hanging out on buildings, but I didn’t notice them until I played that level multiple times.
Without the context of story, I start to think about the levels purely in terms of design. There’s the open and flat level, the open and hilly level, the one with clustered buildings, the one with underground tunnels, etc. In truth, those levels have a history, there’s a reason we’re fighting here, there’s a narrative justification that helps make one location standout among the others, but I don’t know what it is. The levels blur together and become nothing more than blueprints in my mind.
A little bit of story can go a long way, but that doesn’t mean one can slack off in the presentation.