I Care About Story, So Why Don't I Care About These Stories?
Is story so tangential to the gaming experience that even a self-professed story-lover can play an entire game and not glean a single plot point from it all?
I hate skipping cut scenes. I never do it. I understand wanting to get into the game quickly, but cut scenes are important. They're part of the experience, whether you like them or not, and they’re a major mouthpiece for what the game is about thematically. Beyond that, I'm very interested in how games tell a story, their ambition versus the reality of execution. Often the failures are just as interesting as the successes.
But all that didn’t stop me from skipping the cut scenes in Sniper Elite 3, and the one important story cut scene in the Destiny beta. I know, I’m a bad person, but I just didn’t care. I didn’t care about the characters, I didn’t care about the plots, and I didn’t care about the themes. I didn’t care about anything those games had to say, and I don’t know exactly why.
This lack of narrative interest is strange to me because I like the world of each game. I like that Sniper Elite 3 is a Word War II game that takes place in Africa. The African theater is so rarely explored in any media, and the sun-drenched sand dunes and canyons are a unique setting for a stealth game. By simply changing locations from Europe to Africa, the game reinvigorates the WW2 shooter.
Yet I actively skip all the cut scenes that introduce each level. I think there’s a plot about Nazi’s trying to build some special kind of weapon, and part of me thinks that could be interesting. But the rest of me doesn’t care. I look for collectible letters that Nazi soldiers have written home, but I never read them. Does Sniper Elite 3 do a good job of humanizing its enemies? I don’t know. I’ve never given it the chance to try.
I love Destiny's mixture of high fantasy and science fiction. I love that a line like "That wizard came from the moon" actually makes logical sense within its universe. This isn’t an ironic love, a love that belies snickering. It's a genuine love of the bold and thorough mixing of genres. I'm interested in this world, but not its story.
One could argue that there was never going to be much narrative content in this beta since it’s, well, a beta. Perhaps I haven’t come to care about the story because Bungie has chosen not to emphasize story in this pre-release version of the game -- except that my disinterest applies to every aspect of narrative in the game. I’ve written before about that I think even the slimmest of story contexts can help a game stand out, and there is a narrative context to each of the missions available in the beta. You’re not exploring this world aimlessly (though you can if you want to), you’re on strict missions with set end goals, and I just don’t remember what any of those goals were.
So as someone who cares deeply about story in games, even the slimmest, barest bones of a story, why don’t I care about these games? What do they do (or not do) that pushes me away so completely?
I think that it's a mix of things, partly my fault and partly the fault of the games. For myself, I went into Destiny expecting nothing of narrative worth because A) it’s a beta, so it's not like we'd get much story anyways, and B) the game desperately wants to be an MMO (there's a dedicated dance button!) and MMOs are not exactly known for their complex writing. Then I went into Sniper Elite 3 expecting it to be a disconnected and plotless series of stealth missions. All I wanted from it was a slow-motion close-up x-ray of a bullet exploding through the back of a man’s head.
In both cases, the games lived up to my lack of expectation. I went in not expecting good stories, so I actively ignored any story that was in front of me, turning my expectations into self-fulfilling prophecies. Now, that's not to suggest that the story/plot/narrative of either game would have been good if I had been paying attention. I think they would have been mediocre at best, but I would have at least remembered that mediocrity as opposed to remembering nothing.
For the games' part, it was frighteningly easy to ignore everything they had to say. Objective markers always pointed me towards my destination, so I could fight my way forward without knowing where I was going or why. Button prompts told me what to do when I reached that destination, so I could safely ignore the slim narrative context of my mission. Cut scenes that could be skipped filled out the rest of the story, turning every major plot point into an optional scene. Collectibles that built out the history of the world flashed on screen for only as long as it took me to mash the A button and make them go away. And whenever a piece of story was explained during actual gameplay, I was too busy playing to notice or care. The games were so passive, so submissive to my detachment, that it was, in retrospect, disconcerting.
It was an easy frame of mind to step into, and it is easy to stay there. Or rather, stay here, since I still don't give a damn about the plots of Sniper Elite 3 or Destiny. Is story so tangential to the gaming experience (or to these gaming experiences) that even a self-professed story-lover can play an entire game and not glean a single plot point from it all?
As I think about it, most games make their story optional. Bioshock hides much of its history behind collectibles. The narrator of Bastion may be unskippable, but he often talks while we’re fighting and easily distracted. The Last of Us is mostly cut scenes. This seems to mainly be a problem for action games, the kind of games in which mechanics take the center stage. Is there a way for an action game to force its story onto the player without being overbearing?
I think Rockstar actually has a good method: In Grand Theft Auto V, L.A. Noire, and Red Dead Redemption important conversations happen while you travel across the environment. These story moments occur during gameplay so we can’t skip them, but the gameplay itself doesn’t demand our total concentration. We’re free to let our ears wander as we drive and listen to our passengers pontificate.
Of course, Rockstar can do that because they always make open world games. When they make a more linear action game like Max Payne 3 it’s back to the skippable cut scenes. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it worries me that stories in these kinds of games can be so easily ignored. It seems to enable under appreciation.
As of this writing, there’s one weekend left in the Destiny beta. I should give the story another shot, but now that I’ve started to not care, it’s hard to stop -- at least for these two games.