By dankempster 4 Comments
Well, here it is - the third and final part of my tantalisingly ginormous Christmas mega-blog! Sorry for the delay, but I had a headache by the end of Christmas Eve and wasn't really in the right frame of mind to write. Then, believe it or not, Thursday and yesterday were kinda busy. But I've knuckled down today and decided to bring you what will hopefully be the most thought-provoking part of this mega-blog. If you missed Parts One and Two, I'd advise you to go check them out. Not because they need to be read to fully appreciate this final instalment of the mega-blog, but because (like I said in Part One), I'm a comment-whore. Now, in all seriousness, this last part of the mega-blog is going to deal with an issue that I've been thinking about on and off for some time. The thought was re-ignited on Tuesday when I read Pepsiman's latest blog about Persona 4 and the impact its story had on her. Basically, it's related to the role of storytelling within the gaming industry. I won't go into too much detail here - if I did there'd be no point in reading the blog, would there? I guess what I'm trying to say is... Read the damn thing!
A Pondering Look At Storytelling In Video GamesThe story hasn't always been an important part of a game. In fact, it's only in recent console generations that fleshed-out plotlines have become a staple part of most games. Before that, with a few exceptions, there was relatively little emphasis placed on the story-driven single-player experience. Of course, there was always a little bit of backstory to be found in the instruction manuals of games like Sonic The Hedgehog, but the plot was never rammed down your throat via a series of cut-scenes. More importantly, you didn't even need to read those two or three paragraphs in order to get enjoyment out of the game. Sonic didn't need an incentive to run very fast to the right and smash up Robotnik's mechanical hordes - the player just did it, and somewhere between the thumb, the screen and the brain, fun was generated. Fast-forward to the current generation and storytelling has become a major part of the single-player gaming experience. Every action/adventure game we play now places a heavy emphasis on storytelling in an attempt to draw the player into the game world. This is, of course, the natural progression for games to make. As they become more cinematic, more focus is placed on telling a story that is up to the same standards as the game's presentation.
As a result of this trend, people are now taking games a lot more seriously in terms of their power as a storytelling medium. People applaud games like Metal Gear Solid for their storytelling, their ability to create an alternate universe for the player to jump into in much the same way as a good movie or a good book. This is a view I've had for quite some time, albeit more generally - I'm a firm believer that every medium of entertainment is capable of telling a brilliant story, whether it be a film, or a concept album, or indeed a game. For me, games have represented an exciting alternative to films, and perhaps even novels, for quite some time. The first game story that totally blew me away, as some of you may know, was Final Fantasy VII. I first played the game when I was eleven years old, and at the time I'd never played anything with an involving storyline before. I got so engrossed in the game's plot, and enveloped in the actions of its characters, that by the time the game was finished I was a changed person. At the time I'd all but given up reading, but FFVII encouraged me to pick up books and get reading again. Yeah, that's right - a video game got me interested in literature again. FFVII is also the reason I became an avid writer. Much like Pepsiman with Persona 4, after experiencing such a story, I wanted to devote my own imagination to creating something that could have a similar effect on other people. The result of that desire is a work-in-progress fantasy novel.
As storytelling has now moved to the forefront of the game conception process, it has been argued that in several cases, this is often detrimental to the actual gameplay of the game in question. After the praise heaped upon the last generation of consoles for the ways in which they advanced gameplay, the current generation seems to be being slated for not making similar leaps forward in those terms. One major release that has been criticised heavily for letting the story take centre stage at the expense of gameplay is Grand Theft Auto IV. Before anybody quotes me on that, I'd like to add at this point that this is not my view at all. Being my first next-gen game, GTAIV showed me exactly what the current consoles are capable of, and it totally blew me away. Not only did I find Niko's story to be captivating, but I loved the game itself immensely. Despite this, however, I've met no fewer than five people who all share a rather different opinion of GTAIV - that in spite of its revolutionary storytelling, none of them think the game itself was actually any fun. Several of these people have since turned to Saints Row 2 for their open-world crime simulation fix because GTAIV's serious tone apparently didn't carry over very well into the gameplay. As I said, I don't share this opinion, but I can kind of see where they're coming from. While there's nothing wrong with the gameplay of GTAIV in my eyes, it's clear even to somebody like me that Rockstar deliberately placed a lot of emphasis on the story with this instalment of their biggest franchise. Whether this decision was a right one or a wrong one will no doubt differ depending on your opinon of the game.
Then, of course, we have the other side of the argument - the fact that in a great number of cases, an involving story isn't a requirement for enjoying the gaming experience. Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of multiplayer gaming. We don't need a backstory to have tons of fun playing Team Fortress 2, or Super Smash Bros. Brawl. We don't need a motive for our character when we're blastin' on fools in Call Of Duty 4's online mode. It's situations like this that serve to remind us how important the actual gameplay of a game is. When everything plot-related is stripped away, these games stand on their own merits, proving that a great game doesn't need a great story to function. If this is the case, why aren't developers pushing innovation in this direction? Why aren't we seeing as many advances in gameplay as we did with the last generation of consoles? The most obvious justification for this is that advances in cinematic presentation and storytelling could be considered more important when it comes to games being taken seriously as an entertainment medium. Film-quality presentation and script-writing in games is, in part, helping to remove the stigma associated with gaming as a hobby. No longer are games the sole retreat for pimply teenage boys with an aversion to sunlight. They're something for everyone, with something to offer to everyone. This console generation, for the first time, games are being widely accepted as a viable means of storytelling alongside films. That's a pretty big leap, quite easily comparable to the ones made in terms of gameplay last generation.
As I write this, MattBodega, brukaoru, BoG and some others in the IRC are discussing the role of stories in games. They've gone over pretty much everything I've outlined in this blog, as well as some great points I didn't think of but won't include in this blog, as it's gone on long enough. As a predominantly RPG/action/adventure gamer, and on another level as a writer myself, I expect the games I play to impress me with their stories. I consciously choose games that are praised for their storytelling. On one hand, that's what I love about these kinds of games - the way they deliver their plots not so much like interactive movies, but more like interactive novels. Additionally, I'm also constantly searching for my next Final Fantasy VII - the next game with a story that will provide me with that awe-struck feeling all over again. So I guess the question is, what do you want from a game? Great gameplay, or a great storytelling experience? Or both? Ultimately, it's what you expect from a game that will determine how important its ability to tell a story is in relation to the gameplay. Whether or not that story lives up to your expectations, however, is another matter. Thanks for reading my Christmas mega-blog, guys. Stay tuned for my 2008 review before the end of the year. In the meantime, I'll see you around.
Currently playing - The Legend Of Zelda: Majora's Mask (GC)