What’s the Problem with Game Stories? Part One: Industries and Mechanics

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Stories in games are, as a general rule, not very good and there’s not really any clear cut reason for it. Perhaps it’s because as games started out, they didn’t necessitate a plot the same way a book or a film does; Nobody was crying out for Pong, Space Invaders or Pac-Man to have a story because the games themselves were simple with intuitive objectives. Naturally as technology evolved, so did the mechanics and objectives and incentives behind the games became a bigger deal. The rise of the Japanese Role-Playing-Game, a genre that placed great emphasis on characters, implored a deeper sense of narrative focus and as games have grown in scope, so have their stories. Despite this impact, we still don’t seem able to nail down the problem. Or have we? Are we at least on our way?

Although it’s generally accepted that video-game stories are bad, that doesn’t mean everyvideo-game story is bad. When you stop to think about it, of all the hundreds of films made and released each year, how many of them have good stories? A cheap rom-com this month, a dumb sci-fi that month, a biopic based on the life of someone not nearly interesting enough to warrant the honor, they begin to add up when you start searching. The difference is a matter of industry perspective: The film industry has existed for nearly 100 years, compared to the forty or so that games have been in the limelight and as such it’s become much easier for the established systems (from critics to distributors and everything in between) to let the best films rise and find an audience, especially with the advent of widespread internet use in the last decade or two. Gaming is still a relatively young medium in the grand scope of things and as such has no idealised system yet. More detrimental to the narrative problem however, is the very notion of gaming as a medium. Film is a story driven medium, something that exists in almost all cases to tell a story and all that is necessitated is that you watch. Games however are reliant, by their very definition, on interactivity, the way the player interacts with the game and the player interacts not with the games story but with it’s mechanics.

And to think, it all started with a Joystick and a button…

If interactivity is the reason for video-games then the mechanics are their drive. How do you walk, how do you jump, how do you shoot, talk or fail? All of these things are done thanks to the mechanics. Having a story is all well and good but, as noted, not necessary. Mechanics absolutely are necessary. They are simultaneously the rules imposed by designers and the opportunities provided for players. They give players the chance to play through the game with a certain (albeit always limited) sense of freedom. The limitations might be considered perhaps the most valuable tool in telling a story in an interactive medium as they allow the developer to keep a reign on what happens and in what order. The thing is that over the years, developers became accustomed to starting with mechanics and worrying about the story later. It’s a lot easier for a professional game designer to know that they want to build a shooter with a twist on how time works than it is to justify that notion within a narrative universe. It’s alarming how many games are nearly completely finished these days before a writer is brought in to tie everything together. This isn’t necessarily a problem for video-games on the whole (especially considering they’re more popular now than ever) but is arguably the worst way for a plot of any kind to come together.

Of course that’s not how all game stories are concocted and there are certain games that have even risen well above the stereotype that dominates this issue…

In Part Two we’ll look at just how freedom and restriction have helped good game stories become great and how their impact could be maximised in the future.