Writing. Storytelling. Self-expression. An integral part of most creative endeavours, yes? Does a story form the core of an entertainment experience? Or is it merely an afterthought; something merely to shift a viewer/reader/player from point A to point B? I’m finding, more and more, that – in the gaming industry, at least – the latter is becoming seemingly dominant.
The subject for this post really just popped into my head as I was lying in bed last week and willing my mind to shut up. As my eyes closed, the last thought that shoved its way through the cracks in my lids (Indiana Jones-style, of course) was ‘huh, I wonder how many people are queueing up for Modern Warfare 3 tonight’. Of course, my brain immediately fired up and thought ‘STORIES IN VIDEO GAMES ARE RUBBISH. DISCUSS!’ So, here I am.
Modern Warfare 2 broke all kinds of records on its day of release two years ago, and by all accounts, the third will do the same tonight. For its parent company, it has already made an unfathomable amount of money. But why? If the general consensus is to be believed, the multiplayer component is the overwhelming winner. Which is fine, if you’re sociable and enjoy the camaraderie that is a unique aspect of the multiplayer experience.
If you’re a single-player, campaign-focussed and story-oriented gamer like myself, however, you’re a little more hard done-by. I bought MW2, played through the campaign, played the multiplayer for roughly 3 months, and then traded it in. Shocking, I know. Especially as the servers for the game (well, until the launch of MW3, anyway) are still full of people playing. What possessed me to do this?
Well, a number of reasons. Firstly, I got bored. Seriously. Few things can put you off a game as quickly as jumping into a match and being killed by someone, again, and again, and again. Particularly if they’re using one of the well-publicised glitches for which the game is now infamous. Secondly, multiplayer gaming is repetitive. Unimaginably so. I quit WoW after 6 months for the same reason. But enough people have stated this in many other posts, so I won’t dwell on this point.
(Those readers who might exclaim that these two reasons are really one: I separated them deliberately, as personal experience found the repetition mostly unnoticeable when I was actually doing well. It was only once I hit the mid-ranks that I realised that I was grinding.)
For me, the main reason for giving up on MW2 (and a lot of other games since) is that I felt its storyline was incredibly uninspired. This is also true across the entire gaming sphere, with a few noticeable exceptions (more on that in a minute).
I’ve recently taken a break from gaming, as GeekGirlCon really forced me to look at the wider problems facing geeks of all backgrounds. Sexism, racism, homophobia, etc….I’d done what most people had done, and stuck my head firmly in the figurative sand, pretending that if I wasn’t perpetuating it, it wasn’t my problem. It is, though. What I’ve felt, and noticed, in the past few weeks is an immaturity in the industry that I’d foolishly begun to hope was disappearing, albeit slowly.
Nope. Geek Feminism recently linked to a document by @fireholly99 titled ‘The sexism in video games bingo card’, which lays out, in a bingo card style, the variety of sexist comments aimed at women gamers. Hands up how many of you have seen at least half of these comments being made? Yeah.
So I go back to my initial reason for writing this post tonight. Storytelling in gaming, as well as the gaming industry as a whole, is immature, trite and riddled with clichés. While I’m aware that the movie, TV, music and publishing industries have their fair share of tat, there are numerous examples of well-written content in every single one of those realms. But when I look at my games shelf and think about what is there, and what was there, it gives me pause.
Leaving aside the sexism issue (there’ll be other posts for that), I have maybe five games that I will not give up, as their stories are what I consider to be the small hope for storytelling in games. In case you’re interested, dear reader, they are (in no specific order): Bioshock, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Assassin’s Creed (I include all the games under this umbrella), Mass Effect (same again) and the Orange Box (and Portal 2).
(Please note that the following links lead to detailed synopses, and as such, WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS!)
Bioshock‘s story is at its heart a power struggle between the Objectivist ideals of one man and the capitalist ideals of another, with your character as the pawn in the middle. Mass Effect, preparing for and ultimately (if the buzz surrounding the third is anything to go by) stopping the eradication of all sentient life in the galaxy (which itself owes a lot to the Revelation Space universe created by Alastair Reynolds) by a race of sentient machines. The Deus Ex series examines the increasing dependence on technology by humanity, set out against a backdrop of conspiracies and topical events, and which ultimately leads to its downfall. And so on.
I consider these to be some of the best examples of writing in games from the last few years, but they still play up to various clichés and tropes. Player characters (mostly male, notice, although Mass Effect happily allows for a female lead) with gravelly voices, dark pasts, races against time, conspiratorial organisations plotting for world domination… I could go on. So why do I consider these to be the shining lights in the industry? Because they managed to take these tropes and turn them into something interesting and compelling.
Bioshock and Deus Ex, in particular, emphasised the ambiguous morality of their respective worlds, and gave the player choices. Choices in how the story unfolds, how characters respond, how the tale ultimately ends. They use the medium to make the player care. Even when we are occasionally led along the same ‘I have a dark and troubled past, and therefore must find out why’ line.
There is a worrying trend amongst game developers and publishers that multiplayer is all-important. Or that graphics and gameplay innovations are more important than giving players a compelling narrative reason to use these neat tricks. Sure, it may be cool to have a weapon that can shoot angry squid at people, but I would really appreciate a reason for why the hell someone built it in the first place. (And yes, I did just pinch that gun from Despicable Me).
Mostly though, I find that the narrative efforts of most games are little more than orders. Go here, shoot that, solve this puzzle, get the shiny weapon/trinket/save the world (which is best demonstrated by the ‘Ramirez, do EVERYTHING! meme from MW2). I am a big proponent of games as a narrative medium, and it’s frustrating to see the most popular games either use the same basic plot as their predecessors, like the Pokémon games; or ones that revisit the same ‘alien invasion must be repelled by our noble troops’ trope, as exemplified by Halo or Resistance or Gears of War (which admittedly isn’t set on Earth, but it counts); or are the same D&D influenced fantasy fare that has been around since the early days, like the Elder Scrolls series.
Storytelling in gaming is still vexingly two-dimensional at the moment, with even the best games suffering from clichéd and well-worn plots. As much as it invites controversy, the Grand Theft Auto series does actually contain story. But it’s been the same rags-to-riches tale we’ve seen in each previous incarnation, just with more to do. And judging by the trailer that’s just been released for GTAV, nothing has changed. Two games that were heavily marketed as story-driven experiences, Heavy Rain and Alan Wake, both disappointed in that respect, as they both relied heavily on suspect plotting. Alan Wake, especially, I felt was woefully voice acted and uninspired. I feel alone in this, as reviewers heralded the atmosphere and plot line as being the best parts. I bought Heavy Rain, mostly because I want games like this to succeed, otherwise nothing will change, despite the plot being full of holes and contrivances.
Maybe I’m being too harsh on games. Maybe the industry is still in its adolescence and I should be patient. Maybe I’m the exception in wanting a creative medium to challenge my preconceptions about life. It’s disheartening, however, when I read that the industry generated £2.875 BILLION in the UK alone in 2010; that the average age of a gamer is 37 years old; that 42% of gamers are women; and STILL the average output is seemingly aimed at the coveted 18-25 male demographic, with guns, explosions and unrealistically proportioned characters.
Or maybe, just maybe, I’m tired of seeing an industry pretend that it’s mature, when it’s still drooling over comically oversized boobs or the specific way in which a player is rewarded for kills. Maybe I’m tired of never having a good enough reason to care about these things. Maybe I want emotional investment in the characters and their motives. I’m not asking for games to ape film or TV. There are many unique ways in which the interactive medium can convey story (see the branching story lines of Deus Ex and most Bioware games for examples, or Braid). I just want more developers to take a risk. I want more publishers to allow mistakes to be made, particularly if that developer has a track record for sales and quality. I want games and gamers to be more embracing of new ideas and new perspectives.
Video games really need to grow up. And soon.