Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I Play for the Story

Not RPGs, though that's part of it, but Video Games. I'll play almost anything, and I can enjoy a clever mechanic as much as the next guy, but the games that really stick in my mind do so through their storytelling. Importantly, that storytelling only rarely takes the form of reading blurbs of text on a screen - more often it is an implicit part of play. As you play the game, you piece together the fragments of information available to you, and you build a more complete image of what's going on. Sometimes there's a lot of connective tissue (most RPGs) and the experience is like reading a compelling, engaging book.[1] Other times there's so little there that you start creating images of what the story might be in your own mind (Limbo).

Story is tricky, though. Take Borderlands, an FPS with RPG elements. It's a post-apocalyptic first person shooter that absolutely oozes style. The characters and places feel consistently mad-max-ey, and the design is really top notch. But it's got very little story. Everything sort of stands around waiting for you to do things, and there's very little sense that there's a sweep of things you have stepped into. Net result is a game I enjoy playing when I play it, but which I very rarely think to go back to playing. Contrasted with Mass Effect II, an FPS with RPG elements which is all about the story, and I've played through it twice, and have almost finished a third playthrough. It's a game I go back to.

MMOs are interesting in this regard because I like to explore, and exploration can be a great way to build story if the game is designed well. World of Warcraft's geography tells stories about its zones and the world. They're usually fragments, more likely to raise a question than answer it, but that keeps it interesting to poke into the corners and out of the way places. I have yet to see anything comparable in another game, but it could be done. Such design is a function of thought and storytelling, not technology.

All this is on my mind because Starcraft 2 came out yesterday[2]. The original is one of the all time great games, and its expansion, Brood War, turned the awesome up to 11. SC2 is pretty as hell, and the gameplay seems spiffy, but they seem to have done something with the story, as if Brood War never happened. I guess it might take place between the two games, but there are little oddities that seem to suggest otherwise. Now, I know a lot of people do Starcraft for the multiplayer experience, but for me it's all about the campaign. As I say, I'm in it for the story. So I find myself at a bit of a loss. The emotional investment I've carried for over a decade seems to have been cast aside, and the replacement is...ok.

Now, I haven't played for long. Maybe it will get better after the "Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal" part of things, but all the same, I am finding myself able to walk away from the game, something I would never have expected.

Story is, I suppose, a double edged knife. It is good to get me invested and interested, but play with that at your risk.[3]

1 - Or, statistically, a really long, boring book. There are cRPGs I love beyond measure, but finding those has meant navigating some stinkers.

2 - Which is, not coincidentally, why this is a short, flaky posts. :)

3 - I've stopped watching NCIS, a dumb show I've enjoyed a lot. It's not like I now hate it or refuse to watch it, but it no longer catches my attention when I'm reviewing options. This wasn't intentional - I just realized it was the case one day. Upon realizing this, I thought about it, and it struck me I'd stopped after they ran an episode that profoundly gutted one of the characters (the Tony is a Creepy Stalker episode, for fans). They'd broken the contract. And that, I have to say, kind of sucks. I could ignore it, I suppose, but ignoring it would mean I didn't really care about the show, which I do. Why else would I have spent hours of my life on it?


  1. I recall a comment/tweet from you regarding the Leliana's Song DLC for Dragon Age, and how it works better as story and characterization than previous DLCs.

    It's true. The primary reason why DA works for me is the story, not the mechanics, graphics and gameplay.

  2. I really loved Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion for this. And I know I helped to create a lot of it with my choices, and it was broken in places, but it kept me playing for a very long time.

  3. I understand what you mean about story. Fun gameplay (or shiny special effects, or what-have-you) is nice, but when I'm on the train to work it's always stories and characters that my mind dwells on. "What's going to happen next?" or "That knight definitely knows more than she's telling. I can't wait for the Big Reveal!"

    Borderlands' ending is very underwhelming. :(

  4. I was meditating on this too, recently, as these games have always been about the campaign mode for me, too.

    I think that a part of what SC2 is lacking is the feeling that missions are directly connected to each other, as they were in SC1. In SC2, since you jump between different plot threads, and only a few of them are actually directly relevant to Raynor's story, and are instead about getting paid. As a result, I felt like I had little stake in the events.

    Also, I noticed that the player no longer has their own character. Raynor doesn't talk to me, like he did in the first game, which adds to my separation from the story, or at least the feel, of the first game.

    I also felt that the earlier campaigns were dominated by surprise reveals, such as Mengsk's betrayal of Kerrigan, Raynor, and the player, or that the creature in the crysalis was Kerrigan. In finishing Wings of Liberty, I found that the big surprises weren't really all that surprising.


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