Does the narrative of a video game matter?

BorderlandsAs far back as I can remember video games have always been about telling a story. Whether it was Mario traveling through strange worlds to save Princess Peach from the clutches of Bowser, or Link attempting to find Zelda by traversing dungeons, deserts, and castles, or battling against the wits, humor, and insanity of Handsome Jack, games have always been about a story. But how important is the story? Are there times where the narrative matters more, matters less, or doesn’t matter at all?

Apathy or Empathy?

One of the more recent and common criticisms I’ve seen about video games is that there isn’t enough behind the missions and things that you’re doing. Gamers express apathy about the people and objectives within the worlds they’re playing (I get into why they feel this below). And then some games, like The Last of Us, though fewer in number, put you in positions that are almost gut wrenching because of the connection you feel with the characters in the game. Some of this just comes down to budget, because if you don’t have enough money to pay writers and talented voice actors you aren’t going to have realistic or effective characters. One of the most annoying and off putting features of Defiance was the poor voice acting from all the enemies. It felt like I was constantly being pulled out of the world and experience by the frustratingly repetitive and stupid lines from the characters. Or you might have a strange mixture of really good voice acting, like in the first Borderlands game, but then the story was somewhat convoluted and confusing.

When does the narrative matter most?

The narrative in a video game matters the most when you have a small band of characters who, of necessity, interact a lot in order to advance the story. The smaller the cast the more important the voice acting and story become. If we look at games like The Last of Us and Batman Arkham Asylum as examples of strong voice acting and good storytelling, we find a small cast of important and invigorating characters. These games are also relatively short in length and don’t have an enormous focus on multiplayer and large amounts of extra content, so they’re able to focus on the narrative and the voice acting more than other titles may be able to. And the truth is, these games were somewhat simplistic in their fighting and movement mechanics, and didn’t offer tons and depth of character progression and leveling (sure they had leveling but most players end up with the same builds). This is why the narrative and voice acting was so important, because they were, in a large sense, indivisible from the game itself.

When does the narrative matter least?

Some might say it always matters, but I would argue that there are certain features and functions of a game that, if done right, put far less pressure and emphasis on innovative and creative storytelling. The more a game relies on and develops the depth of gameplay like in an RPG, or is more heavily reliant on multiplayer and co-op, the less focus needs to be put on high quality storytelling. As I already said, the first Borderlands has a somewhat confusing story and even an unsatisfying ending, and yet it is easily one of the best if not the best co-op RPG shooter around. Now I will admit and even argue that the subsequent story told in the Borderlands franchise with both Borderlands 2 and the Pre-Sequel is an expansive and pretty epic tale. But ironically, the Pre-Sequel, which seems to add the most to the story and character development, is probably the weakest title with respect to gameplay, pacing, and fun. There is probably a litany of reasons for the difference in quality between the titles, but it does seem that once the focus moved to the story, cheaper and more lazy tactics were used for gameplay with respect to missions, weapons, and level design. Now, for the sake of our discussion, the three Borderlands titles will serve as a sort of “story quality spectrum”.

Story Quality Spectrum

Let’s imagine the first Borderlands represents the “weaker narrative, stronger gameplay category” and on the other end of the spectrum you have The Pre-Sequel in the “stronger narrative, weaker gameplay” category. This might make it easier to see when and why narrative can start to matter less. If you are dealing with a strained budget and limited staff, you should move to the gameplay side of the spectrum and put less priority on the narrative and make sure your gameplay is as good as you can muster. If you buy into the idea that the narrative must be strong, you will probably end up diluting your title, with both the story and the experience being weak. And even if you manage to pull off a strong story, weak gameplay with be more memorable and a stronger motivation for gamers to walk away. Keep in mind, I’m not saying you should have an intentionally bland or empty story. The emphasis is just lower so you aren’t making lots of high quality cut scenes, writing scripts, paying voice actors, etc. Have a thought out and creative storyline, just don’t get bogged down with all the aesthetic work that goes into putting meat on the bones. Let your gameplay do that.

Less narrative, more game

To be honest I think more titles could benefit from a “narrative matters less” mindset. Let’s look at two new and already fairly highly praised titles. Dying Light and Shadow of Mordor are completely different games, but both are replete with movie quality voice acting, writing, and cut scenes that show realistic character emotion and development.  My biggest gripe with both games, however, is the repetitious and somewhat bland gameplay. Sure the first few hours of gameplay seem thrilling and even innovative. But then you do the same type of mission, quest, or battle for the tenth time and you start to get lost in the monotony. This monotonous feeling is the reason why I think the criticism I mentioned at the outset exists. You set expectations with a certain level of storytelling, and then the side missions and repetitious crafting start to feel untethered to the scope of the advancing tale.  It’s difficult to feel you are progressing when you keep experiencing a sort of “video game déjà vu”. And I would wager to say that if both of these games, Dying Light and Mordor, cut the focus and budget of the story in half and devoted those monies and hours to a more dynamic and varied game experience, the thinned out or removed elements from the narrative would most likely not be missed.

Agree, disagree, or have thoughts of your own? Share in the comments below. If you liked this entry please share on facebook or twitter.

4 thoughts on “Does the narrative of a video game matter?

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  2. What’s a short game or a long game? I felt like the single player TLOU campaign was very lengthy. Not a 70+ hour FF game, but still.

    Anyhow, more on topic, I’m not sure about monotony. I think most games (both good, bad, and awesome) spend the first hour or two teaching, and then you’re all settled in.

    • It might be that my perception of the Last of Us being short was because I couldn’t stop playing, which shortened the amount of the calendar I played it, but also because I wanted the story and experience to continue. But I did say it was relatively short, probably because I’m making unfair comparisons to games like Borderlands and because I didn’t feel the pull for the second playthrough because the strong narrative felt like a movie that I didn’t want to immediately sit down and watch again.

      When I talk about monotony, I’m more referring to the “Assassin’s creed map of side missions” approach many games are taking to fill up their game with content. So you can spend an inordinate amount of time just doing side missions where you kill someone or scavenge an item. Once you’ve picked your 100th flower or assassinated your 20th target, it can start to feel incredibly repetitious. So yes, as you say, many games have the “settled in” feeling after the beginning, but the content after that is typically, or at least should be, more varied and exciting. For example, the first Borderlands has a mountain of content and side missions, and many of them are the same “type” of mission, where you might be searching for 5 recordings or finding weapon pieces. But they were spaced out enough that it didn’t feel like I had just done one and the environments were different enough to make it feel fresh. In Dying Light and Shadow of Mordor it all started to blend together. The areas that I was scavenging or searching in had no identity or feel, so it felt like déjà vu. That feeling ended up hurting the strong narrative in both of those games for me.

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