Stories are the Keys

Image by Flickr User: Charles Williams (cc)

It’s been an odd year in gaming for me.  Despite all the new games that have come out this year, I’ve often found myself drawn to the senior ranks of my collection. Mirror’s Edge, Final Fantasy VII, KotOR 2, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, etc., somehow they’ve all wound up being much more interesting prospects for my game time than just about everything that’s come out this year so far.  At first I thought it was just a severe case of gamer nostalgia (after all, being back in the day really was awesome Am-I-right?), but that just didn’t feel like a good answer. It took playing Destiny to bring the problem into clear focus: there just wasn’t enough story to be had in many of the newer I played games this year.

I’ve found that I’m the sort of gamer who needs to be given a reason to do something before I’ll actually consider doing it, and especially before I’ll ever want to. I’m not totally unable to enjoy a game without a story of characters, hours upon hours of Minecraft can attest to that, but more often than not I just can’t seem to get interested in the game and its world without some sort of hook. It doesn’t have to be a story necessarily, but I believe that strong stories and characters make for the very best bridges into gaming worlds. For me it means the difference between looking at the world as nothing more than a play space, and it looking at it as something alive and real; a place that I not only want to save (since that’s usually what we gamers are doing), but also explore and influence!

A lot of what’s come out this year just didn’t quite get there. That’s not to say that I didn’t play anything with a decent story this year. Infamous: Second Son, FFXIII-3: Lightning Returns, and The Wolf Among Us all held up pretty well (well, some more than others. I’m looking at you Lightning…). But after those, for someone like me it felt like slim pickings. Destiny was of course the most frustrating case, in that its universe should have been interesting to explore, but it’s just not. It’s a misstep that I believe was a result of the attempt to blend FPS and MMO conventions. We bemoan it for not having a plot, but in all honesty, I don’t think having a plot-based story would have worked for the kind of game it wants to be. Instead, I think it would have benefitted greatly from attending the Metroid Prime School of Passive Storytelling, its world is one that’s just absolutely begging for it!

The Prime games don’t have much of a direct story. They each have a plot that’s easy enough to follow, but that’s about it. Everything else about each planet we explore as Samus Aran is discovered. Be it through creature scans, lore, or just the sounds and look of the environments we happen to find ourselves in; the story is almost entirely built within our own minds as we discovered it piece by piece. It isn’t the focus, but at the same time its discovery is inevitable. There’s a new detail to be found in almost every little nook and cranny, always another little enigmatic fact to find, and it’s excellent! It’s a setup that makes the entire game feel like an adventure instead of just the designated fights and set-pieces. It all feels epic, it all feels important, and it’s exactly what a modern exploration-touting game like Destiny is sorely in need of.

I just can’t help but think of what a game like Destiny could have been if it had abandoned all pretense of a plot and just set us loose upon the solar system to rediscover and unravel the mysteries of the Golden Age. The locations in the game already hint at all kinds of history, all that’s missing is stuff to find and unlock. Such a setup could even give the end-game grind a purpose. What if all the different legendary pieces of armor unlocked special quests that resulted in a legendary weapon? What if the various exotic weapons and armors did the same, but also unlocked previously unreachable spaces and locations? What if they all had a story behind them instead of a short phrase or motto? Would that make you want to stick around and explore? Wouldn’t that be much more worthwhile then the outside chance of possibly being given another weapon to use in the very same repetitive tasks that you performed to get it in the first place?

Randomness is the enemy of player investment. It’s not enough to just make a world and then tell your games player to go do a bunch of activities you’ve thought up. There has to be a reason for us to do it; and the best reasons are found in learning more about the world in we’ve been dropped into. Gamers are a curious lot. We love exploring and learning all we can about the games we play. All we need are things to find and reasons to find them.

Somehow it all just keeps going back to Destiny lately…

What’s your take on the role of story in games? Do you see it as a hook, as the primary source of entertainment? As something else entirely? How would you address Destiny’s story problems?

6 thoughts on “Stories are the Keys”

  1. A strong narrative or deep lore isn’t absolutely essential in my enjoyment of a game (Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance has a pretty pathetic plot but is an exceptional character action game) but it does make a massive difference. Most of my favourite games of recent years feature impressive storytelling of some form.

    The Last of Us ranks pretty highly for me and that’s largely on the strength of the narrative and characterisation and Papers, Please manages to tell a gripping story through gameplay via the decisions that you have to make on a daily basis.

    It’s not essential; but it’s pretty important to me.

  2. This is a point on which I’m unfortunately waffly. I’m a huge fan of great storytelling in games. I love it when I’m able to connect to a game’s characters for better (Red Dead Redemption) or worse (L. A. Noire) because the storytelling was just that awesome. However, I sometimes don’t mind it when there’s not much story “telling” to speak of. You mentioned the Metroid games, and they are great examples. Samus’s many stories are not told through narrative but through the player’s actions in the games themselves. It such a great and streamlined way to immerse a player in Samus’s life. The Mario games are fine examples of this too. Mario and Peach’s story will never change, but there’s still plenty of charm in getting Mario from point A to Point B in his quests.

    So there’s me waffling. Story can be both extremely important and extremely unimportant, but it all depends on the game. (By the way, while I’ve not played Destiny, my husband has, and he stopped playing for its “story” after just a couple single-player sessions. Now it’s only about the multiplayer.)

  3. Oh, how I’d love to play the Metroid Prime games again (after reading this post and Cary’s various posts on the first game). I need to get my GameCube out of the closet and plugged in again. I loved those games. The story was so subtle, but it was perfect, as the game was really about exploring and discovering, and the story was revealed in the same way.

    I haven’t played Destiny (and I’m glad I haven’t, from what I’ve heard), but I, too, need a reason to do something in a game, or else, why bother? That’s why I usually can’t play games like Tetris, because the whole time I’m thinking, why? A story is usually important, but not always, as is the case with the Mario series. It should never be the main appeal of a game, though. I always come back to KH: Chain of Memories as an example of a game that had an interesting plot, but was so boring to play. For me, a good story really adds to a game, but it has to be fun, and as you pointed out, there must be a motivation for playing. Maybe I want to progress through the story. Maybe the game is simply fun, like a Mario game, and my goal is to play through to the final boss and collect every star.

    Some challenge helps, too. I am selling Kirby’s Epic Yarn because it’s so easy. The whole time, I feel like I’m taking a walk, which is not a pastime I usually practice in real life, either. (Partly because I’m lazy, but also because I have more entertaining ways of spending my time.) If a game offers no challenge, I’m not motivated to bother with it, either.

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