Since our tiny fists first clutched the Atari 2600 controller, we’ve been taught that story-driven games need to have stories – stories with beginnings, middles, and ends.
Maybe that was wrong all this time.
Consider this article from Eurogamer’s Lewis Denby. A short retrospective on Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, it so sharply matches my own experience with the game that it truly got me thinking: not about the flaws or breaks in Bloodlines, but about how it was the ephemera, the disconnected tendrils of side stories, that really had me hooked. I couldn’t have cared less about the main storyline, it was boring, and contrived to boot. But some of the side stories – barely remembered now since I’m years out from playing the game – those resonated with me at a very deep level.
Denby mentions the Ocean Side Hotel mission; no Shalebridge Cradle, it nonetheless managed to be one of my Top Ten Most Scary. I remember also a cult house, descending floor after floor to discover some horror in the sub-basement. A werewolf? I don’t recall. I do recall the serial killer in Santa Monica, and that thing in the L.A. sewers. I remember the drug house out by the beach, listening to the thugs inside argue about wedding rings. I remember a girl – but not her name – whose chance encounter with me ruined her entire existence. As Denby points out, none of this had anything to do with the dreary main story.
What if a game didn’t have a main story? What if, instead, it were a collection of stories short and long, some with branching, multi-layer arcs and some brief and bite-sized. Some connected, many not. Why bother to have the over-arching storyline in there? It’s almost always the least satisfying of the bunch.
Think of games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., or Fallout 3, or – going back a bit – Privateer. all those games are ostensibly open world, a jumble of “side quests” bound together by a single character and his or her “main” storyline. But in each case, would the game have been that much poorer without the main story? If it were just the side quests?
Oh, sure, it would have to be more crafted than just throwing a bunch of side quests in a pile and calling it a game. Like I said, some of the stories would be long and involved, others short and sweet, still others in the middle. Characters from one might cross over into others or, if they died in one, not be present in others, perhaps creating special challenges for the player in later storylines in which the deceased was meant to appear. Some stories would only become available if you’d completed others in a certain way. Others would be Easter Eggs, hard to come by. But they’d all be part of the same coherent world with its characters, all part of STALKER or Fallout or whatever.
Do you need the master narrative arc? Some would say yes; it’s the narratological equivalent of a spine. Without the spine everything falls apart. Personally, though, I’d love to see a big, exciting, story-ey game that does try this.
Two that come close but miss are The Path and Mount & Blade. The Path is an art-house game; in it, the journey is definitely the point. In fact you lose the game if you follow the main story (well, you lose either way, but still). Thing is, though, there are no stories in The Path except the ones you make up for yourself. It’s a circus for the eyes and mind, but it puts the burden of storytelling on you. Games like Mount & Blade, meanwhile, have occasional substories but can’t truly be categorized as story-driven. And MMOs depend on the existence and continued presence of others to make their stories.
Would it work, then? A STALKER where going to the power plant was only one of many options? A Fallout 3 where there is no father-quest driving you, just the lure of what’s over the next pile of rubble?
Maybe we’ve become too enamored of linear main storylines and their tributaries. Maybe it’s time to let the tributaries become the focus. Done well, that might just be the game we’d play forever.