With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog!
Those who know me much will might be slightly astonished to see my name under that title. I’m a narrativist through and through, and always have been; the game experiences I love the most are consistently from story-driven games, even if they are gameplay experiences. That’s why games with a lot of story are the kind of games I like to play, the kind I like to talk about, and the kind that I most enjoy making.
Today two Gamasutra articles caught my eye, both of such a similar nature that it almost feels like there’s method to it. The first was a snippet from an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto himself, in which the Mario creator observed that if a game (in this case, Paper Mario: Sticker Star) was fine without much story, it doesn’t need one.
The second was a similarly pro-gameplay sentiment from Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment. He notes that the storytelling style employed in one of his most-lauded titles, Planescape: Torment, is not the best style for games (though better wasn’t possible at the time). Sometimes game trumps storytelling.
These are things I agree with.
The story vs. gameplay debate really lights fires under some designers and writers, and hybrids thereof. I’ve seen it ignite arguments that devolve into flame wars amongst people who I’m sure are quite intelligent and reasonable when they aren’t on the internet. These tend to feature the extremists on either side, I think, as many such debates do. The game side arguing that nobody cares about story and character and it’s all a waste of time (a stance that cannot logically live in a world with the Mass Effect phenomenon, the huge sales of Heavy Rain, or the fact that people still talk about that time when Sephiroth killed Aeris). The story side tends to disparage the repetitiveness of some games (and genres; but I don’t think anyone actually denies this exists) and be of the mind that if only the stories were good enough everyone would see the light (which both denies the happy existence of the deathmatch gamer and the fact that the lion’s share of game stories are shit). I try to stay out of this. I don’t always succeed.
So here, really, for real, is where I stand: games don’t need much story. Story is nice to have. It’s extra. It’s icing on the cake. But it isn’t necessary.
Now, don’t mistake this for games needing no story or for story being unimportant. A lot of games need a very light story, as Miyamoto acknowledges; Mario has always had a story, it’s just been very simple. Mario’s story gives the player an objective, a reason to be doing things. That context does, I think, tend to attract people more than saying, “It’s this game where you jump on or over things and sometimes throw fireballs” – at least if those people have no idea who Mario is.
The second fallacy – that story is unimportant – is one that too many people in the industry seem to hold, though I don’t necessarily mean designers or anyone else involved in making the game. The unfortunate state of things is that often game stories are tacked on late, after much of the game is completed – “Here’s a game, make a story for it” – as if the story really has no particular importance. I would like to think it was obvious that this is a foolish approach. If you’re putting off giving your game a story until the end of development, you should probably take the Mario approach: kidnap a princess, put her in a castle, and hope your game is actually good enough that nobody will want more. Miyamoto’s almost always are, so he can get away with it.
Which is to say, if you’re going to bother to try to capture the “story players” that look for narrative as part of their experience, it at least needs to be done with the same quality and care as the rest of the product. Games like Call of Duty and Mass Effect have popularized the idea that games need story, and that’s fallacious; story can add to a game, but it can also take away. I have played mediocre games because I wanted to see how their story turned out; I have dropped good games because the story was just that bad. The thing that Call of Duty and Mass Effect tend to achieve is that their stories are engaging, exciting, and well-told – certainly relative to other game stories. They don’t succeed because the story exists; they succeed because their stories are good.
Stories in games do not spell the extinction of gameplay. Gameplay should remain the most important thing in games. I think story-driven games like Heavy Rain will eventually branch off into a subgenre that probably will diverge further from “games” as we go. These are parts of a whole, and there is a market for heavy focus on each.
I’m glad to see some discussion from a few giants in the field that can amount to: “Story has a place. Know how and when to use it.”
Because, who knows? If you do, maybe they’ll see the light.