Stories are integral to gaming. There’s actually nothing I look for more in a game, and I spent a foolish amount of time trying to convince non-gamers that there are some deep and wonderful stories out there in pixel format.
The problem is that such games can be few and far between. There’s a reason for this; I call it the plot vs play ratio. What arcane wizardry is this? It’s a very simple hypothesis based on the idea that you can’t have your cake and decorate it. It’s like quality versus quantity, where quality is the depth of the story and quantity is the freedom of the game.
When games started out as pixels jumping over other pixels, stories mostly belonged in books and movies. Then someone decided to name the pixels and make up a reason why they wanted to kill each other, and so games and stories came together: that’s when games got really interesting. We all like action and mindless slaying, but a tale is something that can be enjoyed long after the final credits. Get the action and the tale to complement each other and you make the most of the gaming medium.
The plot vs play ratio comes in when we have to consider that a game cannot do everything. When writing the story of a game, there has to be a balance between two things: the fixed elements of the plot and the freedom of the player to do what they want. A great example of this is sandbox style games, which are popular for the freedom they provide- you can explore and act however you want. They (sometimes) suffer in terms of plot depth because there are so many things to do aside from the main storyline. A game like Elder Scrolls: Oblivion lets you be good or evil, or even a lizard. This is fantastic but dilutes the story because it needs to be open enough to fit the everyman- for example; the NPC voice actors never say the main character’s name because you chose it. You don’t get to speak out loud and you have no background story other than being a prisoner. For all we know you could be in that cell for sodomising a mudcrab. Remember Baldur’s Gate? They did a great job with their story but had to design it so that the events could apply to a male or female of unspecified gender, from any career path and crucially a saviour or a criminal. We get the freedom to select the character’s opinion, but we never truly understand how he feels.
On the other end of the scale we have games like the Final Fantasy series with deeply detailed plots and predetermined storylines, but they take away your ability to choose. Cloud never gets to be evil and join Shin-Ra as an assassin. Resident Evil games have strong storylines but you can’t tell the useless cannon fodder NPCs to man up or play Chris Redfield as a scientist turned bounty hunter instead of a staarrrrrs operative. This is generally worth it for more fixed plot- your character can be part of the story instead of your avatar in the game world. He gets emotions and a background with reasons for doing the things he does. The best part is you care a lot more about what happens to these characters- when Max Payne is being kicked around noirtown, you’re plenty ready to get gritty on someone’s ass. That sounded better in my head. Metal Gear Solid took us through a poignant tongue-in-cheek story of warfare with brilliantly sculpted characters throwing around quotable lines like confetti. The Fallout games took faceless characters and then repeatedly screwed them over until you really, really wanted to track down the baddies and show them the meaning of wasteland justice.
This balance between story and freedom of play is a delicate thing and it goes without saying that the best games have some of both- but it’s the core strength of the story and the setting which sets that balance. Given the choice, I want story every time. I want to gasp at betrayals; I want to moan at plot twists. I want to hate a villain because my character does, not because he’s simply on the other end of the gun. Let’s not worry about graphics, or having 14 types of rifle, or multiplayer mini games.
I want our heroes and villains back.