Nostalgia-Fueled Thoughts on Game Stories
This may seem like a statement of contention to many, and I myself am partly being a bit unfair. There have been some good stories in video games in the seventh and eighth generation consoles so far. However, by and large, most of what most of us perceive to be “great stories” are more like “good narrative with good play”. They are not stories per-se.
I know, video games are an interactive medium, stories in games are evil, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
But here’s the thing – I honestly can’t remember a lot of memorable game stories from the most recent gaming generations, while there are dozens that I could recall at the drop of a hat from the older generations. And I know, nostalgia and all that. I acknowledge that’s partly it. But whenever I speak with someone about the stories presented in modern video games, the response is always a shrug and a “hrm”, whereas 10 or 20 years ago (God I’m old) it was a conversation that was had with enthusiasm.
If I may use some examples.
Back from the days of the real console wars – when Sega and Nintendo each had a lot of exclusive titles and the games released on both consoles had discernible differences, there were a lot of video games that told great stories. Now, only a handful do. When people speak of Chrono Trigger and what it’s about, the response is usually along the lines of “there’s this dude who goes to the fair, bumps into a princess, they’re sucked through a time vortex to the medieval ages, you recruit a talking frog, then go to the future to race a half car half robot man to get to another time vortex to get back to your own time, but then you discover that an alien called Lavos is going to destroy the world and you have to travel through time to stop it.” If you ask someone about Final Fantasy 6, it will be something like “there’s Terra and she knows magic which is a rare skill and the Empire – they’re like Nazis – want to use her as a weapon, but she escapes and Locke the thief takes her to his friend Edgar the King of Figaro, then they go to meet with Banon and The Returners, rebels against the Nazis, and start recruiting people in order to fight Emperor Ghestalt. And dude, Kefka is the best bad guy of all time. He destroys the world. And the Opera Scene. Man that was deep!” On the Genesis, “Phantasy Star IV is about this mercenary Chaz and his boss and mentor Alys who are asked to investigate a cave in a town where people are being turned to stone. There they discover that it was done by some dude called Zio, so they go to stop Zio. They go with Rune and some professor dude, and when they beat Zio they discover that he was just a pupped for Dark Falz, and then they have to travel the (somewhat small) solar system rallying the races and finding information on how to defeat Dark Falz”. The Lunar series, Snatcher, the Shining Force series, the Lufia series, even Tecmo: Secret of The Stars and the always hated but not too terrible Final Fantasy Mystic Quest told memorable stories with loads of memorable characters. Anyone who played Chrono Trigger remembers at least Marle, Luca, Robo, Magus, Frog, and Ayla, each of their back stories, and all that. Shining Force? Anri, Tao, Hans, Gort, Luke, Zylo, and Max were all incredibly memorable and probably in everyone’s party. Terra, Celes, Gau (and his ever so sad story), Cyan and his tragic loss… all of those were memorable characters with memorable plots in memorable stories.
That doesn’t seem to be a thing now.
The Last of Us has been hailed as The Great Narrative Triumph of video games. It was a great game with a great premise, no doubt, and Ellie was an incredible character. But we don’t know much about Ellie (in just TLoU not including DLC) beyond “she’s a girl who is immune to the zombie infection”. Of Joel we know that he was a father who lost a daughter early on and we empathize with him, but beyond the player seeing him grow attached to Ellie, there is little we learn about him after the opening moments of the game. And what is The Last of Us about? There’s a zombie apocalypse (not the undead type or the radioactive type, the viral bacteria type) and this girl is immune to the zombie bacteria virus, so you have to take her across the US to a lab so that scientists can synthesize a cure. It’s the zombie apocalypse, so there’s zombies and people out to kill you because reasons. The game creates an incredible and cohesive player narrative through space, mechanics, and story bits, but the story is just that – story bits.
Bioshock Infinite? You’re this dude sent to rescue a girl from a floating continent, and you do that. The architectural design of Colombia is incredible and the world depicted is grotesque and disgusting (or, if you’re racist, amazing and made of win), but there isn’t much of a story.
Fallout 3 / New Vegas, Dark Souls, and Dragon Age all seem to follow a similar template of sorts – great cohesive narrative composed of space design and small story bits.
Even games that are meant to focus on story, like the Atelier games, seem to be more like simple story premises made to set the player lose on a world to fight monsters, level up, and synthesize items. And Skyrim? Even worse. You’re the Dragonborn meant to save the world, now go explore and harvest Nightshade and loot ruins and fight bears.
The games that tell the most complete stories are games such as Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, and Final Fantasy XIII. And how I feel about Final Fantasy XIII… well… it was an incomplete story to say the least.
I miss video game stories.
Maybe I’ll play more RPG Maker games from now on. They maybe generic and simple as far as play is concerned, but at least most of them have interesting stories.