A Not So Quick Thought About Storytelling

Why is there an ever decreasing emphasis on the stories told and the worlds built within video games? The story and lore within the worlds created by modern developers takes a back seat to the gameplay, rather than both standing on an even ground and working together to each other's benefit. That these aspects should remain on an even playing field is not something which applies to every game, of course, and perhaps not even most games; no one is going to argue that Super Mario Bros. would be better if only we could learn the truths hidden within Bowser's past or that Saint's Row would benefit from some dramatic, psychological depth. What I am referring to, however, are the games which take themselves seriously, for better or worse, and try their damnedest to craft an engaging story in addition to quality gameplay. Games like The Last of Us and Bioshock and even something like Final Fantasy VII deal with a plethora of themes, many of which are completely alien to the average gamer, and are hailed as champions of storytelling within the medium. So why aren't there more?

I've noticed a habit within gaming, which even the best titles are at times guilty of, where the writers remove any ambiguity from the story and choose to instead lay out exactly how the player is supposed to be feeling or what they're supposed to be thinking about. Not too many of these games do it in such an immediately obvious way, such as Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare spawning a meme summed up as "Press X to feel something", but instead thread a theme throughout the story only to constantly tell you that this is a thing they're going for. Most of the time these themes, if there are any themes intentionally woven into the story at all, are usually pretty simple, something which we immediately recognize and instantly forget about upon completion of the game. That's not to say deeply thematic storytelling is the be all end all of good storytelling, or even that it's a requirement. You can have a simple story about going from point A to point B and pushing through obstacles along the way, but even then I think that the stories (again, those which DO try to take themselves seriously) are usually lacking any substance. They're lacking the writing needed to make you care about the characters you're interacting with and focus too much on the exposition, clearly explaining to you why you're doing what you're doing and telling you where you're going. I don't expect every dramatic story within a game to set itself up in such a way that I have to constantly think about what is going on, the very idea is unrealistic, but I am of the opinion that both gameplay and storytelling work at their best when they come together as one. 

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I think that the best example to have informed that opinion is Dark Souls. Most who have played the game are now saying to themselves "But Dark Souls didn't even have a 'story'! They just told you where to go and you did it!", to which I would say that they're right. Dark Souls does not present the player with a traditional story for the vast majority of the playthrough, but it does provide us with one of the most compelling, intricate stories within the medium if you're willing to look for it. It may be a pretty extreme example in regards to what I said before about ambiguity, but the story within Dark Souls is so esoteric and mysteriously appealing that once you begin to discover that it does, in fact, exist, you want to dive right in and learn more. How did the director, Hidetaka Miyazaki, achieve such a feat? He took the exploratory, tension filled gameplay rife throughout Dark Souls and gave every bit of it context, all by simply throwing pieces to a much larger puzzle into an item's description and placement within the world. Most players tend to look at an item's description in a game either to just see if it does anything special or, indeed, anything at all, but Miyazaki decided to subvert the ways such a tacked on aspect of the game is generally used and turn it into something truly special. 

Pinwheel, for example, a mid-game boss within Dark Souls, is most likely viewed by many as just another creepy, archetypal necromancer sort surrounded by the tomes of his trade. Looking at the description of the items he drops upon defeat, however, we're instead introduced to a tragic character who made a mistake and is now trying to fix it. That the Mask of the Father (an item he drops) increases endurance, and thus carrying capacity, is meant to represent the huge weight placed upon his shoulders; that weight being his wife and child who, through necromancy, were merged together with him to become the six-armed, three faced form he now embodies (which is learned through other items and context clues.) The character is steeped in ambiguity until you use some critical thinking to take the pieces of the puzzle and put them together to create a larger picture, which is seen not only in Pinwheel but with nearly every character and place within the game. Again, it's a bit on the extreme side of things, but Dark Souls' story is meant to make you think about what's happening in the world around you, to change the way you look at the people and the places within that world, and to give your every moment of gameplay context, thus bringing you even further into the game. Now you'll want to play through it again and again just to see what else you can learn about the world, to experience it once again as someone who understands why that world is the way it is, which can only serve to enhance the overall experience. All done through simple, ambiguous, well thought out storytelling. 

The Dark Souls story, and the lore behind said story, is so appealing to me because it's a complete mystery; it takes a chance not only with the way it tells its story but with the very difficult gameplay. Video games as a whole are very much in a stage where they're afraid to take those kinds of chances, to go off the beaten path and try something new and interesting, which makes Dark Souls all the more compelling when viewed in that context. The fault for that is debatable, whether the onus lies with the developers or the publishers, but either way it's not only something which is holding back innovations to gameplay in a landscape which has remained largely unchanged for the last few years, it's also holding back storytelling. For one reason or another, the stories being told are mostly limited to simple, to the point, unambiguous tales of good versus evil, maybe blurring lines between the two here and there. 

An interesting way to look at modern games which do try to take themselves seriously, at least in the story department, is by actually looking outside of the medium, towards films. One of my favorite directors, Terry Gilliam, some years ago went into the differences between Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick. He said that, regarding Kubrick's style, "2001 [A Space Odyssey] had an ending, I don't know what it means. I don't know, but I have to think about it, I have to work, and it opens up all sorts of possibilities and probably the next person I speak to has a different idea what that ending means. So now we're in discussion, now we're talking and ideas come out of that. That's what I always want to encourage." He goes on, "Spielberg and the success of most films in Hollywood these days is down to the fact they're comforting, they tie things up in nice little bows, give you answers. Even if the answers are stupid, they're answers. You go home and don't have to worry about it. The Kubricks of the world, and the great filmmakers, make you go home and think about it." Some people, in my experience, scoff at the idea of video games trying to be more like films, but aren't video games, as an interactive, visual medium, capable of perhaps being even better than a film? Don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not implying that we turn the cut scene dial to 11 and ruin gaming by embracing what was seen in something like Final Fantasy XIII. What I am saying is that if stories in games were told with a more cinematic view in mind, embracing and adapting the techniques of someone like Kubrick rather than Michael Bay into an interactive medium, you would suddenly have stories which aren't so black and white. You could tell stories with some ambiguity, some overarching, long-form narratives filled with thematic elements and philosophical undertones, as seen in Bioshock. More mature ways of telling a story brings with it a greater sense of immersion, which lends itself to the gameplay as all of a sudden you care about what you're doing rather than just going through the motions, as evidenced by Dark Souls.

We can do that now, rather easily in fact, but why don't we? Why do more games try to be like Call of Duty, a series which glorifies the horrors of war simply for the sake of false patriotism, rather than Bioshock, whose story covers everything from the philosophies of Ayn Rand to the moral underpinnings of utopia? Why are developers or publishers so against writing stories which make us think, which don't outright give us the answers or, indeed, any answers at all? I stress once again that I don't think all games should try to be overtly philosophical or tell the deepest story imaginable. I, like most other gamers, enjoy throwing in something like Bulletstorm to mindlessly kill people and laugh at the hilarious proceedings, but I also greatly enjoy the rare times I get a game like Bioshock or Dark Souls and have to actually think for a couple of hours. Am I, perhaps, just one of an extreme minority who wishes that these rare treats in my second favorite hobby weren't so rare?

    Many players will probably never notice that Ornstein and Smough themselves are rich in back story, assuming you're willing to look for it

    Many players will probably never notice that Ornstein and Smough themselves are rich in back story, assuming you're willing to look for it

A more cynical person might say that ambiguity is thrown to the wind because making people think, even in games which are supposed to be pure entertainment or pure drama, is simply not worth it; the average American is too stupid to bother, so why should developers? To be fair, it's not an opinion entirely lacking in evidence. Our culture as a whole over the last few decades has become noticeably dumbed down; films rarely ask questions anymore, music was usually devoid of emotion and the rise of anti-intellectualism throughout the country certainly hasn't helped anything. I am of the opinion, however, that ambiguity or quality storytelling, which often times go hand in hand, is rarely embraced in video games because gamers themselves indirectly work against developers who try to do just that.  

I can't tell you why gamers more often than not shun games which try to do something different, even if it is something bigger, better and more complex. I can't tell you why generic games which refuse to change in any meaningful way from year to year sell 10 to 15 times more units than a game which received almost universal critical acclaim. I also can't tell you why many people are so opposed to the idea of having to think, of having to use their brains for a couple of hours just for the sake of making their hobbies all the more rewarding; all of which are factors that take an active, albeit unintended, role in why developers and their publishers so rarely take a chance to do something new, creative and complex. What I can tell you is that opposition to the very idea of something being too mechanically complex or thematically ambiguous is holding back the medium. I firmly believe that video games can be every bit as complex as the best of films while also retaining their playability.

Call of Duty has become a title where the single player campaign is little more than a 6 hour propaganda film spouting military-babble so that you know how to fire your weapon in multi-player. Why? Why would the developers (I do give credit to Treyarch for actually trying) not want to tell proper war stories, which when done right are capable of being some of the most potent, in addition to their tacked on, copy and paste multi-player? Would Call of Duty not be taken more seriously by just about everyone if, in addition to its simple, (subjectively) entertaining gameplay, the single player campaign actually tried to evoke a reaction rather than merely glorifying war? I've made a point this whole time to reinforce the idea that a complex narrative is almost always favorable in games which try to take themselves seriously (as Call of Duty hilariously does), but I don't think that the process of creating such a story in a series like Call of Duty is itself overtly complex. The series stands only to benefit from such an addition, but gamers by and large have made it clear to developers that most of them simply don't care: so why should they?

If you look back at some of the best games ever made you'll see a common trend among them which transcends their respective genres: they tell immersive, thematic, well written stories. Sometimes those stories are comparatively simple and able to be enjoyed by virtually anyone of any age, other times those stories require the player to use some critical thinking, maybe even have a bit of knowledge concerning philosophy to be fully appreciated. Some of them tackle ideas which the majority of players would probably disagree with or perhaps not even understand and some of them present a story that connects with those same people on a fundamental, human level. There are stories of all sorts for every kind of person who might be a fan of virtually any genre; some of those games have good stories backed up by faulty gameplay and some have good gameplay backed up by faulty stories. Many of the best games out there not only provide players with entertaining, rewarding and well designed gameplay elements, they use those same elements to tell their respective stories. Unfortunately, as a result of those games being so rare, relatively speaking, outspoken gamers might have you believe that the choice in nearly every case comes down to whether developers want to give their all towards the story or towards the gameplay. I choose to take a step back and ask: why not both?