Con-soul Searching: Once Upon A Time, The End
Video games are about having fun, but fun is such a relative term. Reviews generally talk about how a game functions or how it looks. It’s easy to get bogged down in all the mechanical aspects of game. So easy that video game stories often get overlooked. Why is that? I can’t speak for the game playing world but I play video games for a story. I will sit through a bad game if the story is interesting enough; Deadly Premonition, anyone? Granted, not all games overlook story. The Uncharted games excel at telling a good narrative. However, most games only have a paper thin story to tie missions together. Why is that?
I think it’s leftover from the days of the arcade. Back then all you needed was a paper thin story, or rather a premise, to grab a player’s attention. After that, it was all about game play with no time for story. Developers couldn’t take the chance of losing a player’s interest with in-depth story telling. Once a player gets bored, they will leave and invest their quarters elsewhere. This concept maintained with the rise of the home console; albeit in a different form. With the Atari 2600 it was hard to tell much of a story. The carts barely had the storage capacity for the game code. There were no cut scenes. With little options to relay a narrative, once again a simple premise was used to grab the attention of shoppers. Take Kaboom! for example; a mad bomber is dropping bombs and you have to stop him. Games were bought based on descriptions and box art. Developers had to make their game stand out in the stores just as they did in arcades.
Technology developed and games evolved but stories didn’t make as much progress. In most cases, the story is present to simply tie together game play sequences and could almost be removed entirely. Thankfully, games like Mass Effect give dialogue options which have actual consequences to the story. Other games have morality systems which have some effect on how a narrative plays out; these are nice but since the choices are typically black and white they usually are less effective on story and more focused on game play since they usually effect what powers you are granted. It may be slow, but stories are starting to have a hard influence on games. Or at least they were.
Now we are in the middle of a change. Mobile games are on the rise; so much so that hand held games are taking a backseat to smart phone apps. Granted there is a difference between mobile games and hand held games but since they are currently competing for the same time share, it’s hard not to compare them. Here is what scares me. Games like Phantom Hourglass and Ghosts Of Sparta, with their established characters and filled out universes, are playing second fiddle to games like Angry Birds. Once again, elaborate stories are being trumped by a paper thin premises for the sake of grabbing the attention of a customer. It’s no different than the arcade. Most mobile games get your attention quick with a minimal fee. Then you keep coming back since next set of levels is only 99 cents all the while with no story to speak of. Mobile games are profitable since they grant such a high yield for such low production costs. Is this how the masses tell developers game stories aren’t important?
What about games like Minecraft and Farmville? These games don’t even have a story and they are some of the most profitable games on the market. Developers can’t deny the model these games establish. Even things like Call Of Duty tell developers how stories are a waste of their effort. I realize all the COD games ship with a single player campaign but that has nothing to do with the truckloads of cash Activision makes by selling map packs.
Some developers have come out and said single player campaigns are going away. I can’t say I blame them when they can make ten times the cash with fully featured multiplayer games. However, that doesn’t mean I’m okay with it. I rarely play games for multiplayer. Every time I buy Gears or Halo, I want to see what happens to the universe and the characters in it. I suppose I am the minority here but there doesn’t seem to be much I can do about it. The industry is going to flock to where the money is and my refusal to buy a map pack isn’t going to make much of a difference.