I confess, I have a weakness for watching the mainstream media lurch amusingly around trying to analyze my chosen profession. Today, Slate takes aim at story-driven video games. Apparently, they’re bad. Basically, the writer’s complaint is that, in a game that advertises the freedom to completely ignore the game’s storyline and tool around in a lowrider in LA while blaring arena rock from your tinny speakers, the game has the temerity to include a storyline.
In my more cynical moments, I think this whole pursuit of narrative is the industry’s sneaky way of forcing gamers to buy more products. When a game has a story that “ends” after 40 hours of play, you have to throw it away\’c3\’a2\’e2\’82\’ac\’e2\’80\’9dand go spend another $50 on the next title. That’s movie-industry logic, not game logic. Chess doesn’t “end.” Neither do hockey, bridge, football, Go, playing with dolls, or even Tetris. Worse, by selling “narratives,” game publishers can cover up the fact that they rarely create truly new forms of play. In any given year, I’ll play a dozen first-person shooters with different stories\’c3\’a2\’e2\’82\’ac\’e2\’80\’9dSave the world from Martian devils! Penetrate an island full of genetic freaks!\’c3\’a2\’e2\’82\’ac\’e2\’80\’9d that are all, at heart, exactly the same game.
Yeah, because, gosh, a compelling story that makes you think is just a waste of time in a video game. Why do we try to stretch the limits of an entertainment medium? It’s just a hook to sell more boxes! Brilliant!
What the writer convienently misses is that we enjoy having a backdrop for our actions. And not every narrative is a clumsy machinima cutscene of anime figures deeply emoting to try to get some of that mad Squaresoft cash. Narrative is simply giving a realistic background for your actions. We enjoy the illusion that our actions have meaning. One of the most enjoyable parts of Mercenaries, which is best described as Grand Theft: North Korea, is watching the landscape shift with your actions. A coworker and I have been playing Hearts of Iron 2 obsessively the past week, and keep discussing various methods of dominating Europe (and let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like saying authoritatively “Dude, I have troops in WEST VIRGINIA” at a sushi bar and having the next table over recoil in horror”). Not every game requires a narrative, but saying that narrative by itself is pointless?
How out of touch with the medium. Which, again, is why I enjoy watching mainstream media and other train wrecks.