The (Un)Importance of Story

This blog post was supposed to be easy…

The intent was to briefly discuss the overused generalisation “Story is everything”, fundamentally disagree with it, and conclude with “Gameplay is everything”. Job done. However, in committing thoughts to the written word, I seem to have spun myself a web of questions. Can narrative get in the way of the gameplay? Are some story lines better suited to film? Why are more games not exploring non-linear narratives? If we reduce a game to it’s basic ingredients, are we just moving our character forward until we hit the next cutscene? Shouldn’t we be thinking more about how videogames have the ability to bring so much more to this format? Should games be more reliant on environmental (passive) story-telling?

My recent post God of War: Unpopular Opinion made one point in particular that I thought had enough depth to warrant a specific blog post to discuss it. Writing and character development in many triple-A titles has matured to a level that is comparable and often better than what we might find in film; A strained but developing relationship between Kratos and Atreus, the sense of camaraderie between lifelong friends Nate and Sully, the reluctant but inevitable acceptance of the bond between Ellie and Joel… We witness their friendships, their arguments, their falling-outs and making-ups and by the conclusion of their character arcs, we feel as close to them as they do to each other. But there’s a problem.

The authenticity of these worlds and characters can often be broken by all-too-obvious gaming cliches and mechanics that often exist to enable a ’30 hour storyline’ description. The narrative is drip-fed to us over the course of this duration, and in between the parts that give us real insight into the characters, is the actual game. Put simply, the structure of a game’s storyline really hasn’t progressed at all. You play a section until you get to the section that you watch, which is where we witness the character relationships develop. The sections that we play through almost always have no impact on the story and are just a transition to the next piece of narrative.

This all begs the question, are these stories made better or worse being told with a controller in our hands? Is The Last of Us a beautifully written story, perfectly highlighting both the frailty and strength of the human condition, but somewhat let down by a visually rich, but mechanically basic stealth game? Does the story benefit from being segmented and broken into chunks to allow for ‘the game’? Or does the ‘game part’ still feel part of the narrative? It’s difficult to disagree that the character of Ellie is one of the most realistic and lifelike portrayals of a human being that we have ever seen committed to code. From her innocent singing, to her love of telling jokes to her temper-led, foul mouth the character was incredibly believable…

Until it turns out she can walk right in front of any enemy and not be detected. She doesn’t have a superpower, she doesn’t have an invisibility cloak, and it’s never referenced or explained. Put simply, it’s just a slightly awkward game mechanic. A result of having an AI-controlled partner reliant on path-finding algorithms, but its enough to remind you that you’re playing a video game. And despite the incredible amount of work in creating a believable cast and environment, there are times when Naughty Dog seems to insist on breaking our immersion…

Ladders. There were so many ladders in The Last of Us that I almost got confused and thought there had been a ‘Ladderpocalypse’ rather than one of the zombie variety. From a development point of view I get it – a system has been built whereby you can pick up and place ladders in different places, they can be laid down horizontally, you can climb them, walk across them, they’re great for crossing ravines or accessing that out-of-reach ledge. They make for solid ‘puzzle sections’ and the first time I used this mechanic I thought it was pretty smart. The second time; ‘Ah… this again’. Quite honestly, after this your doing nothing but damage my belief in this environment and the characters within it.

For me, this is an issue not just with The Last of Us, but with the Uncharted series as well, and it’s unfortunate that one of the staples of a Naughty Dog game seems to be immersion-breaking and repetitive environmental puzzles. I hope that this is something that the developer realises and chooses to change in the future. It really isn’t enough to have one of the characters reference this repetition in a ‘humorous way’ as a workaround. In fact, it’s a little offensive to think this will appease the player.

We can’t deny that those character-driven storylines are worth the price of admission alone when it comes to a Naughty Dog game, but occasionally when playing these games, it can feels like I’m only ‘influencing’ my character. With each Uncharted sequel, the quality bar has been raised significantly, especially with regards to visuals, cinematography and character-driven narrative. At the same time however, the animation has evolved to be more ‘script-driven’, and there are more times when I seem to have ‘less control’ of Nate. Naughty Dog occasionally allows cutscene to blend with gameplay, to the point where it’s unclear how much we’re still in control of the character. There are times when the gameplay seems to share more similarities with the retro-classic Dragon’s Lair than a modern triple-A adventure. (Okay, probably a stretch but you get the point).

On the flip side of the coin, let’s compare the Naughty Dog experience to the FromSoftware experience of the Dark Souls and Bloodborne games. Within each of these, the story can be found lying beneath the surface of the game and it never gets in the way of the gameplay. Those that are willing to unearth the details will find a rich tapestry of lore and backstory, and yet the enjoyment of this adventure doesn’t rely on these details at all. FromSoftware shares the story with us passively allowing the environment and item descriptions to fill in the detail. They politely ask us if we would like to know more, and provide us the option to do so. In my opinion, this is a great example of taking advantage of the medium. There are often multiple paths to take, each player will discover different items and their journey will be unique to them depending on their play style.

It may be an unfair comparison; the studios are making very different kinds of game, but its interesting to highlight the contrast in their narrative styles. Games are, and should be, narratively differently to books or movies. Videogames have the ability to do so much more than tell a linear tale. They can allow the players to forge their own story,  to pursue their own path, but so often we are forced to consume a pre-scripted story in exactly the way the developers intend. Everything plays out in the same way, and we have no influence of the outcome. We’re reading a book and using a controller to turn the pages.

Of course, there are examples where this is not the case but they are often games described as RPGs. Bethesda’s Fallout and Elder Scrolls titles are very obvious classic examples, and provide the player with an open world, a character tailored to the player’s preference, and a loose main story thread to pursue. From there, the journey ahead is the player’s to define. 

Story is everything? How much story is in the worldwide phenomenon that is Fortnite? Some of the most successful videogame franchises of all time have very little in the way of story whatsoever. Nintendo has successfully recycled the ‘save the princess’ storyline through dozens of iterations of it’s traditional platformer for more than three decades. And the reason for its continued popularity? Gameplay. Its also the sole reason I’ve sank more hours into Rocket League than any other title for the past two years. Gameplay. Pure and simple.

And so we have finally reached the concluding paragraph of this much-longer-than-I-expected blog post where I can finally declare that Gameplay is king. Except for one thing. I have an embarrassing stack of games that I have only partially completed. Games that haven’t held my attention long enough to reach the end. I’ve been critical of Naughty Dog’s formulaic approach to the structure of their titles and whether they really take advantage of the benefits of a videogame as a format for storytelling.

The fact is that I’ve completed every single Naughty Dog title I’ve played, and I’m now wondering if this disproves the one thing that I set out to in my opening paragraph. Realistically, those characters, their backstories, their history and narratives demand to be played until their conclusion, regardless of my thoughts on the somewhat diluted or simplified gameplay. After playing the shocking opening fifteen minutes of The Last of Us, how could we put this game down without finding out whether Joel will come to terms with his past?

Story is everything? I’ll get back to you…

The Last of Us Part 2 is rumoured to be released in 2019

5 thoughts on “The (Un)Importance of Story

  1. I think the problem Naughty Dog has had since Uncharted is that they have a habit of inserting filmmaking techniques into their games without making sure they actually work in this medium. Indeed, I do think that if The Last of Us were a film/miniseries, a majority of its worst issues would be resolved, though we’d be left with a decent-but-not-stand-out story about zombies and the human condition that doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. As it stands, the trail-and-error nature of the gameplay has many implications on the story that are left unexplored, and it’s a fairly weak effort for it. How does Joel know a zombie will accost him if he gets close to that window? It’s as though he relived the same event over and over until he figured out what to do. I do think stories can work in this medium – just not in the way Naughty Dog puts them together.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, thanks for reading and taking the time add your thoughts. I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels the Naughty Dog formula isn’t quite right 🙂

      I’ve just felt with each ND release the format becomes closer to a movie experience and further from a video game. And I think harmony can be found somewhere in between. Video games shouldn’t necessarily be pushed towards a linear ‘movie’ format to tell a great story.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No, I certainly think it’s a flawed approach myself. I like Uncharted 2 and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, but I feel they manage to be good in spite of themselves. I think The Last of Us got a lot of praise because video games were still reeling back from Roger Ebert’s infamous “Video games can never be art” declaration and desperately wanted something that proved the assertion wrong – even if that meant abandoning what made the medium so appealing in the first place.

        Though Naughty Dog’s games have little trouble amassing critical acclaim, I think there’s a certain subtext that goes unnoticed. Uncharted 2 is about to turn ten years old, yet it hasn’t proven to be particularly influential (or if it has, the games it inspired haven’t met the same amount of critical and commercial success). It’s weird for a work that was such a big with critics and fans alike to not inspire imitators. I can imagine fans insinuating that the reason nobody has attempted to make games like Naughty Dog is because they’re much better writers than the rest of the AAA industry, but I don’t think that’s the case (if it is, it’s not a wide margin). I say this because when Dark Souls came out two years later, everyone wanted to imitate it. It stands to reason – Dark Souls has an excellent combat engine and challenging gameplay, giving it an appeal with actual staying power. I would even go as far as saying that it has better storytelling than anything Naughty Dog has issued because it complements the medium far more effectively.

        At the end of the day, I feel Naughty Dog are followers not leaders. They only ever implement ideas after seeing other games prove their worth, so it’s not terribly surprising in hindsight that other developers tend not to take cues from them.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. All great points! I can almost feel hundreds of eyes rolling at the mention of Dark Souls but there’s no denying it’s influence, and I share your opinion on the way FromSoftware chooses to tell its story. Its there to be uncovered by us, the player, if we choose to.

        I’m currently playing through DS3 and as I defeat each boss or reach a new area I like to look up the lore online (rather than piece it together myself, laziness) and am constantly astounded how rich the backstory and lore is.

        The new Tomb Raiders seem to take more than a leaf or two from Nathan Drakes book, but you’re right in that you see the Souls influence everywhere. I mean people play those games using dance mats just for the extra challenge 😂

        I’m still looking forward to seeing what TLOU2 brings but I feel it will double down on those things that make it ‘less of a game’. Time will tell…

        Liked by 1 person

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