I’m a sucker for a good story.
Hi there, it’s Ade, thanks once again for stopping by! What was I saying? Right, I’m a sucker for a good story, that’s a disclaimer I figured best to have up top because these weeks, with the release of the omnipresent Red Dead Redemption 2 and it’s sales figures Vs the triumph of Call of Duty Black Ops 4, the eternal debate of “is narration in games important/dead?” is rearing its ugly head again like it does every couple of years or so.
So since everyone and their dog is chiming in, I figured I’d give my very personal and super biased opinion on the subject. Plus this is the internet, so if you like what I say you can always send this post over to whoever you’re arguing with and say: “See? I told ya!”, and if you disagree I’m more than happy to tell you why I’m right and you’re wrong, so 1v1 me no scope, noob (it is my understanding that this is how the internet works these days, yes?… I miss the age of forums).
But back to the subject. For those that are looking at the block of text down bellow and thinking “hell no!”, lemme give you my cop out answer right now on the single player narrative experiences vs purely online and say both are as important, but for those that want me to elaborate a bit I would say this: Isn’t the question itself flawed?
Let me zoom out a bit and ask you a different question. What is, for you, a good story? For me, I tend to use the very broad definition of the term, a good story is a sequence of events that happens to you, around you or at you through any type of medium, be that experienced, written, heard, seen or interacted with. Those events produce such an impact in your brain that it decides not only to allocate a permanent spot in some corner that will let you recall them even after decades, but also makes sure to arrange them in a way that gives you easy access to them in case you feel compelled to share them with someone else, or maybe even just for yourself. And if we humans are made of memories, then those memories are shaped by the stories we keep within ourselves.
So with that definition in mind I fail to see the conflict between narrative driven games and those that are focused on creating a multiplayer experience. Can’t we enjoy what both types of stories bring to the table? Because last I checked there are about 2.3 billion players in the planet and I don’t know a single person with the exact same taste as the next. As GiantBomb’s own Vinny Caravella loves to say and I love to repeat, there’s never been a better time to play video games, there are so many studios out there making games of all types and sizes that it’s a bit hard to understand the worry that narrative driven games are going away, if anything, I’d say that narration in games has never been stronger.
I can understand that if you were a fan of the CoD Black Ops storyline you might strongly disagree with this statement right about now, and don’t get me wrong, I happened to find those campaigns quite endearing myself and I’m sad to see them go (technically delayed… but we both know what I mean), but when something ends something also begins, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about our industry is that for better or for worse nothing is allowed to stay buried for long.
Let me give you a example. When I was growing up my favorite studio was probably Black Isle, the makers behind classics such as Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate or Planescape Torment. When they closed doors, my friends and I were devastated. We thought “that’s it, we ain’t playing those types of games ever again” (we were also too young and innocent to even consider the human drama behind a studio closing). Yet, years later, not only do we have Obsidian with some of those very same developers making EXACTLY those games in the form of the great Pillars of Eternity, InXile with Wasteland 2, or Larian Studios with it’s Divinity: Original Sin saga. But if that wasn’t enough, the closing of Black Isle also prompted the creation of a little studio known as Bioware, so we can also attribute KOTOR, Mass Effect and Dragon Age to what I thought was the end of an era.
So yes, right now if you’re a first person shooter fan it may seem like the end times have arrived. The fiery comet-god of death known as Fortnite has come to destroy those stories you liked… for know, but don’t worry, sometime down the line they will return, and if you don’t mind shooting demons from mars in Doom or crushing cyperpunkish looking nazis in Wolfenstein instead of future military and robots, you could say they never left.
I have come to destroy half of your single player campaigns!
And yes, many of those that enjoy a structured narrative, myself included, would say that the emergent narrative that you find in battle royales could never rival a well crafted story. And then I got my first chicken dinner and my heart was beating so fast during those last firefights that I honestly thought it was going to jump out of my chest and high five the monitor. Sure, it wasn’t an incredibly crafted world full of incredible details and even better writing that lasted 150+ hours like the Witcher 3, nor was it a deeply layered and fantastically delivered tale of existentialism, transhumanism and other -ism that I’m not going to get into like the wonderfully sad yet hopeful Nier: Automata, it was just an instant, a rush of adrenaline and activity followed by shared cheers with friends, but still I wouldn’t trade that moment, that “story” for any of the above, and the fact that we’re told we have to choose I see as a false dichotomy in and of itself. I refuse to believe that I’m the only gamer out there that enjoys playing online with his friends and has good stories to share with them about it, while also enjoying long, short, “mainstream” and super weird single player games. And if the data of online vs single player tells me anything is that there are enough players for both types to keep improving, diversifying and growing as our industry gets as big as it has ever been. So I don’t think that the way we tell stories inside of that space is going away. On the contrary, we’ve never had such a glorious cacophony of diverse voices and experiences in our history.
True, it might not be that one game you like made by that studio you love , but many of that talent will be absorbed into the different creatures called Studios that crawl through this ecosystem we call the videogame industry (cheers and good luck to all the TellTale and Capcom Vancouver people, I hope all of you landed on your feet), and from that melding of talent new and never before seen ideas will be born, such is the cycle of death and rebirth in our industry at present. I should know, I worked for SOE on their EverQuest Landmark project and other Ip’s right until before they became Daybreak, and many of us were let go in the process in a rather unexpected and sudden fashion. And from there, other studios were born to add their voices and their stories into the increasingly complex and fascinating world of video games. For example Fraxel Games, our own studio. And we are working on a tale that we want to tell you guys about love, cats and the end of the world, but that’s a story for another time.
Perhaps if there’s one thing for certain is that the format in which you like to consume your stories is never going to remain the same, and that’s shitty if you like your stories told in a very specific way, but if you’re up for a suggestion it would be this: look around, all around you, and look well. For the first time in our history the whole world has the capability of telling stories to one another all across the globe in a wide variety of formats, so do you really believe that narrative in games of all types is going away any time soon?