Storytelling in Games: a Classic Catch-22?

By Jason Young

“I swear, I only play these games for their stories.” Is something that anyone who admits to playing Japanese RPGS (JRPGs), or bishoujo games, will state. Ask them what makes them distinctive from their Western counterparts and the first two things they’ll note are the artistic direction and their storylines. Which makes Miwa Shoda’s recent twitter post all the more alarming. “I’ve worked all over the place and gained a great deal of valuable experience from all sorts of people, and learned approaches to writing games I would not have been able to do on my own, but the one approach I could never understand is the notion that ‘games don’t need storylines.”

Now while it’s understandable why she’s upset, she works at Square Enix as a writer after all, and apparently one of the higher ups has told her that the company wants her to focus less on story. “But when I was told that RPGs don’t need storylines, I was really shocked. They said players weren’t after a storyline, so the bare minimum of events would suffice.”

I’m sorry, but as a lover of JRPGs, one of the things that I always enjoyed were their stories. Take that element out of the genre, and we have what? Chess? No, thank you. Think about all of the most famous RPGs that have graced video-game consoles since the original Nintendo. What if Crono was never sent on a mission to rescue Marle? How about if Fei never discovered the Weltall? We probably would have never purchased them and they would have never left their mark as a great game. To me, storylines are just as essential as how many millions of polygons you can pump out per second or how quickly you can press the trigger button.

As someone who buys games solely for their story, Shoda’s post got me thinking. What is the one thing that attracts me to games? The number one reason why I continuously shell out money for video games? Stories. The medium takes everything that I love about cinema and books while mixing it with interactivity that brings stories to a whole new level of kick-ass. The funny thing is that Shoda’s post directly juxtaposes what Yoichi Wada’s said during a recent interview with Famitsu. “It would be good if they made more games (with heavy interactivity) like Heavy Rain.”

While I’ll be the first to admit that Heavy Rain’s storyline didn’t exactly set the gaming world on fire, I think of it as nothing more than your typical psychological thriller, akin to Hostage meets Seven, what would the game be like had the Origami Killer not kidnapped Sean? Would there have been any point in playing the game? Probably not. It would have been one boring QTE event one after another without any of the emotional attachment had players not become involved in the world of Ethan Mars and his compatriots.

For an example of a genre where storylines aren’t as “necessary” let’s take a look at your typical first-person shooter like Halo. While Master Chief’s trials and tribulations may not have the same literary value as the Great Gatsby or even a Tom Clancy novel, the fact that it can transport a player and engross them into a world where they can experience the fears, joys and triumphs of a character is amazing for a piece of new media. In fact, the series has gone on to inspire a good number of best-selling novels, comics and films that expand the Halo Universe filling out the backstories of the Spartan soldiers for people who are interested in it.

Without a reason to fight, people will be left scratching their heads on why they even bother with a single-player campaign and head directly to multiplayer; and I wouldn’t blame them. There wouldn’t be any motivation for the player to go through a campaign, and if video games ever became less story centric, I’d probably sell my PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, DS and PSP all in one go and just watch TV or something. Not to say that games featuring multiplayer only modes are bad or anything, they just aren’t necessarily my cup of tea.

Even large MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or Guild Wars have storylines to help fill the player with what’s going on in the world. Take away all of the lore and towns that fill the backstory, and all we’d be left with a generic world where no one would care about the conflict between the alliance and the horde. It would just be a game where you choose one side and bludgeon each other to death without feeling any pride when your side wins a huge PVP raid against the other faction as the two sides would be damn near identical.

In contrast, I’ll also agree that too much storytelling may often turn off players as well. Case in point, Final Fantasy XIII. While the game has continued to sell millions of copies based on name alone, the game’s underwhelming story plagued it all the way through to the last third of the game until the game world was finally open to Gran Pulse. Not to beat on a dear horse, but the directorial decision to focus on the storytelling aspect of Final Fantasy XIII was a poor one. It really limited the scope of the game as it was literally one long tunnel after another mixing battles with cut scenes. Now, don’t get me wrong as I’ve stated before, I love storytelling in games, heck I even play visual novels, but in a game like Final Fantasy XIII I expect towns, NPCs and mini-games just like Final Fantasy X to help break up the monotony. Ultimately, it’s up to the game designers and directors to find the right balance between storytelling and gameplay, something that I believe Atlus’ Persona series has done extremely well with 3 and 4.

So do RPGs, along with every other genre need storylines? I say yes. Without them, we’d be left scartching our heads on what we’re fighting for without feeling any emotional attachments to anything. If Red Dead Redemption’s single-player campaign didn’t involve a characteristic lead like John Marston, and players caring about his family, then would we even bother with the game’s lengthy campaign mode? It honestly would have become a free roaming game where you can either shoot other cowboys or herd cattle, with most players would just jump to the multiplayer gamer aspect immediately. Not that some don’t already do that, but having a solid single-player experience is always a nice option to have for gamers who aren’t necessarily fond of PvP. Even something like MAG, a PlayStation 3 exclusive online-only shooter, has a storyline based around the ideal of a global war economy where private military companies are competing with one another. It’s relevant in today’s society and even though a majority of players won’t remember why they’re shooting each other, there is a backstory for all parties involved. So here’s my plea for developers. Please continue to hire writers to create backstories, they’re needed and I fear what the industry may become without them.