Opinion | Video Games and the Curious Case of Narrative Bankruptcy

Opinion | Video Games and the Curious Case of Narrative Bankruptcy

It’s an exciting time to be a gamer. Larger-than-life, photorealistic open worlds are becoming a reality with each passing day. We have come a long way from 8-bit pixel art animation, with quality mocap leading to impressive acting performances that rival Hollywood talent (and are increasingly attracting said Hollywood talent). The cost of developing video games is ever-increasing; consider 2014’s Destiny ($140 million) and 2020’s Marvel’s Avengers (over $170 million). And yet, we are bombarded with games that refuse to cast more than a cursory glance at narrative despite investing millions into perfecting gameplay, stunning visuals, and subsequent marketing.

Leveraging Improved Visuals and Nostalgia

Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield standing back to back in the poster for Resident Evil 2

Image: Capcom

Consider the remake of Resident Evil 2. Winning multiple awards and gathering over 16 noteworthy nominations, the game boasts of near-perfect scores from almost all reputed sources. And yet, not even hardcore fans can deny that Leon Kennedy would also win the prize for being one of the most one-dimensional characters ever conceived. The narrative for Resident Evil 2 shamelessly recycles every single zombie movie trope we have seen over the years. It doesn’t do this in a self-aware way, like a parody would, rather it chooses to present overused clichés with sincerity. While I realize that retaining the essence of the original is important when it comes to remakes, there is little point in not improving the writing when everything else is getting a fresh coat of paint. Surely, Capcom could have hired a capable narrative designer for the remake if they wished to do so.

Another prime example of this would be the Assassin’s Creed franchise, which for all its beautifully detailed open worlds almost always misses the mark when it comes to crafting a fresh narrative these days.

All of this sends out a disappointing message: quality story is unimportant. High production value, innovative gameplay and impressive visuals (and perhaps firm roots in one’s childhood) are enough to not only see a game across the finish line, but to transform it into a massive commercial and critical success.

Video Games and Art

What’s more disappointing than seeing people who hold the potential to invest in a good story refusing to do so? Our existing standards for a quality game. Yes, video games are inherently different from traditional media such as television or books. As such, there are several technical aspects to take into consideration besides story, from character art to the level design. But relegating narrative to the background only serves to prevent video games from realizing their true potential as a medium. Isn’t it ironic then that the AAA studios churning out visually stunning content – which showcases their artistic ambition to the fullest – are actually the ones holding video games back from achieving artistic status by refusing to pay attention to narrative?

One of the pillars of art – sharing human emotions and experiences – is passed up on more often than not in favour of revenue-orientated practices, such as Ubisoft pushing the same old Assassin/Templar conspiracy theory in shinier (and costlier) gift-wrapping each year. This aversion to narrative risk is a huge barrier in the way of video games standing on their own feet and transforming into art.

The Low Bar

I have long sensed an unspoken understanding amongst the general populace when it comes to video games: they are considered an inferior form of entertainment for telling well-written stories. The rare games that dare to be different are few in number (Silent Hill 2, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, Death Stranding, LA Noire, Bioshock Infinite and Red Dead Redemption 2 are a few titles from across the years that come to mind) and popular opinion is often wildly in favour of the unimaginative, cookie-cutter stories.

Arthur Morgan in Red Dead Redemption II

Red Dead 2, one of the few exceptionally well-written, slow-burn, dramatic AAA video games out there
Image: Rockstar Entertainment

Reportedly, the workflow for Uncharted is kicked-off by creating a memorable set-piece that could serve as a highlight for one of the numerous action scenes – and then the story is structured to fit around the same. By rewarding narrative bankruptcy, we are setting a low bar for a ‘successful’ game in the industry – one that promises to reward every technical aspect but story. Even the ones awarded for their story aren’t necessary well-written: Life is Strange, the 2015 winner of the BAFTA Award for Story. As much as I adored the soundtrack and earnest story the first time I played it, the game quite visibly suffers from unnatural dialogue.

Is this the best games can offer?

A video game has multiple facets, from visuals to the controls, and each of them is critical to its success. It is high-time players acknowledge the importance of a well-written story. A potential issue here is: what constitutes a ‘well-written story?’ This is of a highly subjective nature: how do we define whether a story is well-written or not?

As a start, we could ask ourselves the following questions:

1) Are the characters fleshed out, multi-faceted individuals or one-dimensional archetypes (the strong, silent type, the damsel in distress etc)?
2) Does the narrative rely heavily on overused tropes? How much of the game’s premise is the creator’s original vision, and how much of it feels like you’ve seen it before?
3) Is the dialogue believable? Do you think real people would talk like this?

There are plenty of articles out there which try to encapsulate the meaning of a well-written story.

It is an integral part of a game – something that elevates it from simply enjoyable to a masterpiece – rather than an afterthought that one has after developing the bulk of the game. We need to stop glorifying supposedly story-rich works that – more often than not – match up to the quality of a trashy b-movie, and instead embrace the ones that usher in change and a sense of originality.

Video games are by no means a mere financial investment: the human effort put into them is impressive to say the least. To put this into perspective, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey took nearly 3 years of development before landing on your device (and the epic Red Dead 2 over 8). Which makes it all the sadder to ask: is this all that AAA games (with the exception of the rare few) – after all the money, time and sweat poured into them – can offer us? Michael Bay rip-offs with big budgets and even bigger explosions? Laughable dialogue and incoherent plotlines heralded as the next bestseller?

The Indie Resistance

The indie industry’s answer to this is a resounding “no.” Over time, the list of indie games with experimental narrative has expanded substantially to include titles ranging from Kentucky Route Zero to Tacoma – brilliant, inventive games that bring a unique story to the table. Creativity also shines through in the form of the rare AAA games (Red Dead Redemption 2, Death Stranding) that subvert the very expectations of their genre.

Cover art for Kentucky Route Zero, showing Conway's truck parked outside the gas station

Kentucky Route Zero is – in the truest sense of the word – a magical game unlike any other
Image: Cardboard Computer

Video game stories are never going to be reminiscent of the ones told through film or television unless the audience demands more of them. Just like TV 25 years ago, video games have their own golden age coming up. And like that revolution – which brought us rich narrative in the form of The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men – I can’t wait to see what video games come up with given their unique blend of gameplay and story.

If this topic interests you, here’s some more reading:

https://www.cnet.com/news/video-game-stories-suck/
https://www.gamepressure.com/editorials/video-games-stories-suck-and-its-our-fault/z0178

And a final piece that suggests we should give up our obsession with narrative in video games altogether:
https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/04/video-games-stories/524148/

Do you think modern titles need to up their game when it comes to telling engaging stories? Let us know in the comments below! While you’re here, make sure to check out our Twitter and latest YouTube video.

Are you an RE fan who can’t control their outrage after reading this? Why not calm yourself down by reading this article on potential RE remakes?

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