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The Narrative Pattern in Games Needs to Change

(Originally published on Gamer Professionals)

Gaming currently struggles to tell fresh and compelling stories. We’ve raged, triumphed, and even cried with the stories being told in these games. Players have grown accustomed to expect a certain roller coaster of emotions when playing a game. Now, creative leads must expand past basic tropes if they wish to impress the common gamer. A few recent games met this goal (Undertale, Firewatch, and The Last of Us). However, many high-profile games tried and failed (Destiny, Call of Duty, and Assassin’s Creed) to deliver a lasting narrative. These games tried to deliver a story they were incapable of doing and ended up creating an incomprehensible plot of stringed ideas, barely held by a thread. Many people believe that the backgrounds or the way these games play doesn’t allow for good storytelling, but in reality, the fault lies in the fact that developers don’t want to risk making a poor story. Look at the Final Fantasy VII remake, it’s going to be episodic. An easy way to get cash for an unfinished product and story for a game that already came out, but will look better now.

Creators have long employed a generic formula for storytelling. We play as the protagonist, wronged in some fashion and seeking vengeance. We begin with almost nothing and make our way to the top by ridding the world of minions or solving puzzles, whatever the mechanics may be; along the way, the enemy starts noticing our hero. The enemy then interferes with our journey, often by killing or kidnapping a dear friend (anything to make us hate the enemy more will suffice). We continue our way to the top until, finally, we see our nemesis once more, fight him, and eventually win somehow while delivering some pain to the villain (and maybe a catchy quote like, “I’m here to kick butt and chew bubblegum…and I’m all outta bubblegum.”) We celebrate our victory with a happy ending and sometimes a “surprise” ending. It’s simple, but effective. I got to see the antagonist’s defeated face after my skills allowed me to beat him. But now, I’ve grown tired of those endings. I’ve become bored with saving princesses and utterly destroying an evil empire. I want something more unique.

Gaming narratives do not need the traditional “Clint Eastwood” protagonist of every story. There are occasions where playing in the eyes of the victim creates a more compelling narrative. For once, I’d like to fail in my goals and feel defeated (such as in Dark Souls). Maybe that makes me sound masochistic, but I think a lot of people would enjoy the change of pace.

Take The Last of Us, for example, which didn’t follow traditional cliches. Many people believe it to be one of the greatest stories of recent years. Joel, the main character, certainly isn’t a bad guy. (His daughter died and he takes care of a little girl about the same age in the middle of the apocalypse so it would be tough to say Joel isn’t brave and kind). But he isn’t a stereotypical hero. Joel is certainly brave, but he’s also a murderer. Of course, you’ll probably have to eventually kill someone in the apocalypse if you want to live, but Joel slaughtered a group of nearly helpless doctors who were trying to save the world. He did it to save the little girl he was protecting (so, noble cause) but he could have used the gun in his hands as a negotiation tool and not to extinguish innocent lives. Joel is no classic hero and his story doesn’t end happily, yet it was probably one of the greatest stories in gaming history. This is just one example of how a company didn’t follow the basic formula and ended up profiting from it.

I really enjoyed Borderlands: The Presequel for similar reasons although that game didn’t get any love from the gaming community for its storytelling. Borderlands: The Presequel allowed fans of the series to play as some of their favorite villains. I loved this game just for that reason. I enjoyed seeing all my past friends suddenly become my enemies and my past enemies become my friends. For those who haven’t played it yet, Handsome Jack is the antagonist of the second game in the series and in this game you actually work with him and help him. It really gives you an insight into the lives of those who you should hate and allows you to feel love and even pity for them.

I believe developers need to look at these types of games and draw inspiration from them. They don’t follow a basic formula and proved to be critical and commercial successes. Storytelling doesn’t always need to be fulfilling for the consumer. In Heavy Rain, the ending was painful and it did nothing to prove to be the ending I was hoping for, but I am glad it ended that way. Evidence has shown that the games that don’t stick with the safest path end up making the biggest impact. When Grand Theft Auto first came out, it was a pioneer of its time. People may have ridiculed it and tried to outlaw it in some areas at first, but now it’s one of the biggest series in the market. I bet no one thought a game as hard as Dark Souls would make it very far, but having just released its third and final installment, sales are stronger than ever. Hopefully developers will head in that direction and provide us with even more fulfilling narratives.