Games vs Stories

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You could maybe call this the second part to my last post, but a recent Eurogamer article explains pretty well why The Last of Us is probably going to be the last “big AAA” game I play for a while. I’m just getting a bit tired of games that constantly take me out of, well, the game.

Dan Whitehead on June 22nd basically went over how he’s tired of today’s big games that seem to be focusing more on creating a filmic experience than actually creating a compelling game. It’s something that’s been brought up a lot almost ever since the CD-ROM era of games began — video games aren’t movies. Despite this, a lot of games these days seem to be throwing piles of money at the prospect of being like a movie, often at the cost of interactivity. I’m even starting to suspect that this is detrimental to the sales that the developers of such games are after.

Cut scenes have always been the primary target in these discussions, but in today’s games we’ve also now got scripted events and quick time events that try to make players believe they’re living through a movie or a theme park ride. Meanwhile, the actual game under so much of that tends to be the same third person shooter. So many of them use cut scenes or QTEs to convey things the player can’t do in-game, or things that wouldn’t look as cool in-game. Then you have the Hollywood actors and writers getting involved. It’s almost like these games are ashamed to be part of their own industry and their own medium.

Whitehead singles out Last of Us, which kind of is the perfect example of all these elements. The quote from the article that stuck out at me was “Last of Us doesn’t need to be a game to work.” I enjoyed that game immensely, but after playing it along with a lot of other stuff over the last few months, I’ve decided that for at least the next few weeks I’m gonna stick to Nintendo games and indie games — where I can access the core gameplay much more immediately and without interruptions.

What’s funny is that these more “gamey” experiences tend to cost less to develop too. I don’t think the development budget of a Mario game or Hotline Miami is anywhere close to Last of Us. The former games don’t have to record lots of voice acting or hire top writers — it’s all about designing software mechanics. The problem is that designing those mechanics is harder than just paying a bunch of actors and writers. It’s a brute-force money approach versus a smart design approach.

I won’t deny that Last of Us did a great job with its cut scenes, voice acting, characters, and overall story. There were times when I wanted to keep playing to see what happens to them, and there is very good gameplay at the core of Last of Us. I won’t deny that there are a lot of games that accomplish this. At that point however, I don’t think that what you’re enjoying is completely a video game anymore, no matter how good it is.

Last of Us is a good game cut together with a pretty good four-hour movie or TV miniseries, and I enjoyed it as such. The same goes for games like the Yakuza series, or most Japanese RPGS made since the late 90’s. Metal Gear Solid, even at its best, is basically one third video game, one third animated movie, and one third radio drama. Another example I recently finished is Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward which is pretty much a puzzle game crossed with a book.

People will argue that there is room for these kinds of things in the game industry. They might be right, but if you pay a bit of attention, it becomes apparent that the most successful games that these new story-driven cinematic experiences chase after, are actually mostly about gameplay.

A massive chunk of people buy Call of Duty and almost never touch the singleplayer. Madden and FIFA are top-selling franchises that are just about playing a game. People who buy Grand Theft Auto spend more time just destroying things in the city than engaging in the story. I don’t even have to explain this for hits like Minecraft or League of Legends. I think the majority of people who make the blockbuster franchises successful just want to play a game.

This doesn’t even invalidate the possibility for storytelling in games that doesn’t intrude on the gameplay most people want to get to. Games like Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls from Bethesda are massively successful games that also try to tell lots of stories. I think they’re successful however because they let players spend hundreds of hours defining their own experiences while encountering virtually no non-interactive elements. I personally think those are some of the best examples of how, mechanically speaking, you can a story and a game work together without trying to be cinematic.

I won’t pull out exact sales numbers or anything, but pure gameplay experiences like this seem to outsell games that draw heavily from film. While a Skyrim might sell 10 million copies or a Mario might sell 20 million, a filmic God of War or Uncharted will do around five or six million copies, and those are just the ones that actually are commercial successes. Compounded with the cost difference, it’s like an ultimate irony in this industry.

BULLETS:

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