The Digital World with Ryan Simon: The Importance of Story in Gaming

I’m a sucker for a good story. No matter if it’s a movie, TV show, or video game, an enthralling story will keep me hooked long after the initial awe of the special effects or amazing graphics. Video games in particular have the ability to present an engrossing story by pulling the player into the game world, and allowing them to experience the story first hand. Recently, BioWare’s “Star Wars: The Old Republic (TOR)”—a story-driven massively multiplayer online game—got me thinking about some of the recent conversations about how several game publishers are focusing less on story-driven experiences and more on multiplayer.

The game industry has been undergoing an interesting transformation. With the advent of motion gaming, and an increasing amount of multiplayer-focused games like “Call of Duty,” there is a fear that story-driven game experiences are beginning to lose their appeal to gamers and game publishers. It costs the publisher more money to come up with coherent stories, and if players prefer to just shoot first and ask questions never, then there is little incentive to create a story to begin with. The problem with this line of thought is that it insinuates that games as a story-telling medium have become less attractive to the consumer—something I strongly disagree with.

I demand a good story in my video games. With the little amount of time I have to spend playing games, when I do sit down with one, I like to be presented with a convincing world that pulls me away from reality. Arguably, it is this same sensation that people enjoy about films as well—the ability to disconnect from real life and plug into a different universe where impossible things become ordinary. Games like TOR take this sensation a step further by allowing players to decide the fate of their own character. Just like those choose-your-own-adventure books of yore. I think TOR’s impressive two million and growing list of subscribers would agree that they like a good story too. TOR is just the latest example of a successful story-driven game. Other recent top-sellers like “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” “Batman: Arkham City” and “Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception” all hinge on providing gamers with engrossing game worlds built on strong narratives.

Of course, there are certainly games that provide excellent stories and fall flat on their face when it comes to sales figures. This is all part of the risk that game publishers take when they sign up to fund new projects, but I argue it is a worthwhile one. The problem is that game publishers forget that you need another ingredient to create a great game: fun gameplay. So while millions of dollars are poured into the game’s script, the graphics, and all the technical nuances associated with game development, if the game isn’t fun to play it’s not going to sell very well. This is where the idea that multiplayer games are the future of the industry was born. Instead of tasking developers to try and balance both a fantastic story and excellent gameplay, publishers are tending to throw the story under the bus and focusing entirely on giving gamers good pure gameplay.

That doesn’t sound that bad though. The game is a lot of fun, so who needs a good story? Those who argue this point tend to forget that if you strip away differentiating factors like story from two top-tier games in the same genre, say first-person shooters for example, you end up with two games that play almost exactly the same. If game publishers simply sit on their laurels and believe their highly polished gameplay mechanics are enough to keep gamers coming back for more they are sorely mistaken. Comparing with film again, if you take two fast-paced action movies and compare them solely on their core attractions—special effects, casting, and fighting scenes—what you end up with is two incredibly similar films. The difference between “The Bourne Identity” and “Mission: Impossible” is story just as it is the difference between games like “Call of Duty” and “Medal of Honor.”

It would be a huge mistake for the game industry as a whole to conclude that multiplayer games sans story are the only profitable types of games. Games have certainly become more socially involved, but the amazing thing about video games is the immense flexibility the creator has in presenting their ideas. If multiplayer were to become the end all be all of the industry, game designers need only look at TOR as an excellent example for how to mesh story with social gaming. It may have been a risky venture, but TOR has successfully combined the kind of narrative gamers expect from a single-player experience in a multiplayer setting. TOR may play like some other online games out there, but what makes it unique and interesting is its focus on providing a believable world and intriguing story.

There is no doubt that the gaming industry has turned to more multiplayer games. The demand is certainly there for more social game experiences, but that does not take away from the importance of story-telling. The industry has plenty of room for both types of games, and as long as consumers continue to ask for them, we will continue to see plenty of them.

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