Story plays an interesting role in today’s video games. For some, it is a completely non-essential factor in their enjoyment of a game: gameplay is king and nothing but a fun-to-play game will satisfy them. Others, myself included, are more willing to accept some bad gameplay or poor production values if the story being told is intriguing or interesting enough. An example of this that comes to mind is Singularity. Gameplay-wise, it was yet another first-person shooter with somewhat interesting mechanics. The story elements, particularly the usage of time travel, intrigued me enough to play through it when I otherwise probably would have avoided it.
More often than not, however, a game is not story-focused at all. The focus is instead usually given to the gameplay elements, which can often lead to the story being irrelevant or boring. Games are a unique form of entertainment for this reason, the way that the gameplay or the story may be favored over the other during development. No other form of media needs to both play well and tell a good story in order to be complete. This, I feel, is the reason why many game stories are absolutely terrible–or at least completely forgettable.
Stories seem to be one of the first things to suffer when a game changes during development. I’ve played several games where it seems like the story was planned early on and then promptly forgotten about. Levels were cut or features were changed in such a way that the story no longer makes sense, seeming to contradict itself or lose its meaning. Bioshock Infinite is probably the best recent example of this. The whole middle part of the game with Daisy Fitzroy and jumping between timelines jars with the rest of the story. It almost feels like you slip into another game for three or four hours before finding the plot again after the zeppelin crashes. I think this was directly related to the ways that Infinite changed in development; this section of the game was added or other parts were cut, giving the story its uneven feeling.
A variety of factors could influence a story in this way: budgetary cuts, approaching deadlines, or padding of length. Too often, the story seems to fall to the wayside during game development, becoming neglected by the development team in favor of the gameplay or the multiplayer or any variety of other factors. Not every game falls into these traps, of course, but it feels like quite a few of them do. I don’t really want to place so much of the blame on the developers, but they are the ones responsible for the game’s well-being. Game development is a complex machine, requiring so many different elements to work perfectly together in order to succeed. I can’t imagine the difficulty of cranking out a complete video game in just a couple of years, but I still don’t think this earns developers a pass. In order for this medium to be treated more seriously, more thought and care needs to be given to the story during all stages of developments.
Of course, not all the blame is on the developers. Another concern is the popularity of certain genres. How many shooters have there been in the last generation of consoles? It’s hard to blame developers for this trend too–these games sell extremely well and have managed to maintain (at least average consumer) interest for all these years. The problem is that shooters are limited in the stories they can tell. As an example, how can the protagonist of your average shooter game be anything other than a sociopath, with the numbers of dead bodies lying at his or her feet by the end? So many shooter stories are the same because there is only so much developers can do with characters in those situations. The intense industry focus on shooters hampers the choices developers have for story creation. They could always make an RPG or something more unique, but it can be very hard to find publishers that are willing to fund something even remotely different with the costs of development now. Hell, we still live in an age where a woman protagonist (or even one on the cover art) is contested by publishers, due to market research suggesting that these games won’t sell (even though many of us demand them). Without more freedom to expand into other genres, stories are inevitably going to be more limited in scope.
We always seem to wonder why video game stories are so often terrible. If we really think about it, the reasons are quite apparent. Story isn’t what sells games today–obviously, the gameplay does. Unfortunately, this usually means that any development decisions are going to favor gameplay over story. Also, the iron grip of publishers greatly limits the ability of a storyteller to tell the story they want to tell, due to required gameplay concepts or genre choice constantly being at odds with the stories these developers want to tell. The solution isn’t to hire screenwriters and novelists that have won awards to write game stories because the problem isn’t in the writing itself. It’s in the refusal to allow the story to be what it needs to be at any cost.