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Stories in Games, Part 2: Story Substance

October 16, 2002 essay

Part 1 of this two-part article went over very generally the way stories are told in video games. I only hinted at the psychological aspects of this, as it’s not very important to this particular discussion. Now, though, we will talk about the substance — the meat — of the stories we find in role-playing video games, and why there really isn’t much to them. We’ll examine a generic sketch of these stories — an outline of its common elements — and then discuss their merits in more details. We’ll wrap it up with an important question: what’s the point?

First, these stories are almost always fantasy, and when they are not, they are sci-fi. This makes RPVGs a very specialized genre. And sci-fi and definitely fantasy are already generally ignored by critics. We’ve already dug ourselves a hole. However, there is certainly nothing inherent about either fantasy or sci-fi that makes them unworthy of artistic merit. Of course the same is true for romance stories which, sigh, these stories generally have as a sub-plot.

I will, as a feat of magic, reduce almost all role-playing games into a single, broad list of key elements:

First, the characters you will meet:

  1. There will be a Hero. He’s either an older boy or a young man. He is generally well rounded statistically, except a tad stronger physically than at casting magic. He is either day-dreamy and adventurous or rough around the edges. (In the latter case, the love interest will smooth him out.) He will unexpectedly come across a great plot to destroy the planet, and the fate of the world will rest upon the reluctant and inexperienced ability of this Hero. He’ll need help.
  2. He will find a warrior friend. Quite strong, but lacking in the ability to use magic. A very serious person.
  3. He will find a magic-user. Gifted in casting spells, but weak both physically and mentally. She’s a woman.
  4. There will be an oddball character, usually some inhuman creature, who joins the team and provides plenty of comic relief.
  5. He will find a love interest. Very likely the magic-user.
  6. Most recent, “mature” RPVGs will also have a close acquaintance of the Hero — either a long-time associate or possibly a sibling — who becomes possessed/corrupted by the Evil Force and acts as the tie between the Hero and the Evil Force.

Now that we have the general cast, let’s talk about the Quest:

  1. Humanity, if not the entire planet, is in danger. The Evil Force generally has no sensical reason for his scheme, beyond revenge or hunger of some sort (physical hunger if it’s a planet- or soul-eating creature, a blood lust, or hunger for power).
  2. The Quest will take the Hero to these locations: towns, plains, forests, a desert, a lake, a hidden village, a volcano, an ice cavern, and possibly a sky palace.
  3. The Hero’s world-wandering is for the sake of collecting relics and/or slaying guardian creatures. Otherwise he will have no access to the Evil Force. Sub-rule: Dragons will be fought.
  4. The Hero will gain access to a large vehicle, probably an airship.
  5. The Hero will, at least once, rescue the love interest. She didn’t like him much before; now she will see him in a new light.
  6. The world of the Hero happens to have very storied mythologies, and every single one of them will be an obstacle in the Hero’s path. Sub-rule: There are no gods, only goddesses.

Obviously this can’t and doesn’t apply to every RPVG ever made, but imagine how many it does belong to. The fact that this so accurately sums up the genre is a very, very bad sign. What it means is that it has become a genre not of artistic vision or the conveyance of a rich story, but a product of player expectations. In other words, it is made so that players will like it. In that way, it’s exactly like any movie starring Hugh Grant.

Because text is reserved for dialogue, we cannot discuss the story’s use of prose. And we cannot talk about composition and editing to tell a story except in the case of cinema scenes. The story has to be discussed at the more basic building blocks: character development, structure, pacing, use of themes, and — unique to games — player interaction. And, inevitably, we must discuss the one important virtue of a story: was it even worth telling?

While we like to imagine that our characters go from point A to point B as people, they only do so in very superficial ways. The Clouds and Squalls are hardened men who fall in love and come out of their shells. WOW! That sure is an amazing look into the wonders of human emotion. Or you have the Zidanes and Hiros, the free spirits who, in the end, become free spirits… in love. Love is apparently the only major guiding force that will ever send the Heros out into the world to slay those hell-bent demons.

There have been more sensible touches of character development, though. Such as, in Final Fantasy 9, Vivi’s search for identity and Zidane’s realization that he and Vivi share a common dilemma. Vivi stands out to me, as his character — no matter how generic his “type” is in the Final Fantasy world — felt very real in his methods of dealing with his emotions. By that I mean, he didn’t always know how to do it. He didn’t suppress his emotions, nor did he feed it into some sort of brave but blind drive to unlock “the truth”. He was actually afraid of the truth, and at times wanted to withdraw. That quality is something not typical in a video game character. His interactions with other characters were also nice touches, even though the others didn’t really do much in the way of developing, themselves.

Whew. So now, let’s talk about plot structure. This is a bit tricky, but it goes like this: Hero comes across small, seemingly harmless plot. Gets involved. Unravels great, world-threatening plot. Must stop it. Walks around for a while. Fights demons, meets people. Meets love interest. Gains vehicles. Wanders around a larger portion of the world. Fights demons, meets people. Love relationship grows, although they are still pretending to not like each other. Better vehicle is found. Now, with the entire world available, the last obstacles to the Evil Force must be tackled. The love is proclaimed between Hero and love interest. Evil Force is destroyed. Everyone goes back to their lives in a different but hopeful tomorrow.

The other details are grafted into the structure. But notice: small world to large one. Adventures are by definition about discovery. However, this is generally a literal discovery of land rather than a personal discovery. Furthermore, this is mostly a discovery for the player, not the characters. They very rarely seem awe-struck about the new, mysterious lands they come across, although we can generally be certain that they’ve never been there before. And monsters are apparently the most second-nature thing you can imagine in their world. Man, those green imps are always a nuisance.

Anyway, I’m not about to look at individual plot structures. Typically, there is none to speak of. It’s just going from place to place, scene to scene. It’s like an Adam Sandler movie. Just a bare plot to tie separate events together.

Pacing. Pacing is a weird one to talk about, and pretty closely related to structure… I won’t spend much time here. It means something a little different from a story aspect than from a gameplay one. Typically, events of an RPVG are timed so that there is one major climax per disc. Just before the final dungeon, there is generally no pacing at all: the player is free to roam, find things, level up, tie loose ends, before making the decision to face the Evil Force. The game becomes more “open” as it progresses and more areas and abilities are available.

Themes don’t exist in games. Not visually, not symbolically. They simply don’t occur. I don’t know why this is. I don’t know why it’s any more difficult here than in a novel or movie, but apparently, it is. FF9 again tends to come closest to using this, as it several times discusses the issues of conformity and individuality. But it treats these themes so bluntly that they tend to lose their thoughtful quality and become very didactic.

Ah, player interaction. What I mean by this is the control the story has over the player, and vice versa. Do the player’s decisions have an important and lasting effect on the story? Typically not. Play decisions generally do nothing more than make the characters stronger or weaker over time. This is a gameplay aspect, not a story-related one. There are often different endings to the game, but this is, again, often a gameplay issue, and not something that stems directly from the player’s interaction with the story.

A very special exception to this rule is Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross. The second time through the game, the ending is very much determined by the player’s choice of when and how to beat the final boss. The outcome will be different, sometimes subtly. And not always for the better.

The story can impart on us, the players, a sense of action. But this is typically not used with full force. Typically, our path is laid out with us in bold words. We know where we’re supposed to go. It’s just a matter of getting there. Dialogues are sometimes kind enough to ask us some Yes or No questions, but these typically amount to nothing of substantial importance. Maybe we’ll miss out on an item, and that’s always a no-no for the hardcore RPVG player, but it’s such a trivial matter for the story.

But let’s consider the grand question of all stories: do they need to be told?

Hmmm. This is a tremendously complicated issue, because eventually, you have to address the very core of what games are about. What makes them unique from novels, movies, plays, or graphic novels. Considering that games are — relatively speaking — still in their infancy… then maybe, yes, they have to be told. But as stepping stones to more mature stories, with more mature themes. Not “mature” meaning “for adults only”, of course, but in the sense that the game designers begin to take hold of the medium and explore it in a profound sense, sharing with players an experience that couldn’t be had anywhere else.

There are far too many books about epic quests in mystic lands. There are too many movies about scruffy punks who learn to straighten out and fly right. And how much more do we really need to be reminded that love makes the world go ’round?

We need role-playing video games that will either shed these adolescent ideas of dragons and robots, or shed light on them. It is indeed a fact that the game-playing audience of the past has grown up now. We are adults. We will start needing something with more substance. We’ll look back and enjoy these works for what they were. For what they meant at a time. We’ll say “Those were nice, innocent stories. Without their place in history, we wouldn’t have what we have today.” Much like we wouldn’t have post-moderism without the medieval paintings of the dark ages. But then again, in a world where we are still expected to march obediently to the theaters to watch a sequel to Dude, Where’s My Car?, can we really expect a mass-market entertainment industry to start taking its medium seriously? I believe we are very ready to explore these new landscapes of video game storytelling. The question is, when will these stories be told?


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