Video games are currently in a crisis of identity. While cultural shifts due to mobile and games consoles have moved video games to the forefront of society’s consciousness the games themselves, especially on console and PCs, have suffered from a raging fanbase and perhaps worse critics due to accusations of failure to innovate and constant claims of copying other franchises, and even their own. In particular, in the past year, titles like Gone Home, Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea, and Titanfall have, all in their own way, brought to the fore the issue of story in games. What sort of story should a game have and should we be forced to play it? What is the point of the unrelatable stories often found on violent video games? How can video games better appeal to viewers?
Titanfall’s story was a problem when I played it for two reasons: it forced players of a multiplayer-designed game to experience it to access all titans and therefore a large part of the experience, and it was poorly written, sagging under the weight of its own clichés. A game that forces players to play a story, regardless of whether it was online or not, by detracting from the full experience of other portions of it is unacceptable because it fails to respect gamers that prefer not to play the story of a game. Call of Duty, a game series that was constantly compared to Titanfall due to their similar mechanics and development teams’ shared history, does not reward players for playing the campaign in multiplayer. It does not give them a reason to play it beyond relying on the merits of their team’s writers and special effects group, which is good, because it forces them to improve themselves. It provides a fair choice; Titanfall does not. Many people do not play Call of Duty’s story, but every year they insist on showing it at E3, in trailers, and at other conventions,often before the official multiplayer reveal, because there are people who enjoy it. Activision could create a game without a story, but that would take away a part of the experience and, with it, part of the fanbase. Titanfall does not allow its story to be taken and viewed as a separate part of the game by forcing playthrough, thus preventing a true analysis of its merits, but given the quality of the writing, maybe that was their intention. That it was a multiplayer component does not take away the problems of forcing people to play it. That it used the same game modes found within standard matchmaking still does not excuse it: why should we be forced to play a set list of maps and gamemodes just to get some titans when we could just play matchmaking and choose our favourite gamemodes and maps, or at least have a greater variety?
The matter of choice and freedom to miss it was one problem with Titanfall’s story, but the other lay in its writing and execution. Delivery of the titanic one liners designed to grab me and thrust me into mourning or anger was relegated to a tiny box above the right side of the screen. A box so tiny I only noticed it seven missions in to the nine mission campaign. The game struggled to juggle its desire to be obviously multiplayer, obviously about the gameplay, with its feeling that it should also deliver a coherent storyline. Unfortunately, it decided to drop the coherent part. The game is weak not only because the story and characters are not original, but also because it is so hard to follow from within the game. The eschewal of cutscenes makes the game even worse for this, especially given the three minute waiting periods, or often longer, between matches where a cutscene would be perfect, instead of a blaring klaxon followed by mumbling about attacks and invasion. Poor implementation of dialogue boxes and cutscenes is something that it is possible to fix, but poor writing often suggests that a new recruit may be needed.
However, one other problem that games run into and fail to acknowledge, time and time again, is that the stories they try to tell are simply ones that gamers cannot care about. Titanfall attempts a space opera, but unlike Mass Effect, there is no intimacy to character relationships, and certainly no time to get to know and, most importantly, care about them. It is not just Titanfall that struggles to tell a good story. Many of the stalwarts of the FPS genre attempt to tell a relatable story involving war and its effect on humanity; it took Spec Ops: The Line for them to succeed,and that was torn apart by critics for having substandard gameplay. Games like Call of Duty never feature commentary on the damage of war because they have already jet-setted away to a new action-packed tropical locale before the UN and civilians have turned up to clear away the rubble. Another way that Call of Duty et al. try and induce emotions in their viewers is by making the main character have a family at home that they care about, something especially prevalent in Black Ops 2. For actual veterans this might work; for the rest of us, this struggles to leave an impact, especially when little Jack is nothing but an undeveloped cardboard cutout.
Games don’t need to be mundane to be relatable or enjoyable from a story perspective. Bioshock is one of the few games that made me feel emotions other than rage, and Rapture is a far cry from my hometown. It was not the characters that made me care for the most part– it was the city and atmosphere of utter devastation and loneliness. I did not care about the voices on the intercom, but I respected Andrew Ryan. I respected his vision. I felt terrible that it had come crashing down so badly on him, that so many people had been hurt by things beyond their control and even, I would argue, Ryan’s. This was a man I could identify with, not because he had children or a loving wife like every action hero, but because he had dreams, he had ambition. Ryan was relatable for me, but other people can relate to other characters, and most of them are not soldiers. What is dealing with a character who has kids that aren’t yours to dealing with a character who actually has similar psychology to you? Andrew Ryan may not have been relatable in terms of backstory, or in terms of current habitation, but as a person I understood him so much better than I would just another stubble-chinned action-man.
So then, games should concentrate not on trying to be superficially relatable, or on tugging well worn or undeveloped heartstrings like parenting, but on trying to be relatable to gamers through motivation. What drives a man is more important than what car he has, what size of family and so on. We can relate to how far a man can go to protect them, but not simply on the fact that he has them. In the same way I could relate to Ryan because he was a visionary, not because he was a psychopath or a killer. Video games need to learn how to incorporate stories that people want to play because the characters, the emotions, are more than simply superficially relatable. Many gamers want something deeper now. They should not have to rely on games like Gone Home, games built to have a good story from the ground up, to supply a meaningful story. Gameplay and story are not separate. Both can be good. We, as gamers, should demand both.