Video Game Narratives Don’t Need To Be Complicated

I recently decided to replay Kingdom Hearts for the first time since probably 2009. Considering how long it’s been, I figured it would be a good idea to watch some story summaries on YouTube and read up on the synopsis. I recalled the story being a bit dense, but was immediately overwhelmed with the sheer volume of information I found right off the bat; separate timelines, identical but distinct characters with varying motives, and not the least of which, a chronology so all over the place that even attempting to try to play it “in order” is a task in and of itself. I recalled playing Kingdom Hearts II while I was in high school and being so ridiculously excited since I had loved the first installment so much. It was just unfortunate that the naming scheme and also the tendency for Square Enix to release games on multiple platforms meant that there was a huge swath of story context I was missing when I booted up II. Though Kingdom Hearts II does still go down as one of my favorite games of all time, it was a slow build, since I had to spend so much time piecing together the parts of the story I was missing. 

To be clear; this is not a dig at Kingdom Hearts as a franchise. I love the games and have been a fan for over 20 years. But the convoluted nature of Kingdom Hearts’ storytelling represents a wider issue that I’ve seen become far more common in games over the last decade; this need to present stories that are sprawling and needlessly complex. While I don’t think developers are intending for that to be the case, the ambitious direction of these stories is taking away from the core objective of the game; to be immersed in an interactive world and to feel invested in the characters and the stakes. A game’s story doesn’t need to weave a thousand threads and have 17 different endings to be compelling. It just needs to make me, as the player, care. 

kingdom hearts
The menu screen for Kingdom Hearts 1.5+2.5 ReMIX, which hints at the convoluted plot just by its design.

While Kingdom Hearts didn’t ultimately chase me away with the complexity of its narrative, many games since then have. Maybe part of it is because I’m getting older and I have less interest in making my brain do somersaults outside of business hours. After all, a game is supposed to be my escape from reality, not a mental workout that leaves me feeling fatigued. I only made it a few hours into Death Stranding before I put down the controller, and it had nothing to do with the slow build. But the sheer number of characters, antagonists, plot points, and time jumps short circuited me and made me wonder which of those variables was the one of greatest urgency to me as the player, now that I’m dropped in a post apocalyptic world with a fetus strapped to my chest and an Amazon locker strapped to my back. I had too many questions within the first 2 hours of the game; why do I hate my mom? Why are these people calling themselves Deadman and Die-Hardman? Why are dead bodies self destructing? What does “death stranding” mean? Why the hell is there a fetus strapped to my chest? 

I have no problem having questions at the start of a story; that’s part of the intrigue that keeps players playing. But when the answers to those questions branch into multiple different plot elements with no discernible common thread, I’m going to lose interest quickly. I had the same problem with Beyond: Two Souls and Elden Ring (or really any FromSoftware game). 

This is not to say that there isn’t an audience for those types of games. I’m well aware that games like Death Stranding weren’t designed with players like me in mind. They have a particular audience and that audience is not me. These games have received critical acclaim for a reason, and I certainly don’t discount the immense work that went into their creation. But my fear is that they have set a standard that other studios feel compelled to follow; this idea that gamers collectively gravitate towards more complex narratives and that therefore games should deliver more and more complicated stories to satiate our hunger. 

death stranding
Death Stranding protagonist Sam Porter Bridges, played by Norman Reedus, with his BB unit, nicknamed “Lou.”

But really, all I want is a main character to care about, an obstacle in their way, and an antagonist with a conflicting but compelling counter-objective.

In the initial titles, it felt like Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise was doing just that. We had two sides, the Assassins and the Templars, with clear conflicting worldviews, a conflict that spanned millennia, and protagonists that were genetically linked for easy reference. There were two stories the player followed; the present day Assassins led by Desmond Miles, and a historical Assassin (specifically Altair or Ezio) working to prevent the Templars from obtaining a mystical artifact that would allow them to rule the world. And then after Assassin’s Creed III, the narrative direction took a hard pivot, ripping away the consistent present-day narrative and interspersing new characters and settings that were often disjointed and required a closer relationship with the world’s lore to be able to follow. 

Franchises like Halo take it to another extreme with the sheer volume of books, cartoon shorts, fiction blasts on their website, and more that add exponentially to the world lore. It’s nearly impossible to understand the central conflict of the most recent game, Halo Infinite, without being familiar with several books released in the previous couple of years as well as having played Halo Wars 1 and 2, games completely different stylistically from the core franchise (the core games being first person shooters, and Halo Wars being strategy games). This expectation that players must consume other forms of media to be able to fully grasp a video game’s narrative is not only unfair, it’s unrealistic. Not everyone who plays shooters is going to turn around and play a strategy game, no matter how much they might love Halo. I sure didn’t. So imagine my frustration when I had to go read several wiki articles and watch YouTube videos explaining the Halo Wars story and characters to make sure I was fully up to speed before I could finish Halo Infinite, a game I had been waiting years for, that didn’t provide the satisfaction of resolving a cliffhanger that the previous game, Halo Guardians, had left me with. 

halo wars
The story of Halo Wars is actually very interesting. I just have no interest in playing a strategy type game.

Again, it’s important to emphasize that I fully understand and appreciate that games with complex narratives have an audience, and that it doesn’t, by default, make them bad games. Many of them are wonderful games, designed for a specific audience in mind, and that audience has enjoyed those games, and I’m thrilled for them. My concern rests with the notion that the success of those titles means that that is the type of content most gamers are itching for. It isn’t. Many of us are happy with a hero, a villain, a conflict, and a reason to care about all of them. We’re happy with lore that exists solely within the game, and when a sequel directly follows narratively from where the first game left off. While many gamers may appreciate the brain workout that comes with a game like Death Stranding, I’m perfectly happy in my bubble with The Last of Us. Sometimes, simple and straightforward is just the ticket!

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