Thoughts on Video Game Plots


It’s really something that seems to be almost overlooked these days, as we talk about this game’s interface, that game’s level design, that other game’s combat.  What can tie everything together, what can give a reason for gamers to really get into a game, is the plot.

A plot can do many things for a game—it can be the reason gamers slog through boring game play, or it can enrich an already-fun game even further.  It can be many things, but lately, it seems to be primarily an after-thought—games are lauded for their mechanics and design, but the story doesn’t really “make or break” a title anymore.

Thankfully, this is not a site devoted to current games, so we can think back to the time when the story was important to games.  That’s not to say there weren’t vapid titles without even enough plot to fill a thimble.  Oh, no, there were plenty of titles that were fun for other reasons but had a less-than-clear story (I’m still not entirely clear on the plot of Robocop versus the Terminator, for example).  However, I say those were, by far, the minority.

Contrarily to what some may believe, this game DID have a plot—technically.

You also had stories which were, by design, simplistic, but told well enough for what they were.  Take Super Mario Bros.—the princess of the Mushroom Kingdom was kidnapped by Bowser, and it was up to the Mario Brothers to go rescue her.  It wasn’t exactly Tolstoy, but it worked well enough.

A good story should act as a spice in a meal—strong, if necessary, or subtle, if that’s necessary, but no matter what it should add to the game.  Something as subtle as Super Mario Bros. was perfectly suited for the game; the player was never left confused.  They knew what they were doing and why they were doing it (though why they couldn’t just go to the last world so as to bypass the “she’s in another castle” thing, well, that’s a question that’s not really been answered).

You also had plenty of plot-heavy games, and we’re talking more than just the role-playing games like the Final Fantasy series.  Take a game like Spider-Man and Venom: Maximum Carnage.  The cut-scenes told a story that was very faithful to the comic book plot arc that inspired it.  It wasn’t perfect, but few video game stories are.  It was told well and it didn’t confuse the player, which are the important parts.

When a story is told poorly, it feels like the protagonist is just pushed from location to location, with only as much rhyme or reason necessary to say “why” there are ten enemies standing between you and the exit, with one of them holding the key card/key/password/whatever else.  It doesn’t feel as much a coherent plot as much as a string of loose explanations.

There’s another aspect to the plots of video games beyond whether they’re told well—sometimes, whether they’re told well or not, they seem to operate by different rules than the game play they supposedly bolster.

One example that I think is a true snapping of the cables suspending disbelief is when a technically powerful character, one who also should by all rights be well-renowned—is tasked to do things like clean stables or, a more common example, go on a wildlife killing spree just to collect something trivial.  Most common in M.M.O.s (though as modern gaming becomes grander in scale and scope, it’s becoming less rare outside of that genre), you could have slain the Ancient Dragon of Infinite Awesomeness, slew thousands of gnolls in a dungeon to gain the Bejeweled Scepter of Wonderfulness, and then, because you had the time, saved the planet—but by cracky, those rats won’t kill themselves, and the non-player character certainly isn’t about to do something for themself.

The age-old question...

Then there’s another “favorite”—the old “resurrection magic only counts when it’s not part of the plot”.  Or, to use a specific, oft-observed example, why didn’t Cloud use a Phoenix Down on Aeris?  Heck, there’s even a Facebook group devoted to that.  While there are good-sounding reasons for that specific example, there have been numerous games where magic, technology, or whatever else could bring a character back from the dead—sometimes with no more effort in-game than it takes the player out of game to navigate the relevant menus.  It can make the concept of “death” almost ludicrous.

There are other issues, of course, of varying degrees of disbelief-snapping—arbitrary limits on the number of people in your “party”, having to solve illogical puzzles to proceed for no in-game reason, N.P.C.s supposedly chasing the protagonist through a dungeon manages to ambush the protagonist—even though the player had to navigate insane platforming elements and solve ridiculous puzzles to even get there.  The list could go on and on, really.

It’s almost sad, really, that the list of ways a plot can be adversely affected seems to be longer than the ways it can be positively affected.  (I’m also not sure if the fact that there’s an eHow article about how to write a plot for a video game is a sign of anything…)  I like to think that it’s because that’s how much the plot can affect our game play “experience”, even if we don’t usually think about it.

I also think that we should think about it.  How many great games have been great because of their plot?  Further, how many games that were fun in spite of a shoddy plot would have been even better if the plot were more coherent and/or told better?  A plot can have just as much impact on a video game as the mechanics that game uses.  Again, it’s like a spice—used well, it can add a completely different, but delicious, flavor, or add just a subtle touch.

There have been games I’ve forced myself to play through because the plot was great, but other aspects weren’t.  There have also been games I’ve played with bad stories but wonderful game mechanics.  The games I remember the clearest, though, were the ones who married the game play and the story well.  The ones who crafted something that worked like two halves of a whole.

I hope I can say the same thing ten years from now.

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2 Responses to “Thoughts on Video Game Plots”

  1. My favorite game rely’s heavily on plot. Silent Hill 2 was dark, immersive and downright weird in almost every way. The story drove the characters and the actions and felt very literary in the way it came together. But what sets this game apart is the fact that the loose ends are not entirely tied-up at the end. No matter how many different endings you played towards, it seemed like there was another veil and left a lot of speculation as to why events in the game happened in the first place.

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