The more I play and write about videogames, the less I find myself interested in videogame narrative. I play games to play, not to watch a little movie. I also find myself less and less interested in the narratives themselves. It’s really rare that I’ll find a game which speaks to something deeper, more human–rare that I’ll find a game which I find applicable to my life. Final Fantasy‘s melodramatic bombast, The Legend of Zelda‘s desperate attempts to create artificial importance to its own cliched myth, The Elder Scrolls’s dry and dull fantasy novel approach set in a world whose characters never come alive well enough to make us care for them–I find these to be the rule rather than the exception. For every Bioshock, for every Bastion, for every Mass Effect–in short, for every well-written game that creates a world we enjoy spending time in, there’s a dozen games whose storyline is an afterthought, one which grabs the player’s head and forces them to watch a cutscene that’s often nowhere near as compelling as the designers think it is.
As critics, one of our jobs is to examine a work, applying our knowledge of the medium, and to place a judgment on the work in question. If we are faced with a story-heavy game, we must examine this storyline, determine whether or not the story serves its purpose, whether it overwhelms the gameplay, whether or not that’s a bad thing–we must make these judgments on the game’s narrative.
It’s in light of this that I take issue with Jason Schreier’s “Your Story Sucks“, in which he compels us not to make blanket judgments on a game’s storyline, partially because we must add qualifiers, but also because some people might like it. He’s specifically talking about people who throw out an unqualified “This game’s story sucks”, which I can appreciate–but it seems just as much like Schreier thinks a game’s storyline is ungradeable. “It’s too easy to act like stories can be measured on a scale from 1-10,” Schreier states. While I have major problems with scoring games in general–I don’t think an evaluation should be distilled into a number–in a very real way, we must metaphorically place our opinion of a game’s narrative on a scale. A critic can have an opinion based on bad faith–dismissing Mass Effect 2′s storyline because of a personal distaste for space opera, for example–but a justified opinion is what we come to critics for.
Schreier seems to think that trashing the plot of a JRPG is akin to “belittl[ing] the people who can empathize with love or revenge or betrayal….” I disagree with this interpretation because I believe it misinterprets the purpose of criticism. To adapt a maxim of Roger Ebert’s, it’s not what a videogame is about, but how it’s about it. In other words, a game can be about love and revenge and betrayal and you can like or dislike the game based on whether or not you connect to these themes, but we must evaluate. Final Fantasy XIII‘s storyline was bad not because of its subject matter but because its worldbuilding was faulty, its characters irritating, and its plot full of holes and rushed bits.
I find a lot of critics have a difficult time separating content from style. To The Moon might have a well-crafted storyline, but the focal characters are such insufferable patchworks of memes and tics and poorly-wrought dialogue that I find myself alienated from them. Dragon Age 2 may have some excellently-drawn supporting characters, but the plot they find themselves in doesn’t add up to much and actively seems to downplay player choices. Dead Space 2 has some scary setpieces, but its insistence on overconvoluting the plot, plus its complete lack of interest in its own setting, leaves the game feeling very slight. Metroid: Other M, a game which controls beautifully and is filled with meaningful, challenging combat, is constantly interrupted for a condescending, frayed storyline which may or may not be seriously misogynistic.
“Stories are not good. Nor are they bad. They’re just stories,” Schreier concludes, and I could not disagree more. There’s a weird sort of servile tone to his article, as he clucks his tongue at his fellow critics who dare to find fault with storylines. Why, people might like the stories of games you don’t like, and imagine how they must feel.
Look, I know the culture we’re in–videogame geekery is full of pissing matches and fanboyism, and it’s extremely common for people to make childish blanket statements about how something is bad and I don’t like the look and taste of it and therefore I don’t want to eat it so there. But I think Schreier leans too far in the other direction. It’s a masterpiece of complacency. Because we must admit that the majority of videogame storylines barely rise past the level of pulp. And certainly there are enough books and movies out there that are just prolefeed schlock, and there are many videogames which do achieve the status of Art. But books and films are better systems for delivering narrative than videogames are. Many developers are lazy and present their storyline by briefly turning into a book or a film, and those books and films aren’t often that great–and take the player out of the activity of play, an activity that they sought out by turning on their console. If the story overwhelms the gameplay, and isn’t all that good to begin with, I, as a critic, am perfectly comfortable saying that said story sucks.
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