Earlier today, I published a piece titled “Your Story Sucks,” in which I describe how much I detest the phrase “your story sucks.”
Later this afternoon, writer Richard Goodness posted a rebuttal titled “‘Your Story Sucks’ Sucks,” in which he refutes many of my points. It’s a great read, though I disagree with much of what he says. But there’s something I’d like to clarify.
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.
This is something of a condensed version of exactly what I’m advocating: the analysis of narrative using more critical language. Goodness claims that I’m veering too far into the land of optimism, calling my piece “a masterpiece of complacency,” but I would argue quite the opposite. My point is that we should be fighting for harsher criticism than “this is good” or “this is bad.” Those are not the questions we should be asking.
So what should we be asking? How about: How does this story make me feel? When is it most effective? Does its setting fit its themes? Do its characters have clear motivations and desires? Does its plot follow a coherent path? How does it fit into Joseph Campbell’s monomyth structure? How does it integrate player interactivity? Do the player’s actions contrast with the narrative? Can the player fight against the story’s current? Is it worth the player’s time?
Point is: Calling stories “good” or “bad” is anathema to sharp criticism. Saying things like “the story could be better” or “most game stories are shit” does nothing but exacerbate that issue. Let’s all strive for more effective storytelling — but let’s do it the right way.