Your Story Sucks

On Twitter yesterday, my friend Andrew Groen wrote something that bugged me.

“It’s always baffling that so many people place so much importance on the story of a video game when game stories are near universally shit,” he said.

While Twitter is regularly filled with sweeping generalizations like this, Andrew’s statement rubbed me all sorts of wrong ways. “Game stories are near universally shit.” What does that even mean? How can a 30-year-old form of media that has told tales in myriad forms, from the text-based enchantments of interactive fiction to the melodramatic zippers of Japanese role-playing games, be “near universally shit”?

I don’t want to pick on Andrew, here: Many, many videogame critics and fans have made comments like that over the years. I’m sure I have too. For every game that tries to tell a story, there’s a gamer saying its story sucks or a review making declarations like “the story could’ve been better.”

The problem with these sort of statements is that they simply don’t mean anything. It’s okay to strive for more engaging narratives, but unless we’re willing to acknowledge that storytelling is a nuanced and multifaceted craft as complicated as videogames themselves, our criticism isn’t accomplishing anything. Stories are too personal, too varied, too subtle to lump into ridiculously definitive categories like “good” and “bad.”

We enjoy stories because we enjoy the emotional investment of connecting to a character’s goals and desires. If we’re not connected, it’s easy to dismiss a story as “shit” without trying to recognize why. A story could be worthless to us for any number of reasons. Could be because we’re feeling grouchy that particular morning or we just can’t relate to a given protagonist. Maybe we’re just sick of World War II games. Or we want more muppets.

These might be legitimate gripes, but they’re also personal ones. It’s too easy to scoff at a piece of narrative without trying to understand how other people might find some sort of meaning in it. It’s too easy to throw around a term like “this story sucks” without pointing out why it didn’t grip you. It’s too easy to act like stories can be measured on a scale from 1-10.

Take Dragon Age II. I attacked BioWare’s latest RPG for feeling rushed and disjointed. I couldn’t connect to the characters, I thought the settings were mundane, and I found the climax meaningless because it didn’t seem to be affected by any of the choices I’d made.

But plenty of fans and critics were inspired by the game’s flawed cast. They were enamored by Varric’s friendship, Isabela’s confidence, Merril’s naivety. Should I ignore that and call the story “shit” because I found nothing appealing about it? Stories are too important to be treated with that kind of disregard.

JRPGs are another easy target: It’s easy to criticize the silly plots common to games like the Final Fantasy series, which are often filled with mawkish moments, bizarre proper nouns, and unequivocally hammy dialogue. But to call those stories “shit” is to belittle the people who can empathize with love or revenge or betrayal, no matter the trappings. Sometimes, even the most ridiculous plot can make you feel something real. And who among us has never fallen in love with a silly story?

As somebody whose primary interest in videogames is exploring their narrative potential, I have found myself falling in love with many games’ stories over the years, from Suikoden II to The Secret of Monkey Island to Planescape: Torment to Earthbound to Xenogears to Zork Zero and countless others. Each story has its own appeal, its own pull — and sure enough, its own weaknesses.

Ultimately, it is poisonous to analyze narrative with the same absolute language we might use to talk about a phone or a set of steak knives. Stories are not good. Nor are they bad. They’re just stories.

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9 thoughts on “Your Story Sucks

  1. Jeff Rivera

    I rarely have too much of an issue with the quality of narrative in games. I do appreciate a good, well written story, but gameplay is still the biggest factor I have when evaluating a game.

    I do tire of the constant recycling of tropes, however. It seems that Eastern development is a bit more guilty of story cliche, but the West isn’t guiltless either. But hey, when you compare video games to film, I don’t think the ratio of timeless to disposable narrative is too far out of whack, given that games are generally meant to entertain on a fairly shallow level.

    Reply
  2. Jared Newman

    Yeah, it’s dangerous to generalize, but a lot of video games suffer from the same narrative flaws–cringe-inducing dialog, rushed voice acting and bad cliches, to name a few–that make it harder to connect with the story and characters. Certainly we can overlook these flaws and fall in love with silly stories, but it’d be great if we didn’t have to do it so often.

    Reply
  3. John Walker

    As someone who primarily plays games for their stories, whether they be pre-written scripts or narrative experiences, I think it’s essential that we not blind ourselves to the extreme poverty of gaming story writing.

    Above you list very few examples, most of which you qualify by pointing out that they’re hackneyed, cliched, or otherwise wanting. Sure, people can engage with those – people can engage with the worst daytime soap operas too, that’s not an indication of quality or success.

    There are some lovely gaming stories. There’s Day Of The Tentacle, The Longest Journey, To The Moon, Planescape Torment, Dragon Age, Psychonauts, and so on. But they are the rare examples, rather than any sort of pattern or rule.

    And I think it’s absolutely fair to say that none of them comes close to matching the best of novels, film, etc. In fact, even writing that made me feel a bit self-conscious, so far does games writing fall short.

    Games have surfed on the excuse of their youth for too long now. Thirty years is far too long for the sophistication of writing to still be so infantile. Perhaps the medium just isn’t suitable, or more likely, the financial input necessary to create a game doesn’t support he limited sales of a game that has a story that’s perhaps difficult, complicated, or challenging. Because I cannot think of a single game that falls into those categories.

    And yes, of course you can argue that the appreciation of a story is subjective, but we can certainly identify when something is well written, rather than poorly written. It doesn’t mean people won’t enjoy or even be emotionally engaged in something poorly written – God knows, there are enough examples of that in every medium – but it doesn’t stop their being poorly written.

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    1. ddsfan2

      I’m with you on the generally poor quality of game storytelling, but I dislike the sentiment expressed in the statement:

      “And I think it’s absolutely fair to say that none of them comes close to matching the best of novels, film, etc. In fact, even writing that made me feel a bit self-conscious, so far does games writing fall short.”

      Why? Because storytelling in games is a radically different experience than in a book or a movie, even when choices are taken into account. Books don’t have animated visuals, music, (probably the most significant to me) or interactivity, and movies are extremely short, and are not interactive. The way I see it, even one of these differences is enough to justify the existence of games as a storytelling medium.

      Furthermore, there are a large number of games with stories that are at least passably good, or at least enough that one person would have to play for years on end to finish all of them.

      I’m not excusing the junk in game storytelling, or even suggesting that there is anything wrong with purely gameplay focused games, but it’s silly to suggest that gamers as a whole aren’t familiar with good movies or classic books. I’d like to see more professional writers involved in writing game stories, and with people completely disregarding story as a purchasing factor in games, how is criticism of this sort supposed to help the situation?

      Reply
  4. Pingback: RE: “‘Your Story Sucks’ Sucks” « jason schreier

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  7. ddsfan2

    I mostly agree with Jason, in no small part because most of the people who make the statement “It’s always baffling that so many people place so much importance on the story of a video game” are specifically the people who play games that either have little to no story, or games that would be considered by a writer to have poor quality writing.

    The latter statement “game stories are near universally shit” is generally true, but the particular way that it is written rubs me the wrong way. There are more than enough good to compelling game stories (or at least that offer a unique experience) for any person that is actually interested in playing those games.

    One thing that I will admit is that there are several major franchises that are hyped on the basis of story which have a very poor quality narrative, (specifically something like Metal Gear Solid) but even among those, the story can still be very appealing, much as Jason noted.

    I also don’t like the fact that games are compared to movies so often, because movies are too short to offer much of any character development, and at least to me, feel really incomplete. Unless we’re comparing against something of large scope like a critically acclaimed long running sci-fi or fantasy TV series, (which there are very few in number) I fail to see how games are an “inappropriate” medium for story.

    The main reason why there is such a large quantity of garbage in game stories is that fans and critics primarily critique games on the basis of gameplay, so in the case of AAA games in particular, bad stories are tolerated, especially if the cinematics are elaborate or flashy. Whereas, I’ve seen games with very good stories, but good but not especially innovative gameplay get poor or average reviews (eg. Nier, Yakuza, Catherine and many others)

    I have no problem with people lamenting the quality of most game stories; what I do have an issue with, is when someone claims that story is “a waste of time”, or is “irrelevant” in gaming. That position holds back quality storytelling in games far more than mediocre or terrible stories ever will.

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