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.