Why Storytelling in Mainstream Video Games Doesn’t Work

Category: On Writing Posted: November 21st, 2016

One of my great passions, other than reading, writing, films, and music, is with video games. I’ve played them since around 1987 and grew to love the wonderfully imaginative world the likes of Nintendo created on the NES, SNES, N64, and more recently the Wii U.

As with everything, the industry has adapted and now it’s headed by Sony and Microsoft with the PS4 and Xbox One, respectively. I own neither, simply as I find the majority of titles released on both to typically be ultra-violent, uninspired Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty clones.

Indeed, the industry has moved towards replicating movies and, for the most part, the results are embarrassing. Video game scripts and dialogue are a hundred years behind canonical literature and decades behind the best films.

I did watch in the hugely flawed Video Games: The Movie one developer confidently claiming games tell a story just as well as a film or a novel. There are a few exceptions, such as the Last of us and Final Fantasy VII, but the large part the scripts are simply embarrassing for the industry.

What’s worse is everyone appears to be used to this state of affairs and it’s passed off as one of those things. However, it’s so hugely detrimental to the gameplay experience – modern gamers have to sit through unbelievably tedious cut scenes which utterly dominate the gaming experience. Cutting edge it is not, but thankfully this largely seems to only inflict the absolute forefront of mainstream gaming.

Conversely, Nintendo has stuck to its roots and (although its games have advanced spectacularly in terms of graphics and gameplay), story is always minimal. Even in its legendary Zelda franchise, the action adventure games aren’t burdened with endless cut scenes and reams of text. The company’s famed creative genius, Shigeru Miyamoto, has even come forward to state developers can’t learn anything from films. The result is, despite Nintendo’s consoles not matching Sony and Microsoft for sales, the company has produced the best exclusives of this generation of consoles.

Elsewhere, the vibrant indie game community (which is a breath of fresh air amongst the violent FPSs) on Steam adds to Nintendo’s standing. These smaller developers create gaming experiences based on the classic heydey of gaming in the ’80s and ’90s. Arguably, these are the best games in the industry, with titles such as Ori and Blind Forest (which features a brilliantly concise, emotive story), Teslagrad, and Shovel Knight utterly shaming enormous developers with $100 million budgets to spend on AAA titles.

The good news is, as a gamer, you get to choose where you want to go. Every desire is catered for, but if the industry wants itself to be taken seriously on a cultural front, it has to put more effort into story development. Currently, writers appear to be content with watching an episode of Power Rangers and stuffing an adaptation of hilariously poor dialogue into the latest CoD clone. The alternative is to head to the indie scene or turn to Nintendo, who offer imaginative titles which aren’t plagued with disastrous writing.

For samples of the games I think get it right, you can visit my Video Game section on my blog.

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