The Story of and in Games

I simply cannot believe there is such a rift between those who want games with stories and those who want games with solely gameplay. Is there something I'm missing in this divide? I have seen some who value gameplay over story and vice versa but why would you want either one or the other? Okay, strike that, I can see the appeal of games focused only on gameplay. Were it not for such an idea video games as we know them wouldn't exist. That doesn't bother me, what does is the pseudo war seemingly created by the two extremes. In an age where mere opinions are grounds to ridicule and almost burn others at the stake, I shouldn't be surprised. My question then would be why does this happen? Why can't games with better stories and games with better gameplay coexist? Let's take a look back and see what was.

The 1980's started the video game revolution, there's no denying this. What titles were abundant back then, games whose only focus was to be fun. If they weren't, who would spend dozens of quarters on them? PAC MAN, one the most classic arcade titles featured only an addictive and difficult style of gameplay that would keep players coming back to get higher scores. The players were never told why PAC MAN was trapped in this labyrinth being chased by ghosts or why he gained the ability to devour these apparitions when he ate certain pellets. To be quite honest, gamers didn't care because it was fun.

Another title that debuted around the same time was CENTIPEDE; another instant classic with a non-existent story. The protagonist (if it can be considered as such) was a small arrow shaped character that was tasked with eradicating an insect menace seemingly led by a centipede. Whoa! Hold on a moment! What was that? If I didn't know any better, that has some semblance of story! Can we call it that? Yes, because it gives an indication as to what is going on this game. There is no backstory to speak of so we never find out where this scourge of bugs came from or why they are attacking but we know just from playing the game that it is the player's task to stop them. What does the player receive for defeating these insects (and arachnids)? A score based on their performance which encourages them to return or continue.

There is a second reason I chose CENTIPEDE as an example. In the late 90's Hasbro released an updated version of the game. Among the many changes was a full blown story mode. Ok, perhaps full blown is a bit generous but it was a story mode none the less. This time, players took on the role of Wally who found himself, much to his dismay, tasked with piloting a small craft capable of defeating the plague of evil that threatens his world every one hundred years. That's pretty imaginative for a game that never featured anything of the sort. Apart from this mode, the game contained a graphically enhanced version of the arcade classic. I absolutely loved this remake when it first came out. I can easily admit that it hasn't aged that well but I will always look on it fondly. It was a game that put a fresh new spin on a twenty year old game; that and I loved the art style (I know others won't agree with that and that's perfectly fine).

Before I move on, I am well aware PAC MAN has had this same treatment of course but I really cannot comment on them as I have not played them.

By now, it should be obvious that the point I'm trying to make is that games pretty much started out as story-less experiences. This points out that yes, games dedicated to gameplay not only should exist but helped shaped what we play today. Now that we've got that straightened out, we're going to look at more games similar to CENTIPEDE. These games started out with little to no story and evolved into what can almost be described as the epics of our time (I agree that might be a stretch but I'm sticking with it).

MARIO BROTHERS, the original 1983 classic, was a title that put the Mario brothers, Mario and Luigi, against a strange assortment for enemies including but not limited to turtles, crabs, icicles, and fireballs. Almost sounds like a euphemism for relationships doesn't it? I mean no offense to anyone with this quip; heck I'd identify myself as a turtle for reasons I will not divulge! Moving on… MARIO BROTHERS started out just as CENTIPEDE did but evolved into so much more in the recent years. I'm not going to say that MARIO titles have a Shakespearean story but they do have far more than they did in the 80's. Even the follow up title SUPER MARIO BROTHERS featured a bare bones story but it was clear that the player was tasked with rescuing the captive princess. A points system was indeed featured but the main focus (debatable, I know) was to finish the game by defeating the villain. What we are looking at now is one of the first games that addicted players by having fun and accessible gameplay but also giving them a goal to shoot for, not just higher and higher scores.

One of my favorites is the METROID series. You can't talk about gameplay without bringing up the almost genre defining exploration style of this series. Gone were the boundaries of left to right gaming or being limited to a single screen. In METROID, players took on the role of the mysterious Samus Aran with the goal of stopping the monstrous Mother Brain and her band of space pirates. The planet Zebes, Mother Brian's hideout, offers players an experience like no other. Samus must make her way through the planet's corridors, locked doors, and hellish atmosphere to find weapons and power-ups. Like I said earlier, this game is not a linear experience. Players must explore the entire planet and backtrack many times with better abilities to advance the game and defeat the hidden bosses. I don't mean this as in there are secret bosses, I mean that the game literally hides its bosses from the player. Now what we see for one of the first times is not only a reason as to why we have the type of gameplay featured but also a bit of back story as to why we are playing the game. Now yes, we had a bit of why in SUPER MARIO BROTHERS but that's all we had. In METROID, it is told that Samus is given this task by the Galactic Federation; this indicates an already established universe and this seems to be only one of possibly many scenarios that take place in this universe.

I would find it incredibly difficult to talk about stories in gaming without bringing up THE LEGEND OF ZELDA; arguably one of the most convoluted tales in gaming history (METAL GEAR I'm looking at you). Like MARIO, players were tasked with saving a captive princess from an evil overlord. Now why was this princess captured? Because Ganon, the prince of darkness, sought an ancient artifact which the princess had hidden from him. Why does Ganon seek the artifact called the Tri-Force? Because it would make him more powerful. Again, not the most thorough of back stories but it was enough to entice players. Also, like METROID, THE LEGEND OF ZELDA featured exploration type gameplay where the player is given only hints where to go in order to advance the game. I'd go so far as even to suggest that THE LEGEND OF ZELDA was a tad worse in this respect. I never would have found those dungeons without that old Nintendo Power guide! Why bring up THE LEGEND OF ZELDA if it was just like the others? I bring it up because unlike MARIO, THE LEGEND OF ZELDA evolved its story so far that not only the very first title but later entries as well were based off the idea that the hero would fail his quest in other titles. The lore in this series grew to gargantuan proportions when you consider it started out so basic. This evolution is exactly what I want to bring to attention. Without the ZELDA series, we may not have games like THE ELDER SCROLLS, MASS EFFECT, or even, keeping it in the same time period, FINAL FANTASY. FINAL FANTASY'S gameplay probably wouldn't have flourished as well as it did without the extremely intricate and imaginative story behind it.

Change needs a standard from which to originate. Without this base it simply becomes its own standard and nothing progresses. Since we had these games to derive from, a sort of evolution occurs. Developers try new things and push the boundaries of programming to initiate these changes and all of a sudden, we have hybrids and completely new types of gaming.

Writing has gone through many similar changes. Books filled with the greatest of fantasies gave way to magazines, newspapers, and perhaps the closest in similarity with the gaming scene would be comic books. There exist these types of written word because people crave it. The absence of change means no progress, it also means a stagnation will occur and an oversaturation of one type of media (or anything for that matter). Newspapers exist to inform, comic books to entertain, and magazines to do both. Even before that a myriad of different book types existed for the same reason just as these different types of games exist.

The evolution of these older titles into what we have today was a very gradual process. It only seems like a quick passage of time because so many minds dedicated themselves to the growth of gaming. Title after title was produced through the last three decades meaning that new things were constantly being tried and ideas were consistently generated by observing what others in the field were trying. Just look at the ELDER SCROLLS series. These games took the experience of Dungeons and Dragons and applied several gaming mechanics to it in order for it to become the story telling device we know today. The concepts from older titles such as the ZELDA games and FINAL FANTASY were merged with the blossoming technology of the first person experience made famous by games such as WOLFENSTEIN 3D and DOOM (not to mention countless others).

What makes this series so great though? (Have you played these games?) Almost everything about these titles makes them stand out. I must point out that your experience may differ from mine. As you can tell I have had a lot of fun with these games. If you haven't shared my experience guess what, that's perfectly fine! There exist so many games because so many different people exist! Back to my point now; THE ELDER SCROLLS series welcomes players into a masterfully crafted world filled with its own history and people. If this weren't enough, players are given the opportunity to create their own character almost from scratch so that they may write their very own chapter into the game's established lore. A game on this scale would have been unheard of and even physically impossible when gaming began. The developers made the games they did because they could. What if gaming had started with a title similar to ELDER SCROLLS? The emergence of arcade and competitive gaming may not have come until much later in its life.

I had planned on discussing MASS EFFECT after ELDER SCROLLS but I feel as if that would be beating a dead horse. By now we can clearly see that stories in games evolved over the years from games that had little to no story. What also should be apparent is the fact I like story driven games. I'm the type of person that favors having a reason, a purpose, behind actions such as why I may be tasked with taking on a doomsday cult or slaying a colossal beast which normally I would not bother. I'm not the competitive type that revels in a win against an opponent. Don't get me wrong, I do like winning but I personally dislike competition as a whole. I contradict myself because I do like fighting games and have fought online a few times but it should not come as a shock that the reason these games draw me in are because of the unique characters that inhabit these games. Morrigan Aensland from DARKSTALKERS, Robo-Ky from GUILTY GEAR, and Tsubaki from BLAZBLUE are some of my favorites. It doesn't help that fighters are usually flashy and fast paced which I find appealing as well but the reason I put myself through the hell that is being utterly crushed when I fight a non-computer opponent is these characters. For games that are built focused on gameplay I have to say that fighters easily contain some of the most unique characters in all of gaming (admittedly subjective).

One of the most recognizable genres of gaming that sacrifices (sometimes) story for gameplay would be first person shooters. WOLFENSTEIN 3D and DOOM may have made the idea of the first person shooter successful but it wasn't until developers realized the potential they had for competitive play. The first QUAKE was awesome but the later titles lacked that dark, gritty, and just overall creepy atmosphere. The second QUAKE acted as though the first never happened and after that the entire focus shifted completely. QUAKE 3 was one of the first titles to make online (cooperative and competitive) multiplayer a hit sensation. Afterward more titles such as UNREAL and TIMESPLITTERS catered to that style of gameplay as well. For the first time since the days of the arcade and thanks to the birth on the internet, entire games or at least half of a game could be played with more than one person. I'm not saying multiplayer never existed before now but it moved to a whole new scale.

Unless it was of a certain genre, and even then sometimes, a game featured some sort of multiplayer and it usually involved connecting to the internet. Multiplayer was now half of the game and has remained almost a staple to this day. It used to be that there were times (and there still are) where the inclusion of one mode, either the multiplayer or the single player, was but an afterthought. MASS EFFECT 3 is a perfect example of this practice. Bioware chose to broaden the game's marketability by riding the online gravy train. Realistically you cannot blame them. Games are made to make money and this was the perfect way to make more. The problem was of course the execution of this idea. The first two titles in the MASS EFFECT titles were single player games as most gamers know. This was because the focus of the series had always been the story it was telling. The inclusion of a multiplayer mode for MASS EFFECT 3 could have been a really cool thing but in the end it just turned out to be a gimmick. Did the story suffer because the resources were divided? I really can't say I wasn't there. My belief though is yes, the story could have been even better than it was (very subjective I admit) had the developers concentrated on what the game was about from the beginning. It seems as though more and more companies are realizing this and dedicating their time and effort to one aspect instead of both. Personally I applaud this. I'd much rather play a fully completed single player game and perhaps afterward a fully completed online game rather than one half of both experiences. With this retrospective completed let me ask, why the conflict?

My aim was to show that videogames have existed in many different forms for ages, something for everyone. This is exactly what we have today. Unfortunately we also have a major influx of animosity towards those who think one is better than the other. I have seen people claim that the ones who think otherwise from their beliefs are the reason one of the games they prefer wasn't better or suffered from some specific flaw. Companies will make games for whichever market makes the most money as I have said before. There is no reason a CALL OF DUTY fan should blame a fan of FINAL FANTASY (completely hypothetical) for one little detail they didn't like in the game. I should also point out that these developers also know their audiences. Why do you think there is a FINAL FANTASY that is completely online? Why do you think this appeared as an entirely separate game? These feuds are utterly pointless! Numerous times I have been turned off from a game because it lacked any sort of single player content, I'll use TITANFALL as my example. While I still want to play it, I know my experience will differ completely from what I want because I will be out of my element; I simply cannot deny my love of giant robots. I am annoyed that the developer chose to make a mech game focused on online play but rationally their decision makes sense. My annoyance is not enough that I would crucify a fellow gamer. I want to point that I do enjoy some online experiences. To this day I miss the online experience that was HALO 3.

Have I not demonstrated that all of the different types of games exist for a reason? Is there not a game for everyone? Why do people think it has to be "their way or the highway"? I have recently found myself drawn to visual novel type games because of the full focus on story. These types of games are pretty much the epitome of the single player experience. My hypothetical friend Bob doesn't like them, why would I assault him over that? Could we not benefit from each other's experience? I could tell him of an incredible plot twist in one of my games and he could show me a cool new style of play he discovered in fighting game. Together we could learn and grow from these experiences. Perhaps I would never be able to convince him to play a visual novel and chances are, no matter how hard he tried, he could never teach me how to be competitive in a fighting game. What ultimately would happen is we would respect each other enough to know our boundaries and find common ground in a game that offers both of what we seek in our perspective gaming preferences. The hypothetical John may disagree with our tastes entirely but that's fine, he doesn't have to! We are all different! There is absolutely no need to condemn someone for what they think. Opinions are just that, opinions, what we think!

Merriam-Webster defines the word opinion as "a belief, judgment, or way of thinking about something: what someone thinks about a particular thing".

I plead with my fellow gamers; stop blaming each other for what you think may be wrong with a game you enjoy. If something is wrong with a game, and I mean truly wrong, it is the companies fault. If a game didn't turn out the way you wanted it to, to bad I'm afraid. The game, once completed, is the way it is. It could be the result of too little time or money, it could also have been completed the way the developer, creator, or company wanted it to be. You can't change it once it has been completed. All you can do is give your feedback when developers ask for it. That, or make your own game.