Story, a Powerful Ally

Alan Wake's gamepaly is driven by its story.

I’ve been playing video games since I was old enough to type at a keyboard and hold a joystick. In that span of time I’ve played hundreds of games, dare I even say a thousand. I realize now that I am biased. For me, the story trumps everything.

For others (or most), gameplay is king. Look at what types of games are popular now: fighting, sports, multiplayer FPS. Story just isn’t a central element of these games; and, because of that they are forgettable to me, and typically not my first pick for something to play. Some play CoD: Black Ops just for the mutiplayer. Heck, the original PC Battlefield 2 didn’t even have a single player campaign. I have seen game collections of some friends who only own multiple “years” of sports titles, and can justify why they still have Madden NFL 08 on the shelf.

The flavor text on the original Vampire CCG cards was often longer than the card description itself.

My experience with gaming, in general, is slightly different. I can tolerate a not-yet-mature gameplay mechanic if the story is captivating. I build Magic: The Gathering decks that are themed and storied, even if it does nothing in the way of helping me win (Example: Super Mario Bros deck containing fireballs and warp worlds). I enjoy reading flavor texts when they appear in games, just to increase my immersion in the game’s world. I also seek out supplementary material when available, such as the Mass Effect comics, or Alan Wake web video series.

The Story is the reason…

This had led me to form some controversial opinions about certain games: I still favor Mass Effect 1 over Mass Effect 2, I think the original Assassin’s Creed is still worth playing for the slow-moving Absergo sequences, and I believe Alan Wake is a better game than Red Dead Redemption (I’m looking at you, Mexico). And I still believe that System Shock 2, despite containing a ton of text for a game of its kind, is one of the best games OF ALL TIME.

“Story” is the reason why I finally played Max Payne 1 and 2 for the first time earlier this year. It is the reason why Heavy Rain was such a great game, and why you should go back and play Indigo Prophecy (and, if you’re really serious, Omikron: The Nomad Soul). It is why games like Beyond Good and Evil and Psychonauts become cult classics, despite lacking commercial success. It is why you know what I am talking about when I mention the ending to Super Metriod, or the “Opera Scene” without mentioning the game’s name. Story is also what makes a simple game like Portal go from “good” to “great”. And it is one of many reasons why you can get excited about Star Wars: The Old Republic as a “new breed” of MMORPG:

… games be elevated into greatness, or come apart at the seams.

Stories have the ability to both make and break a game. What we see in a number of modern games it a front-loading of plot elements (and action) into the first fifteen minutes. Its no secret that the goal of this tactic is to get you to buy a game after playing at a friend’s house, at a store, or after downloading a demo. This seemed to be the case with Brutal Legend, whose story was action packed up-front, but seemingly fell to the wayside in the middle of the game during RTS-combat and side quests. In other cases, a story cannot hold until the end of a game. Red Dead Redemption fell flat in the middle, and, admittedly, the plot twists of Indigo Prophecy got a little out of control toward the end.

Try it, they're not kidding

On the brighter side, games can reward you for hanging with them even when things don’t immediately make sense; such is the case with Portal and Braid, when the player finally reaches those a-Ha! moments. More recently, there have been a rash of indie games, whose minimal gameplay but interesting premise, challenge you to rethink what future tripe-A titles might actually be capable of. I’d recommend checking out One Chance, and The Graveyard. These are off the beaten path, but should illustrate the power of different types of narrative in games.

Open Thread

How has storytelling in games effected your experiences or enjoyment with them? Has a game every been ruined for you by the story? What are some of your favorite video game stories? Tell us your tale…


Hi, I’m one of the founders of Nerd Appropriate and the Rated NA podcast.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Ash

    How has storytelling in games effected your experiences or enjoyment with them?

    In recent years I find myself comparing all titles to a handful of great games that have stellar narratives. When the story in a game falls short (Infamous pops into mind), it can totally ruin the game, no matter how great the game play is.

    Has a game every been ruined for you by the story?

    I was very disappointed in Metal Gear Solid 4. The game was beautiful and a lot of fun, but I played through it twice and could not tell you what the hell it was about.

    What are some of your favorite video game stories? Tell us your tale…

    I remember being blown away by Final Fantasy when Palom and Porom turned themselves to stone to help your Avatar escape… I was a little kid and totally transfixed by what was one of the first great stories in a game. I also remember feeling overwhelmed by the Mass Effect universe because there was so much to learn. Those crazy Bioware bastards not only made a game, they made a whole universe.

    1. Derek

      I felt the same way about Infamous. I think that game struggled because of having the choice between good and evil. That probably requires WAY more work than people realize when creating games. Same experience for me on Metal Gear Solid 4. I loved it, but after having played all the Metal Gear Solid games I still have no clue what the series is really about.

  2. Derek

    I completely agree with you. If a game has great gameplay but lacks a story I won’t stay hooked for nearly as long. The only thing that keeps me coming back to games like the Battlefield or CoD series is the ability to play with friends online. However, I’m also pretty unforgiving when it comes to gameplay mechanics, probably because I don’t know anything about making games. I used to play Warhammer 40,000 quite a bit and I always created a themed army that had an elaborate background instead of the powergamer army that would crush people. I feel generally the same way about movies, books and comics too. When I like something, I want to know everything about the universe.

  3. Scott

    Derek, I think the comment about multiplayer gaming gets at the larger question of why people play video games. There’s definitely that social aspect that makes games like Borderlands a ton of fun, despite having no idea what the story was when I played online. I think story driven games are still my first choice, but gaming with friends is definitely a close second.

  4. Scott

    A couple more notes: You can also tell a story without saying a word. Another World / Out of this World did a great job of that.

    Also with respect to digital media in particular, music also plays an important role in storytelling. It’s obvious in Star Wars, but maybe not so obvious in a game like Heavy Rain, and even Braid. However, we’d probably need to carry the music discussion into an entirely new article.

  5. CAS

    I also enjoy a good game story and that will often be one of my first questions when someone recommends a game to me, “How’s the story?”

    A Tale of Two Pacific Northwests

    I played Deadly Premonition and directly followed that up with Alan Wake.

    Deadly Premonition has miserable game mechanics and pretty awful graphics. Some of the game play was extremely frustrating (ceiling crawlers anyone?) But the story is absolutely amazing. And the characters are incredibly quirky and unique.

    Alan Wake has extraordinary graphics and really fun game mechanics (light!). And while I appreciated how they told the story and how it unfolded, overall, I did not enjoy the story. (And got a little tired of the voice overs.) All the awesome game design in the world wasn’t going to save that game for me.

    I’ve completely forgiven Deadly Premonition for all its failings because what I find myself returning to when I think about that game is the story. It’s unforgettable.

    1. Ash

      CAS – I heard that Deadly Premonition pulled a lot of Ideas from Twin Peaks. Did you get a “Twin Peaks” vibe from it?

  6. CAS

    At the time I played it I had not seen Twin Peaks. But now I’ve watched the first season and can say there are definite similarities.

    Some people aren’t happy with the similarities, but it’s such a great mood and atmosphere. If I’d been a fan of the show first, I think I’d be excited to play Twin Peaks: The Video Game.

    1. Ash

      You’re not the only person I’ve heard of that was a big fan of Deadly Premonition. At this point I’m going to have to find a copy of it and give it a go. I also agree that while Alan Wake was a very solid game, it felt unfinished in the end. Almost as if I was playing the middle chapter of a much larger story.

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