The never-ending argument over what video games are designed for rages on. Should they just be fun, a piece of art, a fantastic story-telling experience or a combination of all three? Most would argue the latter, but for the moment I will focus on the narrative strategies in games and a particular bug-bear of mine and many others.

The experience of playing a video game, especially for us Single Players revolves heavily on the story that is weaved in front of us. Whether it’s through text, dialogue, cut-scenes, player choice or any other element; if the player is ‘immersed’ into the game’s narrative then the developers have achieved something that many others can’t admit to fulfilling successfully.

As the years progress, this factor becomes increasingly important with the growing budgets, higher popularity of famous video game voice-acting (strikes aside) and extraordinarily unfair expectations of the fans. A lacklustre attempt at portraying the story stands out nowadays, as even if the tale the developers have concocted is supreme, it won’t mean anything if the player passes it by completely.

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There is a growing trend of hidden stories. A method of making the player discover the true nature of the game’s narrative behind a series of texts and recovered documents. The culprit that springs to mind straightaway is a game that is generally received as one of the greatest of all time: Dark Souls. From Software’s masterpiece will always be held back for me by it’s almost lazy style of story-telling.

Dark Souls admittedly does a lot of things right, that’s clear to see. It’s rewarding, original, tactical, dark and very, very popular. However if you ask a lot of players to recite exactly what happened upon finishing, many would come unstuck. The true meaning behind all that transpires in Lordran is actually found among the many weapons and items recovered by the player. What is actually played out in front of you is quite basic and at first seems like a standard fantasy world, when in fact the realities are much deeper and darker.

For some this is a brilliant, perhaps innovative method of story-telling. The argument is that having to ‘work’ for the story as opposed to it being laid out in front of you is a much smarter, more involving course of action. I disagree.

As mentioned at the start of the piece, playing a game provides differing experiences depending on the player. For 99% of games, enjoyment is an absolute must. You can have short 2 hour games, cash-exorting mobile games or 100-hour epics; a staple of them all isn’t so much a good story, but they all must be fun to succeed. As an escape from reality, and a chance to kick back and relax, the last thing I want to do is read reams of text after already spending time and energy on actually playing. As discussed here, time is of the essence for us all and should be maximised when enjoying our favourite games.

I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be any reading involved at all. Some of the most interesting and thought-provoking sections come in the form of secrets and hidden treasures within games – but only so far as side-notes and Easter eggs. Hiding the main narrative behind these texts is alienating a lot of the players who won’t have any interest in putting the effort in to trawl through them. Whether this is a reflection on the players or the game is another argument but the fact is without the support of the fans, games just wouldn’t happen.

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The ‘Souls’ games get away with it due to their other outstanding attributes, as does another more recent game to follow a similar path: Metal Gear Solid V. The story is quite sparse on the outside, with less emphasis on cut-scenes compared to previous entries and more on the action. Most of the deeper elements come from radio calls, enemy conversations and cassettes that are entirely optional and miss-able. Perhaps a reaction to the previous titles, Kojima clearly wanted to try something different with his final entry, in more ways than one.

The ability to tell a good story alongside a great game is very possible. The Mass Effect series stretches into three digits’ worth of hours with fantastic RPG mechanics and exciting action, but also manages to maintain a brilliant story that’s presented directly to the player with layers upon layers of immersion. All the more impressive considering that it’s impossible to see each aspect of the game in one playthrough due to the player choices. There are still lots of hidden messages and notes relating to the side-quests and offering extra bits of information, but Mass Effect doesn’t need to rely on this method to tell its futuristic tale.

Telling you that games like Dark Souls and Metal Gear Solid V could do better is similar to telling you that Usain Bolt could run faster, I realise that. The games are fantastic and who am I to disagree? Much to the derision of my friends and even family, I have never engaged with the ‘Souls’ games and this is the main reason why. It was challenging, rewarding and involved interesting and innovative methods of gameplay, but I never really felt like I was playing for any kind of reason other than…for the sake of it. For a game to be ranked so highly, I need a bit more than that.

What’s your idea of perfect story-telling? Are you a fan of Dark Souls’ techniques? Let us know below, and follow us on Twitter or Facebook for more Single Player news, opinions and features.

Rhys Cooper

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