I’d like to bring up a discussion I had with one of my video gamer friends a few days back regarding the value of a video game. Specifically, what would justify the purchase of a sixty dollar full-console experience. I was talking about how I would spend sixty smackers on Bayonetta 2, Mario Kart, Smash, Super Mario 3D World, and so on. He said that he didn’t feel those were full experiences, and when I asked why, he said something very interesting to me.
“They have no story.”
Ignoring the fact that Bayonetta 2 does have a story of questionable quality, I instead chose to ask, “Why does that matter?”
“Because I’d play something like Mario, finish it, and be done with it. I wouldn’t be invested in what was going on—I’d just be going through the levels. Without a story, I feel like I’m getting half a game.”
I thought that was a very interesting perspective on the current state of video gaming as a whole, and one that clashed immediately with my own. Ignoring the fact that not all video game stories are created equal, and that everyone has a different opinion on what makes a “good” story, the idea that not having a story at all could make for a lesser experience seemed very strange to me. And I think it spoke to the generational differences between the two of us.
See, I’m 24 years old. I’ve been playing games since I was young enough to be terrified of Doctor Robotnik (which is a story for another blog), and my first game console was a Sega Genesis. The first game I ever completed was one of the Sonic games (I forget which, probably 2?), and those 2D platformers were the basis of my gamer ideas.
My friend, on the other hand, just turned 18. He’s never owned a console that wasn’t made by Sony—his earliest gamer experiences were with things like Crash Bandicoot. Sly Cooper is among his favorites, as is Jak and Daxter and, more recently, Infamous. He talks about those games the same way I talk about classic Sonic, with a nostalgic air and eye.
The games I grew up with had very little story at all. Sonic didn’t do much more than run to the right and break robots. I played a lot of platformers with a similar style, and for a long time, when I thought of video games, I thought of merely going right and navigating obstacle courses. He thought of collecting things, exploring 3D environments, and most important to this discussion, stories that defined his childhood.
This blog is not about the quality of video game storytelling (after all, I think Uncharted 3‘s story is a load of garbage, up there with Heavy Rain and LA Noire) but rather the idea that games need to have story as a focus, as if not having one makes for an inferior product.
I bought Super Mario 3D World knowing that there would be next to no story and wanting none. I wanted Nintendo’s classic polished platforming and creative level design. I got it, and do not think the game is lesser because of it. In fact, I’d rather Mario have no story than the stuff pushed in Super Mario Sunshine. My friend would feel very differently. Nintendo games actually don’t appeal to him because of the lack of story. He like Kart Racing, but would rather play Modnation Racers over Mario Kart, not because it’s a superior kart-racer, but because there’s a story mode.
I wonder if this is becoming a trend for modern gaming. As games strive more and more to emulate Hollywood, it seems that the focus is shifting away from game challenges such as surviving and learning the system, and instead looking more at creating interactive cinematic experiences.
I personally think that’s a shame, because cinematic experiences can be enjoyed in other mediums. Movies, television, and books all can accomplish the same thing, debatedly better, than a video game could. Yet, video games can do so much more.
I know that story-based video gaming has its place, certainly. I play JRPGs after all, and really enjoy things like The Walking Dead and Gone Home. But I never felt that a game was inferior for having no story. A bad story, yes (especially when that’s the game’s selling point), but a game like Mario does not need a story like a game like The Walking Dead does.
So, now I turn it over to you—I’ve rambled and meandered long enough. What do you think? Are you more like my friend, or me? I’d love to hear from you and discuss in the comments.