Currently, “battle royale” games like Fortnite and PUBG are hot commodities in the gaming industry. Likewise, esports is continuing its growth as a sector that continues to draw in funding, investment, and attention from companies, advertising, and media. Before this, there was a brief moment there where MOBAs were all the rage (and I need only point you to LoL and Heroes of the Storm for the evidence). And of course, games like StarCraft are still going fairly strong in certain sectors, where they have their devoted playerbase and events hosting teams that compete for prizes. What do all of these games have in common?
They’re all multiplayer, competitive, fast-paced, and… lacking a narrative, like a football game. To get any kind of narrative, beyond playing announcer and following along with events in the moment as they occur, you have to go back to previous matches and games; you have to widen your gaze to a season. That’s the first place where any kind of story might be developed beyond the blow-by-blow frenetic moments of each match. Football films, for example, almost never just look at the events of one game. The Rocky films are the same way. To build a story, to even have the makings of a narrative beyond the rote accounting of what takes place inside one game — to know these people beyond the numbers of their jerseys, you must go beyond one game or one match.
If you doubt me, take anyone who has never watched or followed football or an esports game before, tell them the rules, and then see what kind of story they can make of it. I doubt many of them will see much. (Of course, now that the gauntlet is thrown, I’m sure some intrepid commenter will make it their personal life’s work to prove me wrong, to which I say, hey, knock yourself out; it’ll be the exception that makes the rule.)
Given the trends and commercial success of these endeavors, and the apparent plans that the industry has to keep building on and developing their offerings that fit these genres, I am prompted to ask: What about the story?
Where has the Narrative gone?
One could be forgiven for arriving at an obvious conclusion given the state of affairs: Story doesn’t matter much anymore. Games that traditionally focused on story are, after all, disappearing from AAA studios. Gone is Dragon Age and Mass Effect, following Andromeda‘s debacle. The Witcher stands alone as another offering that seems to have reached a conclusion. There’s barely any distinctive narrative in many other single player games made by AAA studios anymore, just in case you were going to offer me God of War, Call of Duty, or Assassin’s Creed. There’s just enough to hold the game together and make some basic sense between segments–most of the time.
These are primarily single player games, save for whatever multiplayer dimensions have been added to them. Narrative lives and thrives most traditionally and conventionally in single player game format, much like it has in a book by one author, for each reader, each on their own. It does not develop much on the sports field beyond ritual rivalries, personal goals and contests, and drama between players and coaches. Beyond an athlete wrestling with addiction, or being arrested, or general misconduct, as well as the scoring and points they put up, there’s very little there to work with, and even less when you widen the lens to just teams on teams, which is precisely the sort of contest we have with multiplayer arena, MOBA, and other competitive team esports.
Whatever narrative there is, is bounded inside a frame that everyone knows, the results all being reached at some point, in forms we nearly always recognize ahead of time. My point is, beyond things we don’t often see, like simultaneous strategies by teams or players that look identical, or some event that we haven’t witnessed before, like a rare usage of an ability, there’s not much left beyond the kind of thing Mitchell and Webb satirize here:
Imagine that video pertaining to an esport of your choice, and it would fit surprisingly well, with little effort.
Indeed, At the Game Awards hosted by Geoff Keighley, Bethesda, another maker of single player roleplaying games, such as Fallout 4 and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, actually made a 90 second commercial about the disappearance of single player games:
As a result, the kind of narrative that may be developed more intricately, more deeply, with attention to character and plot that goes beyond “LOOK HOW HARD HE HIT HIM THERE! WHOA!” is difficult to find among studios and publishers who have more money to pour into the story. Where we are finding those stories increasingly is in smaller developers, like Obsidian, InExile Entertainment, and Larien Studios, who have focused on more manageable projects that can be meaningfully and effectively crafted by smaller teams, like top-down RPG’s that resemble those of 10-15 years ago.
Is Narrative no longer worth having?
An argument could be made that as long as players are engaged, challenged, motivated, and/or “having fun,” then their stories are the ones that really matter. Certainly, I imagine that helps a lot of people sleep very well at night, especially the companies that feel that all you really need for a story is to bring a few people who can string a sentence together for a bunch of storyboards that already have several graphical teams hard at work on the visuals and…. just glue them together somehow. Who cares anyway. The pretense for creating a narrative that speaks to the characters involved, and the events they work through is dropped altogether in arena games! Let the players just enjoy themselves, Fallon! Let an action movie be an action movie, and let games be games.
As though an action movie cannot have character development or plot. As though narrative cannot be engrossing and enjoyable on its own merits. Tell that to all of the gamers who enjoyed games that sucked them in like a good book with things like caring about the characters, thinking about the story, and sparking their thoughts enough to think about how the world they’re playing in actually works on some kind of fictional cultural level, or what the social and philosophical dynamics of the environments and groups of people they encounter are. Tell that to all of those gamers who have actually enjoyed every bit of lore they’ve uncovered in an Elder Scrolls game, who were fulfilled by the dark fantasy atmosphere, perils, and conflict of a Dragon Age game, and those who to this very day look back with adoration and fondness on a game where narrative and culture and character development are every bit as important as any other function of the game–a game like Planescape:Torment.
These games don’t rush you, unless rushing is part of the meaningfulness of the event that’s occurring. You’re not in a competition to accomplish your goals; you’re allowed to address them at your own pace, in the way that speaks most to your understanding of who your character is, who the other characters are, and where you stand on the major conflicts. None of these games sacrifice the challenges we expect from our games; they demonstrate that story matters. They demonstrate that a game maintains a hold over us long after we’re done because we made a lasting connection, precisely because we did feel something, know something, and formed a kind of empathetic bond with those characters and the trials they endured. Their challenge was our challenge; it wasn’t just a functional, mechanical challenge of “Hey, hit the timing on that platform right, and execute those next three maneuvers in perfect sync with each other.” It meant something beyond the mechanics, on a personal, emotional, and intellectual level. It wasn’t just twitch and reflexes, it was meaningful on a level beyond how good your timing is, or how high you could jump.
I’m not saying that twitch reflexes, hitting trick shots, pulling stunts in game that probably were never intended or even imagined by the developers are not worthwhile, that engaging challenges, goals, and activities are not or could not be the highlight of a player’s experience–they very much are; otherwise, platformers, shooters, and arena games clearly wouldn’t have the fanbase they do. But I’m saying that just like we wouldn’t want to sacrifice those mechanics, and games that have them, we shouldn’t be sacrificing story and characters either.
We can have both: Story and Mechanics
Bioshock was another game I remember fondly for the interwoven political and social critique the developers built into the game. The context and story of Bioshock takes place in an undersea community built for the top 1%, so that they could basically leave everyone else behind and live amongst themselves exclusively. The critique of a religiously righteous capitalist utopia founded by Andrew Ryan, a man whose name is an anagram of Ayn Rand, is a prime example of blending narrative and character development into what is basically a first-person shooter. The recordings that you piece together matter to give you some understanding of how things all went to hell there, and furthermore, how you have been part of this indoctrinated process all along. Without that, you’re just shooting people who are psychotically murderous and the occasional Big Daddy.
Again, I know some people are fine with that. Doom and Wolfenstein are both games that give you a “ready-to-go” mob of bad guys to fight: Nazis and demons; and for good measure, those two aren’t always separate. They don’t need you to explore or wonder beyond that: here are some guys most of you have grown up learning are “bad” so the developers are off the hook to provide any motivation beyond that for putting them down.
Likewise, the developers don’t need to make it so you’ve got no choice but to read through their story. Dragon Age: Origins is another game I appreciated for not just the depth of lore, history, cultural elements, but also preserving my agency to affect and choose those events within the story. Yes, when I went to the tower, I would be confronted with the outbreak of demons there, but how I handled that, and who I sided with mattered, not just to that quest, but to the world itself.
It was precisely for this reason–that your choices mattered, and added to and interacted meaningfully with the narrative of the game–that players got upset with Dragon Age: Inquisition when they realized their choices in previous games didn’t end up mattering that much. You can’t sit there and tell me they were upset because the pace of the fights didn’t measure up, or the bosses were not the same caliber… this wasn’t a Dark Souls complaint about game mechanics; this was a narrative complaint. The players cared about the narrative they took part in and they wanted their impact to mean something beyond game mechanics. The same could be said about the initially truncated ending of Mass Effect 3; players weren’t complaining about the mechanics; they were complaining because the ending was “red, blue or green” and there was (initially) no narrative beyond that. They cared about the story after the game was finished, the part beyond any game mechanics.
By the same token, the fight for Haven in Dragon Age: Inquisition is one of the most memorable moments in that game for me. Bear in mind, it was a fight; what made it significant and memorable for me, however, beyond the fittingly epic music score during that fight and the difficulty of the multiple segments of that entire battle, were the narrative implications and stakes: You’re still just this person with this weird power to close rifts. You’ve gone around and tried to help people and keep them from ripping each other to pieces. You’ve completed a major quest to align yourself with one side or another. And there’s Corypheus at the head of an army of those you couldn’t save. Your back is against the wall, and here’s this ancient magister of the Tevinter Imperium–a guy who claims to have been to the Golden City before it was the Black City–a place that is featured centrally as the “Fall of Man” equivalent of Adam and Eve being banished from Eden, and the rebel angels forced from heaven. This is a plot point that connects you, right there in the moment, with one of the most significant events of Dragon Age lore.
And it happens just as everything you’ve worked for in the first Act is under siege. By now, anyone who has played the other three games and knew the lore, even broadly, knew the implications, narratively for that fight. They knew that this was the Past and the Present and the Future of Thedas coming together in one single moment, and your character is right in the eye of the storm. Game mechanics and narrative came together to make that fight what it was: epic.
Bringing Story Back
I understand that companies put money and profits first. I get that they want to capitalize (pun intended) on what’s hot right at the moment, and how many numbers they can put up. I get that sports will always be popular (it seems) and that they may always bring in more numbers than any other type of entertainment.
But it seems a shame to me that the trend in AAA publishers and companies appears to be to keep a portfolio that only consists of those projects that make the most profit. I admire and respect the efforts of smaller developers to keep putting out games that value meaningful plot, lore, and character development. Those studios understand that, regardless of whether they may be seduced by the idea that all you need is flash and bang, many, many people actually do appreciate a good story. And consistently, good stories have endured and done well by those who have invested in them. Examples include the devoted following the games I’ve listed above have had, and films and TV series that were stories first, and movies and shows second, though done well, with attention to the spirit of the story, and the intent to preserve and represent it fully; movies like Lord of the Rings and shows like Game of Thrones. Behind those very monetarily successful endeavors was an author who wrote for the story first and foremost.
Game developers and studios should do better than sacrifice the richness and fulfilling connection gamers form to those games that welcomed them into a world that invited them to learn all they could about it, and introduced them to characters they could feel like they knew well enough to form a bond with, to write fanfic about, and to complain when publishers shortchanged these relationships to stay on a release schedule. I don’t know that these projects will ever make more than esports games, but there’s more to the entertainment we love than simply how many people you can reach, and how many dollars you can rake in.
Just as major movie studios fund films that are nominated for Oscars, but never will be considered blockbusters, so should major game publishers and developers fund and make games that speak to those elements that nourish and connect to us as human beings, and speak to us on a deeper level than “play of the game” and how fast we can do several things at once.