What's "story" to you in video games?

CleverNickname

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This thought has been flying around in my head for a while, and now that that one guy (ugh) made that horrible thread that makes everyone who likes video game stories look bad, I feel I should give it a try and make a positive one about VGstories :)

So anyway... it's been one of my favourite topics lately. Stories in video games. I don't like it when meh games get better reviews and reactions just for their stories. Conversely, I never disliked any game ever for its weak story.

In the past, I've given Mass Effect as an example, as I like the story, but can't be arsed to play it ever again. But that's just my taste in games. The story is fine, I guess, some of the characters quite interesting and all those conflicts - Reapers, Genophage, Geth, that bug-queen thing, Humans vs "Aliens", etc. - are all fascinating. It builds a highly intriguing universe.

And it hit me that I actually like that bit the most. The Mass Effect universe is awesome.

But I don't know if the actual story of the games is that good. Thing is, it's just some sci fi story. Dude(tte) lasers hideous bad guys in the face, trying to sound badass all the time. Because we've never seen that before.

ME is just an example, I'm not really trying to criticize it, it's just to illustrate what I mean. Stories of games are always a bit awkward because you have to keep throwing that one character into all the important bits and have him be awesome and all that.

It's worse in games like Skyrim or Half-Life - non-characters that silently (TES-dialogue isn't dialogue, it's choices) wander through the story happening around them. But again, Skyrim (and the other TES's) has some cool stories in some of the quests (nevermind all the lore!); and Half-Life has a universe just as awesome as Mass Effect's.

I think a lot of people only focus on the actual narrative of a game when they talk about story, and thusly don't like games like Skyrim or Half-Life for it. On the flipside, ... what, do I have no idea what I'm talking about when discussing video game stories because I prefer Half-Life to ... some cutscene-heavy character-driven chat-fest? Note how I can't actually think of a specific game^^ I'm not gonna compare HL to some RPG. Spec Ops maybe? Still haven't played it (but will!).

No, the point that I keep failing to finally get to (sorry) is that there is so much more that games can do than to read all lines in a script. In these discussions people keep trying to compare games to movies and books, because stories. It's not far-fetched as games try to be so much like movies all the time, but that's exactly the line of thinking I don't like. I don't like it that publishers think the more like a movie a game is the better it is; and I don't like that gamers believe that nonsense.

Sure, who cares what I like or not; and I don't really care that people like the games they like :D More gamers is always better :) (even if some of them spout nonsense like... that one guy)
I'm actually trying to get more people on the same page here!

Games are better than movies. Lots of "story-lovers" (sorry^^) say that occasionally, though I probably disagree on the reason. Writing in games still isn't top-notch, largely - partly because the genres (gritty sci fi, gritty fantasy, gritty military thing, gritty ... Grittiness) don't lend themselves to writing on the level of... Shakespeare/Dickens (... do we want that?^^)
Games are better than movies - but a lot like books in that regard - because they're soooooo much better at fleshing out their worlds. A game can, and indeed most great games do, have a ton of world-building details in every aspect of their "story-telling" - and not just the clunky audio-logs or small walls of text strewn around, but in plot-irrelevant chatter, in little side-stories, in the look and feel of your surroundings and its inhabitants. They also often have their own little expanded universe within themselves. They can tell you the history of everything in more than two sentences. And sometimes they tell you absolutely nothing and it's even better for it.

It's why old shooters, which are some of the dumbest games we've had, aren't actually worse just because their plot and narrative are laughably thin. They have odd torture rooms, a prison level, recently-abandoned apartments, tiny references to previous games if they're sequels. They're still full of "story" - and in a way more so than your everyday 8-hour-plot.

This is why I'm not some caveman who's still in love with Tetris and shuns the Mass Effects of this world - great games aren't just great because of what you do with your button presses, that's a silly idea (... though Tetris is still great; that feel when you clear 4 lines, hnngh :D). Games are great when you see, hear and just feel that there is so much more. I always say gameplay is more important - that's because all those story-bits are still present during gameplay. It's not the worst offender by far, but in Mass Effect the story always grinds to a complete standstill whenever you "have to play the next part" - and vice versa.

It does mean, though, that I still don't really like games for their "story", as in the narrative. Because when they are too much like movies, what's the point? Movies already exist. When all the work goes into the plot and none into the world, then all we have is a video game plot - not exactly the highest of art forms. KotOR2 happens to be like that because the world was literally still unfinished. Oddly enough, I think the writing in KotOR2 was amazing - but completely wasted, so I hate the game.

Ultimately, I simply think mere traditional straight-forward story-telling is holding video games back a little because using games just for that is a waste of their incredible, nigh-unlimited potential to create not just one story, but entire worlds full of stories. They can be untold stories, but you know they're there.

That's how I love my video game stories.

tl,dr: world-building, setting, immersion, atmosphere > plot, dialogue, characters

(Do you have any idea how hard it is to write this nonsense without using the words "immersion" and "atmosphere"? holy shit!)
 

SlaveNumber23

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An optional luxury, which while greatly welcomed is not required to make a great game. Some games can be great despite terrible gameplay if they have a great story though, such as The Walking Dead or LA Noire.
 

Andy of Comix Inc

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To me, there will always be a very distinct difference between "story" (plot), and narrative. Every game will have narrative, be it by the creation of a world, or through player's actions... a game without a narrative is hardly a game at all. I don't think it is actually possible for a game to be completely void of narrative. Even something as abstract as Tetris has a narrative, through the ludonarrative of the player's decisions. "I block wipes out five rows" isn't the world's most thrilling turn of events, but it's still a turn of events.

As far as story goes, if a game is going to expect me to drag me through the nose stage-by-stage, then I'm going to expect a story. If it can't keep me enthralled on the merits of its mechanics alone, I'm going to want a plot. And that plot is going to have to be relatively well-told. It doesn't have to be exceptional, of course, but giving the player avatar a reason to be where it is, and doing what it is, really helps to glue me in when gameplay innovation on a level-by-level basis doesn't occur. RPGs, first-person shooters... I'm going to want some kind of justification for the leveling up and the bullets hitting things, or I'm just gonna give up. Preferably, this sort of storytelling would meld seamlessly with the aforementioned narrative and ludonarrative elements - combining to create Deus Ex. Yes, I just said that the pinnacle of story and narrative is Deus Ex. So sue me.

...in all seriousness, plots go a lot of the way to influence a game's pacing, and unless you're forgoing any kind of drip-feed of ideas for straight-up pure gameplay all the time from the get-go (like a puzzle game or a twin-stick shooter or a whatever, like your Geometry Wars and your Dwarf Fortress and what have you), you're going to want some kind of plot to glue it together, and you're going to want that plot to not be detestable.

Now, games that focus solely on story, or primarily on story? ...well, I'm fine with that, but the story is going to have to be really fucking engaging. This is my defense of the quick-time event heavy Asura's Wrath: yes, it's full of quick-time events to the detriment of gameplay, but that's fine because the stuff happening on-screen is great. A lot of story-based games like Heavy Rain and Dear Esther provide sub-par stories, not just for games, but like, for anything. If you're going to go out of your game's way to bring me a plot, and expect that plot to be the reason I'm playing your game, make the plot good, or go back to the drawing board. And then you get the "visual novel" style of games... and not visual novels themselves, they ain't games! But games that basically have no gameplay, that are basically choose-your-own-adventure novels. Well, like I said. They better have damn good stories! Analogue: A Hate Story was barely a game, but the pacing of the reveal of information and the characters and the tale it spun was worth the game being played. (Read?) Adventure games get away with being devoid of much intense interactivity because their characters are enjoyable and their worlds and fun to explore, and their writing is witty! Games like Heavy Rain forget that.
 

Tuesday Night Fever

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What's "story" to you in video games?
Essential.

Ugh. Fine. Content.

I mostly play games for the interactive story experience. I'm willing to look past bad graphics or sound and some wonky gameplay if the story is engaging to me. Games that have no story may be occasionally entertaining, but they don't hold my interest and I certainly don't think about them when I'm not actively playing them.

That said, I agree with you when you were talking about games becoming more and more like movies, and I think it's mostly a bad thing. I meant it when I said "interactive story experience." I like feeling like I'm actually taking part in the adventure. When it gets to the point that the vast majority of the game is cutscenes (Final Fantasy / Metal Gear Solid 4) or the game opts for quick time events rather than actual combat gameplay (Resident Evil 5 & 6) in order to look more flashy... that's the point where I begin to lose interest. If I want to just sit back and watch, I'll throw in a movie. If I want to involve myself in the unfolding story, that's when I'll play a video game. So when a game feels the need to take away the gameplay from me for long stretches of time in order to tell its story, yeah, there's a bit of a problem since I'd rather pay $5 for a DVD than $60 for a new release game that may as well have been a movie.
 

Joccaren

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It should have a good balance of story and gameplay.

Gameplay without story is boring. I'll play RTS and 4X games like this, but pretty much nothing else [Exception: Minecraft, and Dwarf Fortress, whichever genre it falls into].
Story without gameplay is a movie, and I can get them cheaper as DVDs.

A good story can save bad gameplay, whilst good gameplay struggles to save a bad story for me. Gameplay is almost always repetitive. IMO if you've walked down one corridor and shot someone, you've walked down them all. The thing that makes it different is the context of you walking down that corridor, usually given by the story.
 

Mr. Omega

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Jul 1, 2010
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Story is not needed. Tetris doesn't have story, doesn't need story and never will need story.

That being said, when story IS present, it better be done good. There is a very big difference between minimal story and bad story. Minimal story is basically just the barebones justification of the game. Bad story is something that detracts from the actual game.
 

Amethyst Wind

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It sounds an awful lot like you like settings but hate characters. In which case I suggest reading any 'classic' written before the start of the 20th century. That was the style back then. Establish the world in great detail but gloss over the characters themselves.

In terms of games, I can only really suggest MMORPGs, which seem to be in your wheelhouse.
 

BreakfastMan

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Jul 22, 2010
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Um... The combination of plot, setting, characters, dialogue, and pacing? That is a story. Y'know, just like in everything else. I mean, what parts get combined and how they get portrayed is entirely up to the designer, but that is what most people think of when they think story. Not really sure why this question needed to be asked...
 

Savo

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CleverNickname said:
But I don't know if the actual story of the games is that good. Thing is, it's just some sci fi story. Dude(tte) lasers hideous bad guys in the face, trying to sound badass all the time. Because we've never seen that before.

ME is just an example, I'm not really trying to criticize it, it's just to illustrate what I mean. Stories of games are always a bit awkward because you have to keep throwing that one character into all the important bits and have him be awesome and all that.
You touch on an interesting point. ME's story isn't innovative per say, it's just that it's extremely well-told. The combination of interaction and quality story-telling and dialogue turns an otherwise mediocre story into an incredible one. It's one of the reasons I like (or liked) Bioware. I don't actually think the story would translate to another medium, as it's very well-suited for a video-game format.

On your second point, that's true, but the same applies to a LOT of movies and other forms of fiction. All the important things happen to one character or a group of them, because it'd be boring any other way. It's hilariously unrealistic, but it's what we want as audiences.

CleverNickname said:
No, the point that I keep failing to finally get to (sorry) is that there is so much more that games can do than to read all lines in a script. In these discussions people keep trying to compare games to movies and books, because stories. It's not far-fetched as games try to be so much like movies all the time, but that's exactly the line of thinking I don't like. I don't like it that publishers think the more like a movie a game is the better it is; and I don't like that gamers believe that nonsense.

Sure, who cares what I like or not; and I don't really care that people like the games they like :D More gamers is always better :) (even if some of them spout nonsense like... that one guy)
I'm actually trying to get more people on the same page here!

Games are better than movies. Lots of "story-lovers" (sorry^^) say that occasionally, though I probably disagree on the reason. Writing in games still isn't top-notch, largely - partly because the genres (gritty sci fi, gritty fantasy, gritty military thing, gritty ... Grittiness) don't lend themselves to writing on the level of... Shakespeare/Dickens (... do we want that?^^)
Games are better than movies - but a lot like books in that regard - because they're soooooo much better at fleshing out their worlds. A game can, and indeed most great games do, have a ton of world-building details in every aspect of their "story-telling" - and not just the clunky audio-logs or small walls of text strewn around, but in plot-irrelevant chatter, in little side-stories, in the look and feel of your surroundings and its inhabitants. They also often have their own little expanded universe within themselves. They can tell you the history of everything in more than two sentences. And sometimes they tell you absolutely nothing and it's even better for it.
You know what, I agree with most of that. A lot of people bag on video-game stories for not measuring up to the standards set by film and television, but I still love me some video-game storytelling.

I've read a lot of these "video-game stories suck" complaint threads on various forums and honestly I can't agree with the majority of it. People get into the comparison game, which is something that I just don't do. I watch movies for self-contained and highly focused stories I can finish in two hours, I watch television for extended character development and stories, I watch anime for its knack at evoking emotion from me, I play video-games for immersion. I go to different stories from different mediums for different reasons (I need to stop saying the word "different"), so I rarely compare them.

We all have our opinions of course, but I seriously want to know what video-games somebody is playing when they bust out the old "I've only played like... three video-games with good stories" statement...

I do think that video-game writing isn't quite on the same level as film yet though. A large chunk of video-games meet the writing standards of a good film, although many times their premises aren't anything to write home about. What we need is more genres. I'd love to see the video-game equivalent of the Tree of Life, or something like that. It's hard to do, but I hope we expand the genres of video-games even further someday soon.
 

KissmahArceus

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Lately I've found that I can only really be bothered to immerse myself in a few gaming universes, Amalur put me off with the incessant amount of lore thrown at me during the first few hours, also the style of characters. Did not play long enough to bond with it I guess.
Deus Ex was almost the same, but it was Adam Jensen that put me off, not enough to quit or hate on the game but anyway, I prefer these days games that build worlds that I can immerse myself in at my own pace and come up with my own stories.

Skyrim has it's flaws but I role play my characters to the point where I HAVE to have a plate, bowl, cup/mug, fork, knife and spoon for my guy to eat with. I only make decisions that make sense for my character's personality.

I'm not the only one enjoying the investment in your XCOM squad, especially if they are named after friends and funnily enough FIFA 13s career mode, I love embellishing the stuff that my Pro gets up to, going on loan, international debut etc

That said, I am pumped for Halo 4, been 5 long years to find out what Chief gets up to next!
Less than 3 weeks left, trying to stay spoiler safe but it's hard!
 

Whitbane

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Mar 7, 2012
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Yeah, I consider story to be essential to video games. It's the driving force of the entire video game, and will affect how a gamer perceives a game. Toss about all the fancy, flashy crap you want, but if you can't be assed to give me a reason to care about the protagonist (or the antagonist), then why the hell should I care enough to complete the adventure? Thing should make sense, things should flow. What I'm fighting/interacting with in one level should correlate to the next. Sure, mindless video games can be fun, but that's what they ultimately are; mindless games you don't really care or think about after you are done. RPG's like Minecraft can be the exception, since you create the world and set your own story for your own character.

Like people mentioned above, a great story will make people lenient on some crappy mechanics. Point and click adventure games, (like the Walking Dead) have so little gameplay, but contain a ton of dialogue and story to make up for it and because of that, we ignore the fact that it's basically watching a movie and continue to love and appreciate every moment. We come to care for the characters, and hate anything that opposes them.

If I can't immerse myself in a world that makes sense (in terms of the game's genre and storytelling abilities), then there will be no motivating force to make me advance (Except just for the sole purpose of finishing a game, and what's the point in that?). A well told story will make a game flow perfectly, and in the end, much more enjoyable. Whether or not anyone agrees depends on their opinions, and what they appreciate in a game.
 

CleverNickname

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Sseth said:
Can't disagree with any of that. I know that's how stories work, generally. How goes that one quote, there is only like 17 basic stories in the world anyway?

I don't fault a game - or any story - for using a formula. They're formulas because they work, it's how we tell stories, doing it wildly differently probably prevents the audience from readily recognizing it as a story.

In fact, we agree that there is so much more to it than that simplification. I just really think (and that part was all subjective) that the world-building details can be so much more powerful than people give it credit for.

Whenever people talk about great stories, they're basically discussing the movie-like part of the narrative - What happened to Liara, What was up with AssCreed:B's ending, Adria's betrayal was stupid, etc. - and I find that kinda boring.
In contrast, whenever a "Little things you (never) noticed" threads come up, I'm fascinated by all the stuff devs throw into their games, stuff that also tells stories and fleshes out the world.

My entire point wasn't that video game stories are lame and irrelevant (I barely made any mention of the whole gameplay/story thing), it was how well they can do beyond the basic plot; that games can so easily create worlds helps video game stories to be great, can improve the simple good-vs-evil formulas, and does - if done right - elevate it to something higher than ... shooting dudes in the face while people talk ;)

Bioshock is a good example (though harldy perfect). The story was pretty good, especially because of the twist; but there were "story"-bits around every corner. Rapture itself was a character in the story.
Metro 2033 is one of my favourite examples for pure atmosphere. I'd have a hard time telling you what happens in it, but the entirety of the game is a glory to behold (Oddly enough, I hated playing the game, it's an awful shooter).
The world of Diablo is an odd one - it's immense, there's interesting things going on all around you (and in the past), but especially in 2 Blizzard made it a point of not having the ongoing story interfere much with the constant slaughter of monsters.
 

StarStruckStrumpets

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It really depends on the game, but I'd regard it as highly important. Unless I'm playing some kind of arcade classic like Dig Dug, or a fighter, I don't care. Even though games are about gameplay, shooting shit for no reason just bores me, hence why I never really got into online multiplayer of shooters (except for Battlefield, because watching a bullet fall gracefully into someone's skull and watch them hit the floor like a sack of shit is immensely satisfying). To me, story is adventure. Discovering new worlds, learning about their culture. I've just replayed Final Fantasy X for the third time, while aspects of the actual story aren't fantastic, the narrative and discovery of the realm is great.

When you first end up in Spira, a completely foreign land, ages away in both technology and culture, it's fascinating to place yourself in that world after being subjected to the luxury and high-life of Zanarkand. Beach-side villages, ancient ruins...it's so bizarre. While hundreds of years into the future, the land seems almost archaic compared to your previous surroundings and it is quite jarring, but as you discover more you're eased into the land and its customs. Especially engaging with Maechen when you see him, listening to him reveal things about the land and its culture. This is the reason I also loved Dark Souls. I hate being spoon-fed information, and the lore of Dark Souls is absolutely astounding when you look deeply enough.

I just like adventure. I play games to escape reality, and games like Final Fantasy X do a fantastic job of it. I still, to this day feel like part of the world of Spira when I play; The game does such an amazing job of making the world feel authentic. Hmm. In summary, story means a lot to me. I like to discover new worlds. Another good example would be BioShock or Shadow of the Colossus. I like to explore, and being dumped in unknown lands provides a great opportunity to do just that, and learn about the world and its story as I do so.