When you play a single player game you expect a certain amount of effort. There has to be at least the roots of a story present to give you a reason to exist and play in the first place. Heck, even Diablo one, a hack and slash click fest classic, had the foundation blocks of a story. An evil demon burned the village, now go kill skeletons by the thousand. Makes sense.
The modern trend however is not to give even lip service to a story or a single player experience, which in itself isn’t really a problem, either. This is particularly true for matched-play-style games. Deep down, who cares what the story around DOTA or LOL characters is, as long as they can last hit well and rofl-stomp with their ultimate ability. But what about MMORPGs? Isn’t there some obligation to the customer to provide framework for play within the greater world that makes up the RP, part of the game?
Any of you who have followed my work will know where I fall out in this. And this is your fair warning to bail out of a long, winding philosophy piece where I wax eloquent on the value of a good story.
The Story Matters
Anyone who has followed any of my musings knows that I am biased when it comes to story telling. I think its important. Objectively, I could be mistaken, and there are a lot of classic games that have withstood the test of time without any story to tie them together. Take Chess, or even Go, for a good example. The depth of strategy and history of these games is truly staggering in its complexity. But there is no storytelling whatsoever. They are games in perhaps the purest form. But what about Monopoly, or Candy Land? Different mechanics, perhaps, and if anything less complicated strategy than those classics. But try to picture playing Monopoly without the story behind it. It instantly stops making any sense at all. That is a perfect example of a game where the mechanics of the entire game are propped on the frame of the story.
Now skip ahead to your classic video games. The timeless classic of Pong has no story and a super simplistic strategy. But Frogger (yes, I chose it for the pun), without the pixelated form of the highway, makes no sense once again. Then look at the arcade games, and this is where you first start to see bout-style play come into the equation. I remember waiting in line for my chance to fight the current winner on Street Fighter II. The bout-style games needed only the most basic of story, primarily to justify the character’s appearance. The quarters flowed like rain in Seattle. But I also remember the aD&D game, which required a lot of actual reading to play. It too destroyed a ton of my quarters in its time.
What’s Your Point Here, Froggy?
The hypothesis I am trying to form here is that investing in storytelling as a mechanic is a good plan. Unless of course the goal is to create match play.
I am also positing that it has a lot less to do with complexity within the game and more to do with abstraction. The more abstract a game, the less story is needed and the more easily mechanics can stand on their own merit.
Those of you who have followed my writing at all know that I have a love/hate relationship with Elite. In particular, with its stories. The depth and potential is there, however it is untapped and left fallow. For some, this is perfectly acceptable – they get to fly around in their spaceship without feeling overly burdened by the developers. Others, like myself, have taken on the challenge and written stories, but the mechanics actively fight this. The recent Targoid nonsense is a perfect showcase of this. The on-rails events are built up on a rich tapestry of puzzles, but you couldn’t interact in an engaging way. Now with the release of the ‘live’ versions, there is still a harsh scripting that forces you to fight or be ignored. No dynamic interactions.
This is terribly wrong-headed. One brave and enterprising streamer took it upon himself to change the narrative. He created an entire story where, to communicate with the Targoids, he reverse engineered the communication puzzles they had been streaming and he used that to make a coded message in their language. I kid you not, this guy took the time and the imagination to take the designed and one-way communications from the game, emulate then, and send them back into the game (sort of). Once again, the mechanics don’t exist to allow this to be a REAL thing, unfortunately.
Nonetheless, if giant space bugs do start showing up, I want this guy on call.
EVE Tie In
Since I have been asked not to write non-EVE material, I have to create a tie in. On the bright side, EVE is a great example of a third option for story telling with video games. Instead of going abstract with no story, or investing in a great story writer, CCP built a framework and a few tools and said unto us, “Go forth and tell your own story.”
Part of what I feel to be the genius of Eve is that the ‘writers’ have been so hands off. Instead of writing the story, they have explicitly thrown it to the proverbial wolves (the players) to make what we will out of it. Every little space kingdom is hard won, sure, but a lot of how we see these kingdoms has to do with how well the victors wrote the history. Good story management can help bring people to fight on that extra CTA. Propaganda in Eve is virtually an art form. Those shadowy black-ops spies and moles we hear about a few times a year are deeply wrapped in storytelling and narrative, and that is what allows them to be able to exist and function. The Judge’s story. Mr. Mitten’s story. Even the whimsical stories of sacrifices to the wormhole god, Bob.
Perhaps, CCP decided that it was cheaper not to try to write a grand story. Perhaps they were just too lazy, or realized they would be rubbish at it. There is also a lot to be said for not forcing a specific level of participation in the stories. One of the biggest complaints against Code is that they are forcing THEIR story on players who just want to watch Netflix and print ISK via mining without a care in the world. Players all across highsec blitz missions with never a thought for the story of the pirates that they are wiping out.
Then there is the case of the Space Pope. Someone who has taken role playing and storytelling to the next level, all well within the much neglected and overlooked lore of EVE itself. There are lots of ways to skin this particular cat, but CCP happened to stumble onto something that is truly special.
They all make EVE the game that it is. And while we are responsible for the writing of many of the stories, we all owe CCP a tiny bit of gratitude for not thinking that they could do it better.Who really knows. But I for one am happy to have this substantial loom to weave on and the freedom to choose the colors. I deeply believe that in some distant future, these stories will be the myths from this age. Perhaps, Heinlein Jordan and Tolkien are not in the same league as Homer or Euripides. Who can tell who or what will survive the grinding wheel of time (see what I did there). Just as we study Chaucer, perhaps the musings of humble bloggers and commentaries on video games will be worth examination, and we will be the authors that future students will roll their eyes over having to read and analyze.