By AARON YNCLAN, Staff Writer
Story: the central events that form the basis of a narrative. Plot: every detail, character, and exchange that moves the narrative forward.
Industry veterans from around the world flocked to San Francisco on March 17 to take part in the 2014 Game Developers Conference. For one week, executives, developers, and journalists came together to recognize the best the industry gave in 2013 as well as to look to the future for the next revolution in video games. Of the dozens of panels that were held, it was a 25-minute presentation from Riot Games Narrative Lead Tom Abernathy and Microsoft Game Studios’ Design Lead Richard Rouse III entitled “Death to the Three-Act Structure” that held my attention.
In their speech they discussed the importance-or rather the lack thereof-of plot in video games. Citing some of the most narratively driven games of the past generation including Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Portal and the Mass Effect Trilogy, they said studies show that gamers not only remember little of a game’s plot, but only a third on average even finish a game they start.
When asked to describe their favorite movie or TV show, players could accurately describe every detail of the film/show’s plot, yet few could do the same for their favorite video game, and instead remembered two elements: characters, and story beats attached to memorable gameplay sequences. “Focus on the things that they will retain, that are going to be most important to them in the long-run,” Abernathy expressed. “Focus on character.”
When I first heard this, I was perplexed and scoffed at their discussion. Yet as I digested their revelation, I found myself in surprised agreement. I’m very much a story-buff and will play virtually anything to unravel a games arc, yet as I rewound my favorite video games in my head I found it difficult to recall much of what transpired; I remembered various moments and character interactions easily, but key story beats proved far more elusive. As I pondered further, I also realized that there are a number of games I’ve given up on over the years despite my attempts to complete every game I begin. I was stunned to admit it, but there was truth to what Abernathy and Rouse had brought to light. Even with this realization in mind, however, I couldn’t help but ask: are there really developers out there who are this shortsighted?
While it’s sensical to focus on elements that resonate strongest with audiences, to relegate something as fundamental as plot simply because it’s not remembered as efficiently as in other mediums is absurd.
The last generation saw studios take significant strides with the potential of what video games can be, and the largest steps taken were attributed to a games presentation and storytelling. The gaming industry is no different from any other entertainment medium, and for every Bioshock or Limbo players were treated to ten Bulletstorms or Dead Islands. Yet one of the largest holes in Abernathy and Rouse’s argument is comparing video games to television and film.
Let’s take three examples from 2013 that received universal acclaim for their plots: “Her,” “Game of Thrones,” and The Last of Us. A season of “Game of Thrones” consists of ten episodes at 60 minutes apiece, “Her” has a runtime of two hours and six minutes, and an average playthrough for The Last of Us stands at roughly 12-18 hours; for this argument, we’ll say 15. In the time it would take to finish The Last of Us, I could watch “Her,” binge the entire first season of Game of Thrones, take a bathroom break, re-watch “Her,” and finish cooking dinner just in time to see the credits roll on Joel and Ellie. Movie and TV episode runtimes average 90-150 minutes and 30-60 minutes, respectively, and carry plots more cohesive and easier to absorb than any from a video game. There, plots are spread across multiple missions and levels of varying length, with bosses interspersed throughout, side missions to attempt, collectibles to find, regions to explore, etc., etc. Even if a player were to skip all side content and focus solely on story missions, the plot is so dispersed that remembering every key development would be challenging for even the most observant of viewers.
Another issue stems from the studies themselves, which were conducted using achievement earnings on Steam. Valve’s beloved digital distribution platform holds a library of more than 2000 games for gamers to indulge in, some of which are free to install. If I have a difficult time getting drawn into Splinter Cell: Blacklist on my Xbox 360, I still feel somewhat obligated to continue playing so as to not waste time or money and to see if my opinion will eventually shift. But for a Steam subscriber with more than 100 games on their account, they can quit Blacklist the second they get bored and fire up the multiplayer for Borderlands 2. If a title fails to entice a player who has scores of other available options, why would they stick with it?
Though not mentioned in Abernathy and Rouse’s presentation, it also cannot be understated that despite the success of narrative-driven series like Fallout and Dragon Age the vast majority of developers just don’t put much effort in crafting an effective story.
If you perused lists of the top-10 selling games from the past few years, you’d find the occasional standout such as Batman: Arkham City, Halo 4, and the Tomb Raider reboot. However, most entries consist of the latest iterations of annualized franchises; Call of Duty, FIFA, Madden, Battlefield, Assassin’s Creed, etc. Are any of these multiplayer-centric titles renowned for their stories? Sporting games feature career modes devoid of plot and Battlefield boasts generic narratives with all the bombastic spectacle and emotional resonance of a Michael Bay film. Even Assassin’s Creed, a series often praised for it’s writing, has faced criticism in recent years for demoting the modern-day story arc to focus on the chronicles of Desmond’s ancestors.
In the past developers Treyarch and Infinity Ward’s attempts at creating memorable plots have involved hiring Hollywood talent like David S. Goyer and Stephen Gaghan to pen Call of Duty’s story, a practice mimicked across the industry (John Milius of “Apocalypse Now” fame wrote the story for THQ’s Homefront). Just as it’s been proven in other entertainment, however, high-profile names do not guarantee success. Call of Duty is continually lambasted for its linear, underwhelming narratives, and though Goyer is often credited for bringing the most depth to his writing, saying that Black Ops 1 and 2 are the best stories in the series is like saying “Revenge of the Sith” was the most well-written of the Star Wars prequels.
Abernathy and Rouse’s GDC presentation contains truth. Weaving an affecting plot within a video game takes a lot of valuable resources that could be spent refining a game’s other aspects. To dedicate so much time and energy crafting something with the likelihood that much of it may be forgotten or even ignored is disheartening, and would certainly make the notion of shifting assets elsewhere seem justifiable. Yet to claim that all developers should disregard plot to focus chiefly on crafting what’s already been accomplished is outrageous; not taking risks or pushing the boundaries of narrative in games accomplishes nothing and handicaps the future of the industry.