Thursday, May 31, 2012

Shootin' Dudes and the Importance of a Good Plot

This week at PopMatters, I commend the strength of interesting plots.

I'm always a bit wary of opening the whole "story vs. gameplay" can of worms, mostly because it's a false dichotomy. As Mattie Brice succinctly puts it, "narrative is a game mechanic." If a game's authored story impacts the way you play the game, it is functionally another rule you interact with as you negotiate a game system.

My point is that mundane game systems can be galvanized by a clever story. Without Red Dead Redemption's plot about the struggle against cyclical violence, it would have just been another open world game. John Marston's fate and his family's struggles alter the way it feels to participate in the game's events. Visual and audio choices serve a similar function. Mechanically, Heavy Rain is little more than digitial game of Simon says rather than a tense thriller.

I touch briefly on some reservations I had regarding Starhawk's story that I want to clarify. I think creators should be free to create the stories they want to create. Just because the game has two black lead characters doesn't mean it has to grapple with race as a thematic element. Sometimes, not addressing an issue is actually a statement unto itself. My point is that the absence of any complex social, cultural, or historical themes doesn't do anything to bolster game systems that would benefit from a little support.

Playing as the Arbiter in Halo 2 isn't all that different from playing as Master Chief on a mechanical level. What makes this moment special is the story: suddenly, you're playing as "the enemy." You're seeing a new perspective in the war, one that reveals new narrative complexities that broaden Halo's overall scope. The Elites become more than targets: they're actual characters. I think BioShock is a similar example: its legendary plot and sudden twist turn the game into a commentary on the medium itself rather than a prettier version of Doom.

Stories in games are tricky, but they don't (and I would argue they shouldn't) always strive to accommodate whatever the player wants. Even the most inflexible plots can inject meaning into game mechanics and dynamics. I think we should embrace that concept by continually pushing for interesting stories.

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