Paper vs. Pixels. Part 3: You Call That a Story?

I’ve preached until blue in the face that I require good and/or immersive stories in order to enjoy a game. Although I’ve occasionally found myself hooked in by the preposterously ludicrous fun that is Plants vs. Zombies, the games I spend $50+ dollars on should have an objective that I wish to achieve rather than one which I need to achieve. I want characters I like, enemies I despise, and plot that doesn’t make me shake my head in befuddlement. I sometimes believe that game makers consider game players inferior judges of entertainment. Occasionally, the plethora of professional game reviewers do unite in their condemnation for the absurdities in a game’s concept. Just recently Brink, once a game praised by its creators for having a rich and detailed setting, was raked over the coals by critics complaining of its hollow premise and underdeveloped ideas. I feel no sympathy for Brink, as I personally have resentment for the similarities of their setting to that of my NeuroSpasta RPG, in development since 2008…

A coincidence, I’m sure.

I recently made a point to mention it to friends, coworkers, and people I pass on the street that the game Homefront was one of the worst written and designed games I’ve ever had the misfortune of playing through twice in a single afternoon (wrapping single-player takes 4 hours). In that game, North Korea, under new leadership, merges with South Korea, and the new republic annexes the surrounding Asian nations to form a new superpower (somehow avoiding World War III). Because of dwindling resources, the United States is incapable of intervening, worsened stilled by an EMP pulse detonated over their landmass shortly before a Korean invasion. If you graduated with a better than B average in high school, you can easily see this as one of the most laughable ideas that could ever come to fruition. It would be more believable if the invading Koreans had machine guns for arms and breathed fire. It’s ignorant and honestly a little racist—assuming what all Asians need to do unify is one good Hitler. If there was time travel involved, aliens attacking, I’d give it a pass, but it was the attempt at authenticity I found so cross. If you ignore the outrageous setting, you’re still left with one of the most contracted game play designs in recent memory. Homefront is a thinly veiled rail shooter with specific goals that must be met to proceed. Call of Duty is not that much better…but it is.

This is not to say that I require a believable setting or even a story with a complicated tapestry of interwoven ideas. It’s the proper blending of good story and good setting, something that the designers at Blizzard have apparently forgotten. I cite as a good example the creations of Fumito Ueda, the genius behind the subdued Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, two games with less than 10 pages of dialogue between them. I remember one moment specifically from Ico. The game had been spartan of any music for the first eight hours of gaming. The background audio was inundated with the sounds of waterfalls, rustling trees, birds, and creaking windmills. After a five minute battle with an army of shadow/fog monsters which you discover too late to be the ghosts of sacrificed children like your character had been fated to be, you approach the door to a room you’d seen during the prologue but had been unable to open until then. Upon entering the church, the absolute silence of it sucked the air out my lungs. No rain or wind or animal noises. Just a vacuum of sound, the first steps echo loudly through my 5.1 surround system. It was a bowtie fixed onto an amazing package, a moment still unrivaled through its successor game, despite better reviews.

I remember enjoying the story for the Ghost in the Shell PS2 Game and both Homeworld and its add-on, Cataclysm (though not the second HW). I would also recommend Wing Commander IV, Mass Effect 2, and Silent Hill 2. However, if you are expecting me to praise games like Half Life 2, Starcraft 2, Indigo Prophecy, or Metal Gear Solid 2, you would be sorely mistaken.

In this regard, electronic games could rival those of pen & paper. I understand that the VAST majority of RPG modules only hang the bare shreds of story off of them. I further understand that the games I run for my private group are more the exception and not the norm. I’m sure there a GMs that will read this and go, “I like to consider my game having an in-depth and immersive story.”

Congratulations, you and I are the exceptions. Are there three of you, four, five? The ones creating detailed settings and immersive stories are the ones dreaming about publishing their ideas. They’re the ones that spend more money than they could earn self-publishing their work after being rejected by companies with the excuse that, “more people have walked on the moon then live off of their writing of role-playing games.” –Actual quote.

For every Midnight and Iron Kingdoms out there, a World of Synnabar is waiting to rear its ugly head (“Man. What?”). Pen and paper role-playing games may be doomed to this melancholy. Electronic games went through their literary adolescence in the 90s, an era predicated by the worst conceived games in history. Movies and comic books went through a similar phase, though some years earlier. But like radio, pen and paper games may reach a plateau, circumvented and succeeded by the new media which snaps up talent before they could develop a potentially obsolete medium. Several well-known writers that admit to playing RPGs confess that they save their creative juices for their own published work, investing little effort when dice are involved. For them, all they want is the hack and slash dungeon crawl. This relegates the truly inspired and original pen and paper creations to those of us that believe consumers want quality no matter the field they play in.

Chris Dias

Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.