The Death of Storytelling

I believe confidently that in the next year, Activision, Bioware, Tecmo, or Rockstar will release a game simply called “Tits”. I know, catchy start, isn’t it? It’s the kind that immediately warrants a click-through. It wasn’t just backlash against Blizzard’s latest apparent mockery of storytelling or Bioware’s triumvirate of brain-farts after years of notable exceptions to badly written games that got me lamenting for well-written games, but a combination of these along with John Carmack’s quote, recently bounced off Penny Arcade.

“Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”

While my multitude of friends played Diablo 3 until it went out of fashion (about two weeks), I sat on the sidelines and snickered at their conflicting experiences. However, all of them agreed that its appeal wasn’t rooted in its narrative. One of these friends, named after a character you often play in games, even went so far to say that he doesn’t play games for their story. He was the one famous in our circle for purchasing Starcraft 2 on day one, though never playing the single-player campaign. To him, games only exist for their challenge, for their enjoyment factor, and for any social interaction that occurs as a side effect. It’s no surprise then that his favorite games are World of Warcraft, Defense of the Ancients, League of Legends, and Civilization 5, all online and all vacant of anything resembling a story. Sure, some of them have settings, and settings are often integral to a story, but a concept is not a story. It’s the foundation, not the house.

Since I disagree wholeheartedly with this belief that games don’t require good stories, refusing to play all the games mentioned above, it would then not be surprising that while my friends enjoyed their hack & slash dungeon romp, I was partaking in the chest-high wall, cover-based goodness that was Binary Domain—a game laden with middling reviews but growing a loyal fan base astonished at the idea of a decent single-player story-based campaign. I believe my enjoyment was biased, manipulated by a love of anime cyberpunk which Binary Domain was lifting from generously, notably Armitage III (five people are laughing about now). So I was able to forgive the cheesy lines and melodrama, as it was far more forgivable than some of the ham-fisted lines coming out of characters in Diablo 3.

Returning to my friend, an obvious Carmack disciple, he once claimed that movies always had an obligation to tell a good story regardless of the genre. It didn’t matter if it was a Jackie Chan martial arts film; it had no right ignoring its responsibility. He insisted that an action film could always deliver a good story and maintain its kinetic rhythm. This may read like hypocrisy given his comments regarding games, but this same friend also declared that games are not and could never be art and as a consequence could not be measured on the same grounds as a film. My perspective is different. I think that the thread of a good story could be allowed if the film presents likable characters or a goal we can sympathize with, case–in-point, most of Jackie Chan’s films.

However, I do believe that video games can be art, and since I’m willing to rate them on equal footing as films, I will call a game out if it fails in its narrative, though only when they’re making the serious mistake of actually trying. No, I don’t expect Mamet-like riveting Pulitzer-worthwhile dialogue out of a tower defense game, but if you dare to present a setting, offer a story, and create a character (or allow us to create a character) that we can get behind, expect to be to evaluated on the same grounds as any either medium. This was why I get so angry when games spend huge amounts money on computer generated cut scenes of utter banality. Fantasy games are the worst offenders and face the toughest challenges.

Warriors dodge and flip in burdened armor, cleaving with a blade that never wears down. The hero’s meal is always some generic ration devoured in a single swallow and supplying energy for another twelve hours of continuous movement. Wounds sustained vanish after a day. The woman the champion had swooned is some meagerly decent falsehood with long lines of exposed skin and the brassiere of a medieval dominatrix, never complaining of the cold and falling at the hero’s feet when the programmer deems it appropriate. Castles are a minute’s walk apart. Money is easily acquired from the bellies of wandering beasts. (From Amethyst)

Telling a decent story within these confines is challenging enough. As a game designer, my intent is to offer every excuse possible for a DM to stop his combat laden game and enjoy an actual plot. It could be ignored, and I’m sure it often is because I unfortunately realized that my opinions are in the minority. Considering the success of Diablo, WOW, and the various DOTA clones, it’s obvious people do prefer social multiplayer games thick in difficult gameplay but thin on plot. This was one of the reasons why I decided to hang up my GM gloves with my last Amethyst campaign. Several of the players had indicated that the sole reason they attended my sessions was to have fun in a social atmosphere—the story was not as important to them. Realizing I was standing on soapbox banging out beatnik in iambic pentameter next to a UFC main ticket, I figured it was time to stop.

Which returns me to Carmack’s quote regarding pornography, related to a CNN article claiming that games fit into the same visceral enjoyment category as porn and should be measured under the same guidelines, including the need to regulate its exposure to our youth, alarmingly similar to certain books and songs of the previous century. Do I agree? No, though I have to admit being part of the problem. When I asked Nick Greenwood to design my front and back cover for Amethyst Foundations, I’d asked for a scantily clad demon woman on the back cover. Our publisher, Goodman Games, insisted…sorry…suggested we flip the back and front, as it would sell more books. We did so, a decision being reversed for our upcoming Pathfinder game. Despite the possibility of increased sales with having breasts on our cover, we do have our morals, well the few that we have left.

This brings up another conversation with another friend whose name is easy to remember (as it’s the same as mine). He reminded me that even in the literary nirvana that is HBO, they have a standard rule about inserting sex in their programming as a way to accommodate their subscriber base. Even an already graphic adaptation like Game of Thrones needs additional sexuality inserted, ergo the new idiom “sexposition”. My friend is also forced to sit with his wife through True Blood. He hates the show but acknowledges the lovely by-product in that he gets to watch naked women for an hour. In fact, HBO might have created the perfect pedigree with True Blood, satiating both sexes with what they demand.

So to that, we must admit defeat. I will then take this moment to announce that Dias Ex Machina will endeavor to produce a new RPG for 2013…

“Boobs versus Werepanthers”

I expect Diablo3-like sales to follow.


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.

3 thoughts on “The Death of Storytelling

  • June 12, 2012 at 1:08 am

    I totally agree that videogames (as well as tabletop RPGs) could be an art form, but it has nothing to do with story. Game is not a book, a movie or a play – it’s another kind of art. It’s power lies withing rich and interesting environment and gameplay, not some (usually not so stellar) story some guy decided to tell.

  • June 12, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    Chris, I have to partially disagree with you here. I think “story” and “gameplay” are too separate entities with two separate target audiences (though a person can be in both camps). I love strategy games (like Civilization). Story would just get in the way there. I also like Story heavy games, like Mass Effect, where I could care less about the action part (although it is fun in dramatic scenes; because of the story). There is room in the game world for both types of games. I think these types of comments really arise with games like Diablo 3. It is a game which many story driven players may have purchased expecting a rich story experiences, in which it is not. It is, and always has been, a hack and slash / find the treasure game. So, those people don’t like it. But, for reasons that are not really valid, as it is not a story game. You can’t complain that there is no story to your Settlers of Catan board game as much as you can’t complain that there is no action to your Woody Allen movie. Art comes in many forms and different people are looking for different experiences. All you can do is match what you are looking for to something that delivers that, and then comment on if it did a good or bad job in fulfilling your requirement.

    My 2 Cents

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