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**This isn't a new blog, I actually wrote it last year but when I recently went to revise it, the site deleted it accidentally. I'm just reposting it to have it back on the site.**
Recently, I've decided to return to Skyrim to get ready for Dawnguard's PS3 release. Playing through the Civil War questline (which I didn't get to finish during my initial time with the game), has forced me to think about the overall importance of narrative, both in Skyrim and for video games in general. While a strong story is without question my personal favorite part of any video game, I have had a ton of fun playing many games where the story was perhaps not as important as other aspects of the experience. The thing is, though, we as gamers really and truly need a narrative structure in our single-player games, no matter how strong or flimsy it may be, and this has less to do with our personal preferences about plot as it has to do with our being human.
Continuing to use Skyrim as an example, consider the breathtaking moment that occurs (in this and in most releases from Bethesda) when players first step out into the world and see it with their own eyes. Regardless of how the game begins, this moment is, at least for me, the first (and perhaps the best) in a series of incredible experiences to come throughout the length of the game. These moments, however, rarely have to do with the game's narrative. I'm talking about moments like the feeling of reaching a high level, say level 50 or thereabouts, and possessing such powerful weapons, armor, and spells that the player is an unstoppable force of destruction. I'm also talking about moments like ascending to the highest ranks of the various guilds around the game world, and receiving the rewards that come with such high rank. Of course, how could I forget the elation in discovering and exploring an ancient and wonderfully detailed ruin?
Or the terror when you find one of these guys inside...
The main questline in Skyrim is by no means disappointing. It contains several great set-piece moments, battles against fierce beasts, and an unforgettable trip to a Valhalla-esque afterlife. The curious thing about it, however, is that practically every other major questline, from the Civil War, to the guilds, to what I have heard of Dawnguard, are also made up of thrilling events and heart-stopping action. In effect, there is little to distinguish the main questline from the rest of the game's events; it is simply another series of quests that culminates in a battle against Alduin. As crazy as it sounds, there's nothing really special about it in relation to the rest of the game's content.
I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I take it back!
Incredibly, though, this isn't a bad thing. The game still won Game of the Year from practically every major video game authority, has claimed the social lives of countless players, and provides almost endless entertainment to completionists and more casual fans alike.
To find further evidence of successful game with lackluster plots, one need look no further than practically every first-party Nintendo franchise. Look at Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2, Super Mario World, or even Super Mario 64, for example; where is the plot? In almost every case, the plot is simply "Princess Peach has been kidnapped, Mario to the rescue." Mario visits various worlds/levels and may interact with Toads, Yoshis, or some other Mushroom Kingdom residents, but the events of the game are always confined to the obstacle courses that Mario goes through. The game is not about the story, though, and everyone knows this; the game is about the platforming challenge and the thrill of success. Despite that fact, these games are universally beloved by platformer fans, and pretty much all other gamers as well.
The Legend of Zelda is similarly simple. Sure there are more complex events that occur on Link's journey to rescue Zelda, but each event is more like a self-contained episode than something that feeds into an all-encompassing plot. The best example of this is in Ocarina of Time; Link must gather the Seven Sages and use their power to combat Gannondorf and save Princess Zelda. That is the entire plot of the game. Of course, during the events leading up to each dungeon, Link has dealings with the various people of Hyrule, such as the Gorons, the Zoras, the people of Kakariko Village, and the proprietor of Lon Lon Ranch, but these people never interact with one another and the only thing that gets carried over into later events are the tools acquired in each dungeon. The fun of Zelda almost always comes from the puzzles, the inventive boss battles which require the use of a newly-acquired tool, and the thrill of exploring Hyrule and uncovering its secrets. Despite the consistent lack of an expertly-crafted plot, I have never disliked a Zelda game (aside from Zelda II).
Don't even bring them up. THEY. NEVER. HAPPENED.
"But," you might say, "of course these games do not have stories that are meant to wow their audiences. They are basically built around gameplay experiences more than narrative weight. Anyone going into Skyrim expecting a story on the level of excellence seen in Final Fantasy VI, VII, X, or XII is sure to be disappointed."
I agree with that. But when a game is admittedly more about delivering a tight, fun, and rewarding gameplay experience over a gripping and emotional narrative, why even have a plot in the first place? Why not just drop Mario on a world map and say, "Get through all of these levels. Do them whenever you want, no rush." This is where my initial statement about human nature comes into play.
People crave purpose. Most people are not content to simply perform a sequence of actions without first receiving a reason why they must do so. Think about it really and truly: Would going through the dungeons and towns of a Zelda game be any fun at all without the purpose of reaching the end and having a final, climactic showdown with Ganon (or whichever other villain is in the game)? Would you ever really want to play through a Mario title without something to work toward, whether that is a fight with Bowser or some other evildoer? I know I wouldn't.
Don't forget, narrative also includes characterization and interactions between the characters. Imagine if every conversation in a game had only to do with directions on how to proceed. Would any RPG be as fun without character interactions, with only the promise of long grinds to level up and defeat anonymous monsters?
Don't worry about names, or what they're saying, just keep pressing "A."
When friends tell me that they don't play games for the story, I tend to not believe them. Unless a person exclusively plays multiplayer games, and never even attempts to get into single-player gaming, there is no way that he or she has never cared even a little bit about a game's story. Narrative gives our protagonists (and, by proxy, we gamers) purpose, it gives every action taken or conversation spoken weight and value, and it drives us to completion of the game. The amount of fun we have with the actual gameplay is fundamentally important as well, but without a motive to drive us there is no point to any of it. Plot is as inseparable from the single-player experience as player interaction is to the multiplayer experience.
Even in a game where the story is deemed unimportant, where the term "throwaway" is used to describe the narrative, even in a game like that there is still some value to having the expository and unifying force that even a shadow of a plot can provide.
Leave me some comments and let me know what you all think.