I've previously gone on, and on, and on, and on complaining about stories in video games. It's taken me quite a while to come to any sort of real conclusion as to why video game stories are always so sloppy. I attribute it to many things in those previous articles, but not until now have I discovered a root problem that fundamentally destroys any involved video game story: They aren't movies. Video games were never meant to be movies, yet a lot of triple A titles feel compelled to shoehorn poorly written and unskippable movies into the middle of their video games. I've endlessly covered the ins and outs of video game stories, but now I'm going to try to dissect the phenomenon itself and tell you why video game stories are an exercise in futility and excess.
Final Fantasy VII was arguably the first triple A title to intertwine a deeply involved and imperative story into the game itself. Sure, loads of games before it had stories that got the players to a reasonable conclusion, but most of the stories were thin excuses for gameplay. Final Fantasy VII, however, introduced another way to play, turning the game into an interactive movie experience. Final Fantasy VII's way of doing this was to routinely interrupt the video game experience and any sort of immersion it had to bring you unskippable and poorly written cutscenes. It's an absolutely asinine way to construct a video game, but because the game exploded in popularity it became a standard. Now most larger titles have CGI movies shoehorned everywhere within the gameplay, and it's almost always clunky and normally doesn't extract the effect or emotion it intends to.
Video games were never meant to be a heavy storytelling medium. The construction of the platform simply doesn't support the weight of intense storytelling. Some argue that it helps with immersion, but I can't say I understand the thesis of that argument. Placing extended cutscenes into a game to loosely tie those events to the ones happening in the gameplay portion of the experience is jarring and actually takes me out of the experience. Now, I don't play video games to get "immersed" in them. I simply don't know how to do that. From a storytelling perspective, however, shifting between mediums is a clashing way to structure a narrative. If a video game progressed constantly and saved at intermittent checkpoints and told a story purely through expositional dialogue voices over what I play, I wouldn't mind. Video games have a limited framework to tell a story while still being a video game. An overreliance on story implies the developers have an insecurity with the gameplay portion of their game. Interrupting my experience and not letting me play for extended amounts of time is a clunky and silly way to tell the story, but it's easy for the developers to just let the story play out in front of the player, rather than figuring out a clever way to implement the story into actual gameplay.
Imagine you're watching a movie and it reaches its conclusion. Instead of using the intended medium (the movie itself) to structure the ending, it interrupts your experience and tells you the ending is online. Sounds pretty terrible, right? Well, The Devil Inside did that, and everyone hated it. Although video game cutscenes aren't as blatant as this, the central idea is still the same: Temporarily change mediums in order to force story elements that could have been differently introduced or left on the cutting room floor. Because of this, a video game either sacrifices the storytelling elements it sets up to focus on gameplay or sacrifices gameplay in favor of storytelling.
An example of the former are the Call of Duty campaigns. While the first three games had arguably involving stories, Call of Duty 4 and forward had pretty cookie-cutter storylines. The stories were thin little premises that were used to make excuses for the combat gameplay. In the Call of Duty games, story is used as a reason for a player to be playing a particular mission in a particular setting. As with most Call of Duty titles, it's perfectly serviceable game design. The story is weak, the gameplay is generic and redundant, and it's a perfect time waster. It's definitely not worth shelling over $60 for, but it will definitely pass a few hours in a fashion where you'll only slightly regret it. Although the storylines for Modern Warfare 2 and past are almost cartoonish in how over the top they are (that ludicrous Cliffhanger mission really set the standard for how silly the game was going to be) they don't often interrupt the gameplay in favor of cutscenes and placed in between missions are simple and skippable scenes of expositional dialogue that sets up why the player is there. The writers know the story is bad, so they don't try to stuff it down the players' throats.
A pretty perfect example of the latter, however, is Beyond: Two Souls. Beyond: Two Souls could be renamed Quicktime Events: The Game and nobody would really notice. There is little-to-no actual gameplay featured in this game. It is, quite actually, a movie, made barely interactive by quicktime events. It's the worst example of a video game trying to be a movie, and it really shows in the final product. Some people argue that there are multiple paths the storyline could take, but I answer that with a simple "no". Here is the first of a series of videos where two people fail every single prompt within the game and still manage to beat it. If you don't play the game, the game plays itself for you. How transparent and foolish is that? There is no attempt at making the game involving or immersive, no attempt at making it seem like a game at all. The game tells you to press a button, you press it, and then the game unfolds in front of you without any of your intervention. What kind of video game experience is that?
Video games are kind of like big-budget action movies: The audience shows up to be entertained and see some mayhem, but there has to be some sort of narrative in there to thread it all together. With a video game, however, that narrative thread doesn't have to be so obvious. Movies are made to have stories, so someone complaining about how Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen has no story and is just a series of action scenes is nothing new and nothing surprising. Video games are those action movies but without a necessary storyline. Now, video games have this unspoken rule where there needs to be a grandiose story that is extremely prevalent within the game. I, for one, wish to revert to a time when story was second to gameplay. You might argue that's because my attention span is that of a dying fish but I watch thousands of movies a year. I've seen the basic story elements to something like Destiny several times in movie form, and done a whole lot better than Destiny's campaign.
Video games have these stories because the technology used to create them has evolved and developers aren't too sure what exactly to do with it. Again, I'm not saying to omit video game stories entirely, but make them a backdrop to the main game. Developers certainly are capable of creating compelling gameplay while having an overarching story that ties everything together but doesn't hinder the player's experience with clumsy cutscenes and quicktime events. Video games are not movies, and should stop imitating movies. Why bother using all of that effort and processing power to create a cutscene of excitment, rather than just letting me participate in the excitement for myself? It simply makes no sense to me.