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Why Are Gripping Stories so Difficult to Write?


I love stories. Whether it be in the form of text, filmed events, or pixels on a screen, I love seeing characters develop and I love watching a story cohere into a satisfying conclusion, whether it be ambiguous or definitive. A powerful, gripping story exponentially enhances the efficacy of any medium of entertainment, and there's nowhere that's more present than in the medium of video games. There's nowhere that brilliant potential is squandered so much, either. While gaming started out with minimal story and focused more on gameplay, story-based gaming has become so much more popular during the course of this new century. While technological advancements are contributing to much more involving gameplay, writing has always stayed the same. Perhaps this is a problem, since developers tend to focus more on the technical aspects of game development than the story-based ones. With heavily involving and expansive worlds to draw gamers in, it's a real shame that the writers of their stories, generally, don't know what they are doing.

Crafting an effective story is an incredibly long and drawn-out process. Adding this to the already tedious process of formulating a world to place this story in surely takes a lot of time from developers who probably have a tight schedule to work with, and trying to cohere all of these elements into one product is nothing short of a harrowing experience for everyone involved. I can't see this as any excuse, however, as writing is a prototype process independent from the game creation process in itself. On-screen events are heavily reliant upon the writing of the story, and I can't see much of a reason to slack on storytelling. Developers are far too involved in crafting a good-looking game that they don't understand what needs to sit under that shiny surface, and it all ends up being hollow fodder for the advertising campaign. The first example that comes to mind is L.A. Noire, whose advertising campaign heavily depended on the fact that the visuals were groundbreaking motion capture effects that could pick up subtle visual cues on people's faces. All of that effort really went to waste, however, on a story that wasn't very subtle and that featured some really clumsy dialogue. Atrocious voice acting aside, L.A. Noire is a very lukewarm experience that relied on its visuals too much to craft a worthy story, and it failed.

To bring up another, more popular example, the Call of Duty games have a steady downward slope of storytelling quality; so much so that it's nearly linear. The first five official, widely-released Call of Duty games have stories that involve well-developed characters, high yet tangible stakes, and missions that serve a real purpose to further the story and add layers to your character, as well as all of the NPCs that fight alongside you. While they sometimes succumb to rote storytelling and occasionally bad narrative pacing, the stories are pretty effective as a whole. World at War really stands out, as it uses its gratuitous gore to pin a moral quandary on the player, and the writing also builds up stable relationships with other characters that make them seem a lot more human. In Call of Duty 4, Gaz is given layers and a real personality, and that's why it actually comes as a shock when he is hastily executed at the end of the game. Modern Warfare 2's writing comes as a pretty big letdown, as the stakes are raised to some unfathomable degree and most of the characters are larger-than-life personalities with either no flaws or far too many of them for any of the NPCs to seem like real people. General Shepherd in particular is given so little motive for what he's doing and no other character traits and only serves to lend the story a twist, which is not creative and was most certainly written into the story at the end of the writing process in order to give more dramatic heft to the plot. Black Ops decides to go for too many twists and tries too hard to stay ahead of the player, and in its quest to appear like an intelligent story, it becomes incoherent and far too convoluted to make the player actually care about all of its jumbled elements. I could go on, but centering too much on Call of Duty will make me heavily digress.

Another example of storytelling that tries too hard to be intricate is the plot of Life is Strange. The story that comes with this admittedly visually arresting game is relying far too much on its time travel gimmick, and it really loses a lot from that in itself. In addition to convoluted plot, its two center characters are incredibly unrelatable and therefore the story loses almost all of its dramatic momentum. A lot of the dialogue these two share is pretty stilted and awkward. They are two teenagers that are written by people who don't understand how teenagers speak. They use a profound amount of outdated terms and adhere far too much to stereotypical teenage girl habits, rendering them more like caricatures than real people. This whole story is about them and their lives, but if the writers provide me with no real human traits to care about, what am I supposed to do with the story as a whole? As a story-based game, it's entirely failed in its objective to capture me into the story.

Another recent title whose story absolutely lost me was Until Dawn. This one suffers from the Unfriended complex, which is basically just every single character being gratingly unlikable and cartoonish. Despite being a game that prides itself on player choices and even using character meters to gauge the relationships between each character, the plot and development of anyone falls bewilderingly flat here. There was some real potential to involve some real disconnect between the friendships of these people and have them turn against each other or question their pasts. Some of the histories between these relationships could have been fleshed out and given some formulation, and these dense histories could have been tested with the tensions the latter half of the story has to offer. Unfortunately, the story devolves into some profoundly clichéd mess that invokes supernatural elements and absolutely falls off the rails. None of the very little human features of the story are given any sort of treatment and only serve to further the rote plot that we have seen enough times already.

Why are these types of stories so common? What makes crafting an intelligent, gripping video game plot so difficult? Obviously there is a large emphasis on creating the world of the game and making it look sleek so it can be easily marketed. Advertising a story is profoundly more difficult than simply showing off how good the game looks. It's simply a shallow nature of developing a game; video games are, first and foremost, a product, a commodity, and it needs to be sold for the developers to turn a profit, perhaps by whatever means necessary. If a game is sold on how moving the story is, it will attract a certain crowd, but it won't reel in the masses. If a game is sold on how shiny it is and how "fun" it is to play, then it will be considered accessible on all fronts, even if the story is nonexistent. While a game can be fun and nothing more, this is not what I'm discussing here. Story-based games are built on how powerful they can be and how long they will stick with a player after they have finished it. If there's no emotional punch, then has the game really succeeded?

Consumers aren't stupid, though, and for the most part can't be sold on just visuals alone. Anyone with an internet connection has access to a plethora of reviews and word of mouth, and if enough of it is negative, they can avoid the game. Someone has to bear the burden of buying a bad game, but it doesn't have to spread to the masses before it's well-known anymore. Games are perfectly capable of financially flopping if they are critically panned enough, and that's probably a good thing. Seeing studios go under isn't something I would wish upon anyone, but if consumers speak with their wallets regarding what games they want to play and see released, then perhaps we could see games with better stories and more competent writing in the future. It would also prevent from some studios trying to pass off sleek experiences as profound ones; sometimes a nice visual polish can fool someone into thinking what they are seeing has meaning when it is completely devoid of anything resembling profundity.

I'm not saying that video games should look like they were made in 1995, however, or that they should sacrifice visuals entirely to produce a good story. I just don't see why there can't be both. Heavy Rain is an absolutely beautiful looking game, and it also has a lot of depth to its story. Although it takes a very bad turn at the end, the rest of the plot consists of some tough decisions in order to reunite a father to his son. Characters are fleshed out, relationships are thoroughly developed, and the whole thing is magnificent on the eyes. So why can't games be more like that? With proper talent on both ends, AAA games could just turn out to be masterpiece after masterpiece.

Perhaps my vision is a little too ambitious or unrealistic, since I prefer storytelling over technical details. If a game can pull me in without the need of gorgeous graphics, I certainly don't mind the fact that it's not easy on the eyes. While I do understand that the technical and visual aspects of a game are imperative and definitely enhance the gameplay experience as a whole, I don't think it should take priority and I certainly don't think it should be abused at the expense of the story. While there is the occasional gem like Heavy Rain that comes out to prove all of my statements wrong, I do feel like story and character takes a massive backseat to all of the easily marketable elements that a game comes with. I understand a lot of people would just like to have "fun" with a game, and I suppose I can't blame them for that, but can't a game be fun and have an enrapturing story to better involve the player?
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