Bad Narrative

23 Jun

A few weeks ago, I posted about my reaction to the “bad storytelling” of the Mass Effect 3 ending. This week, I’m posting about how some games – notably Diablo III – fail in storytelling altogether. The problem with ME3 was that they set the bar so high and then dropped the ending ball – the problem with D3 is that its ball is made out of twine that has been chewed on by a large and slobbery dog and then dropped in a mud puddle. It has no bounce, no color, no meat. It’s just… ugly. (The storytelling – not the entirety of the game itself, nor even all of the individual parts of the story.)

Tom Bissell (in Extra Lives) suggests that this is a problem that ranges across games because of the comparative newness of the genre.

If I were reading a book or watching a film that, every ten minutes, had me gulping a gallon of anesthetic Pepto, i would stop reading or watching. Games, for some reason, do not have this problem. Or rather, their problem is not having this problem. I routinely tolerate in games crudities I would never tolerate in any other form of art or entertainment. For a long time my rationalization was that, provided a game was fun to play, certain failures could be overlooked. I came to accept that games were generally incompetent with almost every aspect of what I would call traditional narrative. In the last few years, however, a dilemma has become obvious. Games have grown immensely sophisticated in any number of ways while at the same time remaining stubbornly attached to aspects of traditional narrative for which they have shown little feeling. Too many games insist on telling stories in a manner in which some facility with plot and character is fundamental to – and often even determinative of – successful storytelling.

D3 may have lovely mechanics, pretty graphics, and engaging gameplay, but I just keep getting stuck on the Pepto-inducing lack of plot, characterization, and effort in narrative and dialog. My character – the avatar I’m supposed to like – is the world’s biggest and most arrogant twit (I call him something else in a more informal setting). He’s the type of person you want to punch in the face just to knock his ego down a few pegs. And the other character types are not much better. The plot is banal, predictable, and I’m pretty sure I played it in Warcraft III and have read it twenty times over in banal, predictable fantasy novels that I didn’t care for much, either.

My point here is that games have come far enough, as Bissell says, that they now need to show narrative and characterization a little love, especially if they have good gameplay. Technology is no longer an excuse for shoddy gameplay, and gameplay is no longer an excuse for shoddy storytelling.

If videogames want to be taken seriously as an art form, then they need to take themselves seriously in all their aspects: art, mechanics, programming, animation, design, and story. In literature, proper grammar does not excuse bad storytelling any more than good story does not excuse heinous grammar. Art is about the whole package, especially art that wants to participate in the formation of its genre or in the evolution of its social ideologies… and I think that games have now reached a point where they are trying to make a point, just as film, television, drama, and literature did before them. But that means that there are no more excuses.

2 Replies to “Bad Narrative

  1. I don’t think games need to have a good story, if they focus on gameplay. But they should not be allowed to get away with having a *bad* story any more. Diablo has always been an action roguelike with pretty(?) graphics. I don’t go in expecting a great story, but Blizzard seems to think that’s what I want, and its attempt to deliver have always been pretty cringeworthy. It works best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously – Blizzard games’ plots and characters are unapologetically riffing on all of their influences, especially Warhammer and Warhammer 40k anyway, so if it can get away with feeling like a parody, it’s less disappointing when the story is cliche.

  2. I think you’re probably right. If I think about some of the more interesting puzzle games – Braid comes to mind – its story (while really intriguing), wasn’t really the point of the gameplay and didn’t have a highly complex narrative. It didn’t need to. Same with Limbo. And there are some really interesting games that are much shorter (five minutes or so) that produce a narrative without actually doing storytelling in the conventional (rather than ludic) sense, and those are also great. And that’s not mentioning Chronotron, of course. 🙂

    What irks me isn’t that games lack storytelling, but when their storytelling is just bad. Either have good storytelling or don’t tell me a story in the typical sense. Just create the ludonarrative (the gameplay narrative) and let that just be. But D3 just has AWFUL dialogue and characterization to the point where I’d rather not have any at all.

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