Thursday, 4 June 2009

Are video games losing the plot?

There's a trend that has appeared recently in the mainstream video game market that is causing me and doubtless many others a great deal of distress. I'm talking about a trend more insidious than happy slapping, more shocking than school shootings and more pungent than a gaming convention. I am, of course talking about the trend that is cliffhanger endings.

Now, I'm not fundamentally against cliffhanger endings in all forms of media. As an example, the JJ. Abrahams TV epic 'lost' contains a cliffhanger nearly every week. The point is though, that it is weekly. If your favourite game ends with a cliffhanger, you're most likely looking at 2-3 years at least before the narrative is completed, by which time you've probably forgotten what exactly was happening or you just won't care anymore.

Ok, so computer games for the most part aren't particularly well known for strong narratives to begin with. Stories within games for the most part seem to act as pretexts for the action within the game, not unlike a bad Hollywood movie. A lot of the time this is sort of acceptable because the quality and depth of the experience on offer distracts you from the storyline. I do think this is pretty sad though, a good narrative can really give a game an extra kick making it shine just a little bit more than it's competitors. Would you kindly take your minds back to 2007, back to the release of Bioshock. I'm sure those of you who enjoyed the game did so largely because of a well structured narrative and a well defined mythos. Furthermore they didn't kick you in the teeth by leaving the story unresolved when you reached its conclusion, although the ending was a bit lackluster.

Now in contrast think back to Halo 2, again this game had a fairly strong story throughout with a consistent mythology and a strong narrative train. However, I think what most of us take away from that game is the horrendous ending. Certainly, when I think back on it I don't think about how much I enjoyed the story, but instead on how I was removed from the experience just as it looked to be getting a lot more exciting. Halo 2 isn't the worst offender though. the one that really springs to mind in recent gaming history is Prince of Persia. I'm going to put the ending in spoiler markers so as not to ruin it for you.
The narrative ends with you literally undoing everything you've done within the game and releasing the main bad guy from his prison, with the words "to be continued" written on the screen. I find it hard to put into words how angry this made me, probably about as angry as I was when I found out that My Name is Earl had been cancelled

I think the most offensive part of the broken story in this game is that after its release, they announced that they would be releasing DLC to fix the story at a later date, meaning that if you'd rented (as I had) you'd have to pay to get the game again and then pay for material that you'd most probably only want to play once. The idea of paying to get a good story is just ridiculous anyway though. Can you imagine if your favourite book had an original version, but then the author decided that it wasn't up to scratch and then released a redux version where they fixed the story but charged a greater price for it? I suspect that for most of you, it would cease to be your favourite story because you would feel tricked and betrayed.

So I guess what I'm essentially driving at, is that good games deserve good stories. Most gamers are pretty discerning when it comes to deciding what kind of experience that they want from a game and for a lot of them that includes a good storyline. Apart from anything, if you get a good story out of it, it feels a lot less like you've been wasting your time. I hope that this problem starts to dissolve in the near future, because as far as I'm concerned the gaming market is slowly growing up and should probably stop reading 'Harry Potter' and should move on to some John Steinbeck instead.


  1. You are so right. The only thing that annoyed me about Call of Duty 4 was the dickslap-in-the-face of an ending. Assassin's Creed also had a crappy cliffhanger ending but then again that had a pretty crappy story all round.

  2. I never know how to feel about Assassin's Creed. The whole genetic memory pretext is pretty dumb and the ending was pretty dire; on the other hand the game was too good for me to care too much.