Losing the plot

It’s hard to see something like this in your RSS feed and not want to write something about it. That’s the PCGAMER website which has a wonderful preview (ish) of the new Driver game (Thankfully not called something stupid like D4iver). The plot for this game is of course under lock and key, but apparently the main character is involved in a car crash at the beginning and this is all him in the coma. Basically Ashes to Ashes, except without the vague notion of coolness. I had no idea this existed, but I have to echo the sentiments of Jaz about the feature where you just take over another car:

I seriously can’t believe this is the plot for this game. “Hey Bob, I’ve got an idea for the new Driver game. Instead of just having one car, you can like, take over people’s minds and shit.”

I could say that I couldn’t care less about the fact that people really thought it was a good idea, but that would be a falsehood. Game plots get done to death, with a new post every 20.35193 minutes from at least one person, all complaining about the poor writing on show in the gaming world. With this amount of negativity on show, why hasn’t something been done to rectify it? I think it’s an easy enough question to answer, and it boils down to this:

Writing is hard.

Well actually, it isn’t. Writing well is hard. I could write a book in about 1 month if I wanted to, but I can guarantee that it would be rubbish, the storyline would be all over the place and it would make little sense. It takes time and effort to create something that’s worth reading and enjoyable. My uncle is a published writer and he’s spent the past year (and probably longer) on the sequel to his début book. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why it’s so difficult for a developer to have a good plot.

Development isn’t geared towards creating a brilliant plot. The team behind Generic Shooter 20 haven’t gone into development thinking about how they’ll break the known limits of storytelling, but have just thought “I know! Let’s make a gun that fires kittens which scratch at the baddies before exploding!”. As many people have speculated, plot and/or story is an afterthought, not a forethought.

The kings of plot

That’s how this will ever be solved. The first stage of Dragon Age’s development was the creation of the world. Not the pretty effects or the gameplay, how the world was shaped, how it became what it is now and such. Bioware have always been the exception to the rule, but their stories are the best because they take their time with it. Dragon Age would only be a good game if that world didn’t exist and that’s the bare truth of the matter.

This isn’t to say that the developers should be the writers themselves. That wouldn’t solve much, unless they are actually writers themselves. Neither does it mean don’t start developing the game until you have this world nailed down. I doubt that is feasible unless you are funded by a very rich and very patient publisher, and you could then end up with a story which isn’t gameplay orientated.

That’s the fine line that needs to be drawn. Open world games need the conviction of a good plot to force you to take the main route and see it to completion. However, add in a plot that requires you to be constantly moving means all hope of freedom is lost. Of course you can do the Bioware approach and just let the player do what they want, breaking up the main quest. However, that causes the big plot hole of “If event x is so important and needs dealing with, why the hell should I help these farmers?”.

Of course, shouting about the pathetic crap that is the plot in Generic Shooter 20 isn’t worth it. Like I say, the developers don’t care about the storyline. One of my all time favourite games (Burnout) has no story, or any real reason to do all that racing/crashing. It’s just fun to do so. If the game is fun, why bother spending time on a story? The plot of GS20 is the same as the plot of Space Invaders, but people will still play both. They fill that little gaming hole we all have, where we just need to relax and watch explosions.

Not only do you get a great showering of bright colours, you get Ode to Joy! What's not to like?

I would argue that Dragon Age and the Bioware epics aren’t fun. Just wait a minute before you send that hate mail. They are enjoyable/epic/brilliant and all other positive adjectives, but I wouldn’t use the word fun to describe them. Baldur’s Gate is also on my list of all time favourite games and I wouldn’t use the word fun to describe it at all. It’s a bugger of a game, with too many rules that I don’t understand. But I enjoy every second I play it.

A good plot takes away those baser instincts that are fun, instead changing it to an experience akin to reading a book. Saying Reading is Fun makes you sound like a pathetic child that needs a kick in the face to learn how harsh life truly is. The same principle applies here in the book world as in the game world. They aren’t fun, but they are enjoyable.

The distinction between the casual and non-casual games are obvious. The hardcore gamers complain that the casual games aren’t real games, and the casual gamers complain that the hardcore games aren’t friendly. Gaming needs both. We can’t live without those short bursts of mindless entertainment, or people wouldn’t still be playing Bejewelled or Plants Vs Zombies. But we get our nourishing gaming food from the hardcore types like Dragon Age.

In the end, the clincher is this: Do we want games that are fun, or games that are intellectual? I can’t tell you what I’d choose as my answer.

    • Nersh
    • July 24th, 2010

    I want fun *and* intellectual, if at all possible. Which I’m sure it is.

    For example, Half-life 2 manages to have your two polar opposites working together fairly well. The gameplay holds up, with interesting things like the newfangled-at-the-time physics system and the gravity gun providing fun and shooty shenanigans, while on the other hand the writing works well, with a solid plot, well-written characters, and a well-developed, intelligently put together world. A world that echoes many others we’ve seen before, but Valve had perfectly worked out their own iteration of the concept.

    And Valve were all over the place when developing that world. By no means did they sit down at the beginning and develop the world before everything else.

    • Maybe it’s just me but I didn’t find Half Life fun. I could go on about it, but it boils down to it being a repetitive game that just had that one trick.

      That’s not to say it isn’t a good game. I just think it veers on the intellectual more than the fun.

      Also, to most gaming rules, Valve are the exception.

    • tome
    • August 10th, 2010

    Please, please. It’s drIVer.

    • MortalJohn
    • August 15th, 2010

    Valve deffinately are the exception. Games like portal always seem less like games and more of just showing off what the source engine can do. Half-Life not as much as it at first wasn’t a source game. But you can see with games like L4D showing how the source engine can create “random” events that their games will most likely always land on the intelect side.

    Where vavles games always find to be fun is in the mod community. Valve come up with the tech, and modders come up with the fun. And not just with valve, but with other engine based developers like crytek and epic games.

    Story will always fall back because game sales always prove its not need. Even though as a gamer I’ll always miss the stories like systemshock and the longest journey.

      • ManaTree
      • August 17th, 2010

      I have to disagree. Having played L4D1 and 2 extensively with friends, they are far more than tech demos. They are fun.

      Valve is intellectual, most certainly, but they are still inventive in being fun.

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