It is unfortunate that there are no great game stories. It would be nice, when people ask what I would single out for excellence in game narrative, to have some quick and easy retort; some title I could comfortably pull from memory with the confidence of many days repetition. But alas, I am at a loss to find anything in the literary history of videogames thus far that aspires to greatness. This is not to say that there are not good stories in videogames, nor that there are not excellent writers and narrative designers working in videogames – one of the toughest storytelling media around.
The thing about great stories, in any medium, is that they are not simply of their time – they’re timeless. Great stories can be told again and again, in many different settings and retain some hint of greatness. This said, there can be a marked difference in quality. Akira Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai achieves greater mastery of the cinematic form than Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars, despite the same essential plot (which achieved its greatest commercial success in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven). Great plot. But as entertaining as Corman’s sci fi hokum may be, it is significantly shy of the subtlety of Kurasawa’s narrative. Seven Samurai doesn’t just have a great plot, it’s a great story; The Magnificent Seven does a decent job adapting it to a Western, while Battle Beyond the Stars is... well, fun.
And maybe that’s the problem. Battle Beyond the Stars, and practically any romping genre piece (space opera, fantasy quests, treasure hunters and so on) can be fun, but can’t quite aspire to greatness, because great stories, in the sense that literary critics mean, are about the human condition – the ineffable essence of life; diverse enough to fuel endless stories, and inescapably authentic. Most game stories are either silly fun, or clumsy revenge tales that facilitate violent power fantasies in the play of the game. Maybe fun stories are better suited to videogames because videogames (or at least, their commercial form) are about having fun?
Another problem – the seedy underbelly of videogames, in fact – is the repetition. Would you like to be running down a corridor shooting droves of enemies, or running through a forest hacking down droves of enemies (and then a mine... a desert... dungeons...)? Or you could optimise an economy over and over again, or drive down the street over and over again, or perhaps you could repeat a jump over and over again? Repeat until you get it right. Which is fun – for a surprisingly large number of people. 94% of gamers say they are okay or good at completing repetitive tasks, and over a quarter of these say they find it very easy.
(Not to mention repetitive tasks are habit-forming, essentially by definition: if you learn to do it over and over again, you’ll keep doing it as long as it’s fun. And understandably, habit-forming games sell better – or at least, sell more reliably.)
Most successful videogames involve repetition – either to learn the skills to progress, or to hoard the supplies (including experience in cRPGs) needed to succeed. Great stories thus far in history have never been as repetitive as videogames, which makes it difficult to know how one would make a great story in this new form. But I think we can be pretty certain it isn’t by any of the methods we’re currently using – not by the tacked-on animated movie, neither by the well-orchestrated spookhouse ride, nor the pulp adventure story shuffled into a game. We have found many ways to make fun games, and indeed there are many great games, and some such games have good stories. But still no great stories, alas.
Yes, it’s unfortunate that there are no great game stories
yet, but isn’t it exciting to see how things might develop?