Video games enjoy a healthy cross-pollination with other media types like comics, novels, movies and TV shows. But when the story for a game is split across all these mediums, shouldn’t we all feel a little cheated that we’re being asked to pay more for a story we’ve already paid to be told? Warning; may contain spoilers.
Video games are a medium for telling a story like no other.
The interactive and progressive nature of a game allows for richer ways of telling a story – more nuanced, more subtle, more intriguing. You start off with a character you know little to nothing about, often in a strange and hostile land, and over the course of many hours the stories of all these corners of the game meld together to become a complete package. Some of the finest examples of storytelling in video games come from the epic Final Fantasy 9 and the lesser known Grandia which weave through multiple storylines and events without breaking a sweat, through to the likes of the stylised comic-book political and religious intrigue of Vagrant Story and the visual narrative of Yoshi’s Island. Then you have Beyond Good and Evil, marrying alien invasion science fiction with a web of political lies and propaganda that sang in harmony with each other, and through to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus – games which tell a story without anything in the way of words.
That said, of late we’re seeing some games try a different approach, and I’m not sure it’s a healthy one. Games which only tell half a story.
The reason for this rant is being told that my dislike for the Gears of War story stems from “not having read the comics or books”, which is a fair point. I haven’t read these things. I would love to as well, but it would signify for me an acceptance of a practice that I find utterly reprehensible – paying more money just to understand the game I paid £40 for.
Let’s take the Gears of War series as a starter. I bought all three games at £39.99 a time – that is a total of £119.97 over the course of three-ish years. I will even admit I liked the actual tactical, methodical combat and the visuals – a world torn apart by war, against enemies that outnumber you. Gears of War to me is an interesting kind of game – taking away the story and the copious amounts of 1950’s Americana jerking off that goes on in it, the world is one that is beautiful – some may say, even inspired. But that amounts for nothing if you can’t actively make an engaging story to trundle through the wastes and ruins of a dying planetoid, and it is in this that Gears of War, for me, failed more than anything else.
The problem with Gears of War is there are lots of little threads and ideas that get lost along the way. The immulsion, for example. I never understood how they made it into fuel, relied so heavily on it and then found out it was… actually, I’m not sure what it was. Was it a living organism? It’s blood? A swarm of parasitic organisms that had come together for survival creating the illusion of a glowing thick viscous fluid? And then there’s the science of it – this is a science fiction game, after all. We see this stuff, this immulsion, defying gravity and flowing up walls and following curves and gradients in the background. You know, the one question I had by Gears 3 was why no-one had looked at this stuff more closely. A liquid that can be burned for fuel, defies the basic laws of physics and can infect and de-evolve creatures? Yeah. I’d have liked to know how that one passed the boffins of a human species which could launch satellites and burn the sky.
Of course, for me the big question was simply – who, or what, are The Locust? After all, they have a queen who is relatively human in appearance, most of the locust are themselves humanoid with no apparent major deviation from the basic human physiology and those that aren’t are also based on what you’d call pre-existing species of insect. Gears of War 2 hinted somewhat that the Locust themselves are a Human sub-species, driven underground in shame many years ago. Then to compound this shame, the humans start dumping waste down into their subterranian world – the immulsion has been leaking through and devestating the ecosystem they have created and come to depend on, destroying their homes and friends and families.
This is an explosive kind of story, because it blends racism and segregation into war and politics, and also asks who is the worse party and who has a better case for war – for a writer, the sky is the limit with that kind of breadth and depth to explore. You could make twenty games on it. But the game itself by the time you’re into Gears 3 has all but forgotten this – it seems like, “Who cares? They’re going to die!”.
And die they do. In the most convenient kind of deus-ex machina possible, Gears of War 3 does indeed “kill them all”. And many others. The end result is humanity survived, but only at the expense of multiple species in the most insane method of genocide possible. There is barely any attempt to be sad about it – you win. Humanity has triumphed, as it always does. But it seems narratively, only because we as a species seem to be getting the kind of reputation in science fiction that to solve a problem, you just kill everyone or blow everything up. No-one there to ask questions. In a short while, the guilt and shame of killing millions is gone.
Of course, this is the game. And I’ve been told some of these questions are answered in comics and books – but I paid £120 for three games! Why should I spend another £40-odd on books and comics that tell key important parts of the story? If they had attempted to play this plot thread and then written a sort of “history” story about how and why the Locust were made and their subsequent expulsion from the upper world, then I’d applaud it. I’d probably even buy it. But I shouldn’t be expected to pay more on top for the story of a game I’ve invested so much money into already, to clear up loose plot threads that they didn’t have the time or energy to finish off in the game itself. That’s just simply wrong.
That said, Gears of War is not the only game series that does this. I am reminded also of Kingdom Hearts – Square Enix and Disney made a fabulous original game that felt complete on its own. Then they did a spin-off for the Game Boy Advance to set the scene for Kingdom Hearts 2, and then a bunch more stories and games which have further convoluted and complicated the story. In the case of Kingdom Hearts, the problem isn’t that they didn’t finish the story – but that they overworked it. Rather than let it come to a natural conclusion, the whole series now is a mess of stories and threads and individuals and organisations that just feel like someone couldn’t leave well enough alone. Messing with a story for the sake of making sequels and spin-offs only serves to create complications in the original story, and expose and even highlight plot holes and gaps in the narrative that you weren’t even aware of in the first place. You can, in other words, have too much of a good thing.
Nowhere is this more evident than in another Square-Enix series – Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy X had a cutesy spin-off that tried to correct that sad ending in the first game, but failed by itself being a pretty shoddy and overly complicated game itself that could railroad you into a not-complete ending. When you need a walkthrough just to get to the actual true ending in an RPG, you have a problem. Final Fantasy XIII is now getting a THIRD sequel, XIII-3, in an exercise in fruitless futility – the horse is dead guys, stop beating it. And of course, there is Final Fantasy 7.
There’s a reason why so many are calling for a Final Fantasy 7 remake – and it isn’t wholly to do with this notion that it’s the best game of all time (it’s one of the best games ever made, but perhaps not in the top five for me). It is because with Crisis Core and Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus and other stories and games, the original story no longer holds up against these spin-offs. In essence, these games and stories adding extra layers and depth to the original story have only served to weaken it, that it wasn’t and isn’t capable of holding the vast weight of corporate cash-cow milking on its shoulders. It needs to be retold, rewritten and redone in a way that serves to make the later additions relevant and grounded. And when you need to do that to a game as universally adored as Final Fantasy 7, you have a problem – because to do so might somewhat take away the magic sparkle of mystery and excitement that we originally had in these simpler times.
Of course, no-one really NEEDS to buy any of this stuff, the books or spin-offs or movies or comics. Wikis and blogs across the internet are available and ready for you to read up on and piece together the full and complete tale. But my point here is should we really be tolerating this sort of thing? Games cost money, and these days we’re often treated to two or three games in a series. Even at about eight hours a game in the case of Gears of War, that’s a whole 24 hours of time to tell the story. If you can’t tell it within the confines of the game itself, perhaps the story is writing checks that the games themselves simply cannot cash?
There is a case for these items to exist, for DLC to add subplots and narrative to enrich and enliven the experience for us. Of course we should pay for things that are good, that are polished and done in a considered, expressive way. But we should expect the games we pay for, and often pay a LOT for, to at least hold up on their own. There’s nothing that irks me more than paying for a movie that ends with the words “to be continued…”, that it cannot completely stand up on its own two feet. There’s nothing that annoys me more in games than those that end leaving more questions than they answer, important questions that are instrumental in the understanding and comprehension of the narrative structures within them. If you can’t do that, then don’t suggest there is more to things than you can deliver within the tight structure of a game you’re making. Not everyone has the kind of disposable income these days or the extra hours to try and buy other things that would complete or make sense of something.
And equally, when you’ve made a game with a tight and polished story, sometimes the best thing to do is like Final Fantasy 9 – leave it alone. That game holds up on its own, ties everything off in a nice neat bow and still manages to thrill, entertain, entrance and intrigue throughout. It needed nothing more done to it. It works because it is written in a way that makes you feel like yes, I’ve finished it. I’ve understood it. And I’ve even learned something along the way.
Adding more on top only serves to undermine the stellar and fantastic work already done for the sake of a few extra dollars. And really, is it worth ruining something so exquisitely perfect for the sake of a little extra money?
I hope not. Because the games industry would be a poorer place if people felt that they didn’t have to write a complete, coherent story because they can just fix it in the next game… or the next… or the one after that…. eventually you just stop holding out for it and expose it for what it really is – Lewton’s Bus. A device engineered to string you along with empty promises with no intention of delivering the carrot at the end.
For what we have to spend on games these days, we should be expecting the stories within them to be worth the entrance fee. By all means expand on games with books – just don’t use books as a cop-out clause to finish telling your games story.