The gaming industry has entered a new era. This era of gaming is dominated by games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Titanfall. The biggest common denominator between these three games (other than the big shooty explosiony stuff that is constantly occurring) is the fact that these games have, since their inception into the mainstream of gaming, relied less and less on delivering gamers something that used to be an absolute necessity in the gaming industry: emotional investment. Investment into who these characters we are occupying, what goals we hope to achieve as these characters, the rewards or consequences we face when these goals are attained, and most importantly why we as consumers of the products, as players of these games, the characters in these worlds, are trying so damned hard to get up to that one ledge where that awesome sword is, for god’s sake, it’s right there, Jesus Christ why put it there if you can’t reach it, I mean that’s such bullshit this game is cheating. Why do we play games? What reasoning do we have for putting ourselves through difficult platformers, through impossible shooters in which we’re outnumbered ten to one, in RTSs that leave us with miniscule resources and expect us to deflect a Nazi or alien or Nazi alien invasion? Some might say that we put ourselves (and our incredibly expensive gaming hardware) at risk of ragequitting for a sense of accomplishment, a feeling of dominance over these games that task the player with impossible odds, where we rise from the ashes and show those Nazi aliens just whose planet this is! I argue differently.
I don’t play these games in order to dominate the opposing forces. I don’t play games to enforce my will upon those players that are weaker and less skilled than me. The thrill in gaming to me has always been uncovering the motivations for the actions that we, as characters (be they specifically defined in straightforward shooters or actions games like Halo or the aforementioned COD or whether they be loosely defined, if at all, Such as in your Skyrims, Waking Deads, or Far Cry 3s), take, and how we reconcile with the decisions we’ve made. How have our choices affected the world around us? Did we even matter in the long run in our story, or are we a catalyst for a new world order? Questions like these, to me, have always seemed more relevant and significant in my gaming experiences, much more so than attempting to get more headshots than that annoying douche who’s constantly yelling racist epithets at me. Screw that guy.
But that guy is at the center of this, at the center of why these questions that once seemed so important long ago have now quietly taken a backseat to the chaotic frenzy of the mindless mainstream mayhem that is so commonplace in gaming today. This guy is the reason that big game producers and developers have stopped taking such great care to make sure that the player is invested in the story behind their actions because this guy simply doesn’t give a shit about the story behind the actions he’s taking. This guy wants shoot shoot shoot kill kill kill explosion boom boom hooray. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with shoot shoot kill kill kill explosion boom boom hooray, but that is not why I game. That should be an additional bonus to the gaming experience, the proverbial icing on the cake. Developers and publishers have realized that there are way more of these guys out there than there are of people who care about the stories in their games. And that’s not necessarily unfair. Sometimes as gamers we don’t have enough time to sit down for hours on end and get emotionally invested into Shepard’s fight to save the galaxy from the Reapers or into staying alive through the night during Arkham Asylum as the hero Gotham deserves. Sometimes we just need to pick up a game for a few minutes and have some quick and crazy fun. But the disparity between the amount of titles that value chaotic gameplay with no more motivation behind it other than “kill more people than all the other people” is discouraging to say the least.
To get the full amount of enjoyment from a game, the story in it must be paramount. Of all companies to understand that story should be the most important factor in making a game, leave it to Rockstar to surprise me. Known for creating the biggest, most chaotic, most crazy ass violent shooty shooty bang bang explosion game series, Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar also crafted the previous gaming generation’s best story in Red Dead Redemption. They gave us the character of John Marston, a genuinely engaging and interesting character. If you asked someone unfamiliar with gaming to hazard a guess at what type of man Marston is, they’d probably tell you that Marston is a walking pile of badass that shoots anything that moves without a second thought in order to get what he wants. And they’d be right. Then if you ask them what it was that Marston wanted, they’d probably guess money or power or variations thereof. That’s where they’d be wrong, and that’s why John Marston is an interesting character. Marston cares nothing for the typical tropes of gunslingers of the Wild West. He simply wants his wife and son back together so he can leave behind his days of badassery and be a simple farmer, a husband, and a father.
It is in this area is where games like the Call of Duty franchise have been stagnating since (spoiler) Ghost’s death in Modern Warfare 2. After Modern Warfare 2, the COD series had finally reached the level of accessibility and mainstream following that it holds today. The first three CODs were placed in World War II and at least attempted to make you care about why we were invading Europe. Then Modern Warfare broke the war game mold, and brought us into the here and now, while still, at least attempting to make us care about the characters alongside whom we were fighting, like Soap, Capt. Price, and the aforementioned Ghost. But after MW2, the story in these games becomes an afterthought to the publishers and developers. With MW3, the COD model had fallen in alongside the model of the Madden franchise, a model that says “if we take the same game, add a miniscule amount of new bullshit to it, give it a new name, and slap a $60 price tag on it, then we’ll all drown in money.” EA took the banner from COD earlier this year and sprinted forward by barely putting anything into their games that even vaguely resembled a hint of a shadow of a whisper of a story. They made the story into a background noise that the player could choose to ignore if they so wished. Again, that is not necessarily unfair. Mindless frenzied violent fun is fine if that’s what you want. What’s unfair here is that EA is charging their players a full sized price tag for half of a game. And the consumers, upon whom these publishers depend, could not be eating this second class treatment up any faster if you placed a funnel in their mouths and two forks in their hands.
But herein lies the bright side of this dilemma. No longer do huge publishers and developers care about giving their consumers the best stories (with notable exceptions of course, i.e. Mass Effect and Fallout). The great thing about the death of the single player campaign mode in AAA gaming is that smaller developers no longer need permission from AAA publishers to create their own stories, their own visions. With the mammoth entity of AAA gaming no longer caring about the stories they’re telling, it effectively removes the artistic filters that AAA gaming had placed on developers in the first place. These developers are giving gamers a chance to once again revel in the worlds in which they’re placed, to care about and invest in the characters they’re inhabiting, and to seriously ponder the consequences of their actions before making any decisions. I believe that Telltale Games has become the standard bearer for the single player audience. With games like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, Telltale has ushered single player storytelling to a new height.
As magnificent as the aforementioned Red Dead Redemption was in its storytelling, Telltale has made me care so much about these worlds and these characters, that it borders on embarrassing. Near the beginning of the first season of The Walking Dead, we’re faced with a choice to save someone. We’re forced to choose between saving a twenty-something young man who saved your life earlier in the game or saving a boy of no more than ten years old. You could also choose to save neither but what kind of monster would do that? This takes place within the first hour of gameplay, but this game had already given these characters so much depth and so much humanity that it was so much more difficult for me to decide who to save than I ever would have guessed. Until I was placed in that situation, I never thought that it would be so upsetting to effectively choose who lives and who dies. It’s maddening. Likewise for Telltale’s (in my opinion) current crowning achievement, The Wolf Among Us.
The Wolf Among Us more or less eliminates the choosing who lives or dies aspect of the game, as most characters are nigh upon immortal. But the choices this game forces you to make are no less emotionally resonant or devastating than in The Walking Dead. No spoilers, but in the course of the game the main character is tasked with telling a character that a family member of theirs has been murdered. This character had been introduced earlier and was not as helpful or welcoming as they could have been. But upon being given the task of informing them that their loved one had passed, I suddenly felt horrible for this character. All of a sudden this character had a life, and a family, and real problems to which players could actually relate. And even as I decided how to go about giving this character the bad news, I was smiling as wide as I possibly could because this game, and the games like it, the games that prove that video games can be more than shooty bang bang stab explosion are still out there and are still surviving, even thriving in today’s indie-gaming friendly world.
Technology now allows developers to get their stories and visions out without having to face censure from the powers that be, because they possess the capability to do everything themselves and have it viewed within the same realm and on equal footing as anything a AAA gaming company such as EA or Ubisoft can present. That is why I relish in the fact that Big Gaming does not care about the stories that they tell anymore. Because, honestly, who cares what stories AAA companies have to tell. We all know that they aren’t the stories anyone actually wrote. They’re focus grouped amalgamations from ideas that a few developers had, and were then quickly silenced for the price of a song. Video games now possess the technological capacity to become real and valid forms of art in their own right, so long as the right creative minds exist to share their visions with the gaming world. Fear not my fellow single players. All hope is not lost to the whims and fancies of AAA gaming. While not as numerous as they once were, video game stories are stronger than they’ve ever been, it is now just a matter of wading through the AAA garbage that is constantly harassing you to find the good stuff.