The game industry's flaws ebb and flow with each new trend and technology. One particular point that's been sticking in my craw is the lack if truly inspired story modes in non-RPG games. Music games, Sports games and Racing games, for example, are notorious for getting is so monumentally wrong. Some games have burst through that barrier to give us a great narrative alongside great game play...but why is it so hard?
DJ Hero 2 is one of my favorite games. I don't usually expect much from my rhythm games Story mode, but Rock Band 2 spoiled me with something at least stepping in the right direction. Unfortunately I was let down, Activision had learned nothing from developing rhythm game story modes and I trudged through DJ battles against AI (incredibly frustrating), meaningless choices about my character and even some unalterable choices for things that...the list goes on, It was such an uninteresting and un-fun experience that once I had completed it I promised never to touch it again.
The fundamental problem is that good narratives and good game play do not typically go together. A good story has a single author, a good game has engaging mechanics and usually a primary goal: to win/best some trial. The games we consider the best games with stories are all games that immerse the player in the situation, but the game play supports the narrative directly: Niko Bellic can only run, jump, drive and shoot...but his story only demands that much of him. Commander Shepherd might be able to be a renegade or paragon, but he will always ultimately save the galaxy and he, like Niko, can only shoot guns. Neither of them can use the bathroom, comb their hair, hold conversations at will or decide not to save the world but that's just fine because they never need to during the game. And so games that don't have game play supporting the story have to think of clever ways to tie the two together, or separate them entirely. Here's some good and bad examples of each.
Bad: Fight Night Round 3
It was the reason I wanted an Xbox 360. The graphics, sound and really innovative controls hooked me. The story mode however, made my bile rise. You train once, then you fight one fight, then you train, then you fight, train, fight, train...In between training is load screens, training itself is boorish and you must train manually to get the best possible benefit. It stank. Luckily it looks like Fight Night Champion's story mode is going to pick up the heat. [Via ScrawlFX]
Bad: Need For Speed Most Wanted
Come to think of it Need For Speed: Carbon's story was bad too. Props for using real actors and shooting some truly interesting looking cut-scenes...but the content of those cut-scenes is abysmal. Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift was Oscar material by comparison. Then, in-game, you receive text messages from your hardened racer rivals, who slice you with harsh words like "Use the blue zones on your radar to hide from pursuers." There's a "Blacklist" of most wanted racers, and each of their bios reads the same: Not to be messed with, so bad ass, can't be stopped. No depth, not a single consideration to dramatic effect or character development.
You know what, add Split-Second to this list. The game bills itself as a TV show but has no characters, no host, no audience, no ratings, no commercials, no sponsors...Monday Night Combat gets it right. Rant over.
Good: Puzzle Quest
Puzzle Quest is best described as Bejeweled with spells. But that's where the comparison's end. Though the game still suffers from "Human vs. AI" puzzle game syndrome, the story mode is interesting and fun with a choice of classes, storyboard cut-scenes and boss battles. You get to move around a world map, training and gathering items, leveling up spells and earning notoriety. It's really quite robust for a game with such comparatively simple game play but it doesn't get in the way, and it only supports the action. Gyromancer also did this well.
Dynamically generated missions alongside an actual story mode, Uplink's interface and presentation are a rarity in the world of gaming. Only Assassin's Creed, as of late, tries so hard to maintain the interface: They present the PC as if it's the screen of another PC you're using to work a side gig as a hacker. It's fun, paced well and it melds game play with story seamlessly. It doesn't get much better.
To sum it up: A good narrative experience is only possible when the game play supports the narrative directly. Finding games that truly merge the two are rare, and when you do, they're incredible experiences that hang in our memory. Shadow of the Colossus, anyone?
Although some games do not demand much effort from the story department, any effort to include it should be met with equal effort to support it. I'm excited for Fight Night Champion, if only because it may be the first step towards EA supporting good stories around "hard to write for" game play. Can you think of any examples of games that got it extremely right...or extremely wrong?