It was just the other day when this particular KN writer (Who shall be known as ‘I’ for the duration of this piece) was playing Sonic Unleashed- Trying to finally polish it off before Sonic the Hedgehog 4 and Sonic Colours come along. Previously, I’d left it at near the end of the game, where (If you’re playing the game and disagree with points I’m about to make, then I’ll warn you now- Spoilers!) Sonic and his annoying new buddy Chip had just beaten the last Werehog level, (YES!) but not fast enough to stop Dark Gaia forming into a huge beasty. What I’ve just summed up in 27 words, which can’t have taken you much more than 30 seconds to read, was told in a 6-minute cut-scene. And trust me, when the said six minutes is filled with as many cringe-worthy lines as someone trying to get a suntan in Norfolk, (“Seven true lights of the Earth, rekindle!”) it’ll feel like far more. Best bit is, one Punch Out!!-esque boss later and I’m shown a further four minutes of overly dramatic nonsense.
I’m not trying to convey that Sonic Unleashed is a bad game, (Although when I played the Werehog levels, I couldn’t help but think Sega did try) it’s just got a bad plot. The story is a big pile of clichés, laid on top of each other in a very unflattering manor. The telling of it is even worse- The script writing seems to have been handed to the work experience boy, who even then couldn’t be bothered/fit it in amongst the coffee-making and asked his younger brother to write it. Steven Moffat it ain’t.
As you’d expect considering this is an article, not a rant, it did raise a question: Why bother with a storyline in your games? Even in today’s difficult gaming climate, a narrative structure is not needed. Case in point? Super Mario Galaxy 2. Metacritic’s second-highest rated game of all-time has no story. At all. The original did, sure, but game designer and all round legend Shigeru Miyamoto admitted that was somewhat of a mistake. We wouldn’t go that far, but Galaxy’s plot wasn’t Oscar winning stuff, although it clearly didn’t take itself seriously, which added to the charm of the game, while Sonic Unleashed tries to overcomplicate things and create an epic, Miyamoto knew he wasn’t trying to make Inception- he wanted to create a purely video game experience.
Start up Super Mario Galaxy 2 and the following happens: Mario finds a little star chap and lets it live in his hat. He walks to Peach’s castle, only to find that Bowser, twice its size, is stood outside breathing fire on everything. Bowser kidnaps Peach. Mario decides to chase after him in a spaceship shaped like his head. That’s the entire game’s plot in fewer than 50 words. It makes no sense. It’s not continued from there until the final cut scene when Mario saves Peach. There is no dramatic plot twist or big revelation, simply because it doesn’t fit the game. It takes a genius to write a good story, but an even better one to realise when their well-planned drama isn’t needed.
This may seem like a total change of topic, but I don’t like action films. Most of them just aren’t up my street- Michael Bay can obviously choreograph a fight scene very well, but his films suffer from the same almost syndrome as Sonic Unleashed. He thinks his film has a plot. He wants his film to have a plot. Sticking to cinema, my favourite movie realised last year was Up. There was a bit of a story, but no more than Galaxy 2 had- It was just an excuse for the wonderful fun that happened later on.
Back when I interviewed Pop developer Nnooo’s top man, Nic Watt, we asked what he had to say on the subject of the bubble-popping title’s storyline, getting the reply “Pop is not intended to have any real narrative. It is meant to be something to relax and unwind to in a similar way to Tetris. In Tetris there is no reason to organise the blocks you just do!”. The same philosophy is not only found at Nintendo- thankfully, it seems the wisdom is spreading around the games industry. Steering clear of telling a tale may not be top priority for many Point ‘n’ Click devs, but thankfully those making smaller puzzle games have done just that.
A pattern seems to be emerging here- The best games or movies seem to be fun, not taking themselves very seriously, and plot-light. This isn’t always the case. For example, what would the Phoenix Wright games be without their dramatic plot twists? And what about on the rare occasion that a video game company manages to get the script right? The likes of Bioshock and The World Ends With You where bettered infinitely by their good stories and excellent scripts. TWEWY in particular blew me away- You have to play it to believe it.
Nonetheless, good scripts in games are still rare- KN’ll probably only praise about 10% of realises for having a good story, although at the same time it can’t be more than 30% that’ll be slated for having a poor one. So whatever happened to the other 60%? Most game plots are functional; they do what they need to, but no more. This is fine, because, when we boil it down, the tale being told isn’t really one of the most important features of a video game. People may beg to differ, but would you rather play a game with decent controls or a good story? If it’s so glitch-laden, then there’s no point in having a narrative.
Does this mean we shouldn’t be critising video game plots? It seems the more that is written on video game stories, the less sense the whole ordeal makes- fittingly, like many a game’s stories. This particular article seems to have become a bit of a jumble, neither proving nor celebrating anything at all. Really, the thing that seems to be key when it comes to plots is knowing when to insert them. Perhaps it is a bit harsh to mark a game down on an unnecessary component, but imagine you had a delicious dish of whatever your favourite meal is, done exactly as you like it. Then the Chef decided to chuck a load of fresh poo-poo into the pot and serve it with sprinklings of horse vomit and his own dandruff. Would you critise his unnecessary ingredient then?
I’m not trying to say that Video Game plots are Dung Cakes, (Although often developers do tend to try) it’s
just that it takes extreme skill to slot one into place beautifully. Take note developers.