Do not let the “Plan to Play” section of MyVideoGameList fool you; I have played a number of games throughout my life. Video games were, without a shred of exaggeration, my first love in life—the thing that I would most look forward to waking up to in the morning. It would make sense that throughout my time experiencing a wide variety of different games that I’ve come to develop a certain “fetish” for specific game types that appeal to me more than anything else. Pondering this for years, I always had an affinity for Nintendo games, games with colorful and cartoon-ish art direction, and games involving a lot of puzzle-solving. However, there is a specific aspect to games that has not only become more popular in recent years, but has evolved the state of video games into something that’s been debated on ever since. I am speaking of narratives, games with grandiose stories and moral messaging within its compact code.
For some time, I never realized how prevalent the impact of narratives in video games had on me as a gamer. In recent years, it’s become almost necessary for a game to have some sort of contextual motivation in order for me to care to try a game at all. Games such as Splatoon, Overwatch, and Sonic Mania are all titles that have fun features to their credit that make them enjoyable experiences, but none give me a lasting impression because there simply isn’t enough there for me to really care. And this isn’t to say the mentioned games don’t have narratives to them, they’re just not explored to the point where they become interesting on their own—whether because all further information is found through other sources or the game focuses more prominently on gameplay than story. This doesn’t bode so well for my standards, however, as my preferences have become more tailor-made to the manner in which a video game can immerse me within its world, something that is done best through world-building via characters and story. This leads me to uphold a likely unpopular opinion:
Narratives in video games usually make them better.
There is no denying that a video game’s mechanics are what come first in a successful game. If gameplay is boring, then why bother? Gameplay, despite the message of this post, is the most important factor of a video game. With that in mind, the typical ratio for the critical player is usually 80/10/10 in accordance to gameplay/story and characters/art and sound. My own ratio is closer to 50/40/10, leaving games with stories/characters that utterly bore me and gameplay/art/sound direction that astounds me at best a 6/10.
Picking on Sonic Mania yet again (due to it being the inspiration behind this post), it follows this train of personal analysis. Gameplay is solid, smooth, and inspired. Art is perfect for what it’s trying to convey and adds even more pizzazz to the spirit of the Sonic series. Sound follows the same path as art style. Despite all of this, the story is bare-boned, and the characters’ personalities are only shown through very meager actions. I bought the game when it released ten days ago and I have yet to finish it, despite the game’s short-ish length. Why? Because I’m bored with it. Its gameplay and design aren’t enough to compensate for the lack of empathy I have to continue forth with the game, which is directly attributed to its simplistic story, and to some extent, its fan service. If I had to give it a rating at this moment, it would be a 6/10, verging on a 5.5/10. And I know that would make a lot of people upset.
Alternatively, a video game like Undertale is capable of being rewarded a 7/10 from me, despite having gameplay that barely passes off for a typical bullet-hell/Earthbound type of gamestyle. From a gameplay standpoint, Undertale is a pretty dull game that doesn’t have much to offer. The most challenge one faces is trying to identify how to pacify a particular enemy while dodging their attacks in the meantime. Very typical RPG mechanics. Where it lacks in gameplay, it more than makes up for in story and (especially) characters. While the narrative plays a little too much into THE POWER OF EMOTIONS!!!, its characters are a wonderful variety of fun that makes the game far more entertaining than its gameplay would imply. This succeeds in pulling the player in with assisting (or playing along with) the trials that face the people around them, giving them more motivation to explore the world and find information about said characters or about the major goal.
Of course, there are times when a game gets too ahead of itself and focuses far too much on one aspect, most notably narrative, to compensate for the lack of anything else. Games such as Gone Home or Depression Quest are examples of the narrative > gameplay argument that people rattle over to this day. With the technology present to humanity today, in which we can create games that allow these narrative-driven wholes, are games that focus more on story than gameplay really video games? Such is a debate that rages on among the levels of “The Console Wars,” but in the end, more games are more games, and I’m all the happier for the people who dedicate their time to doing what they love.
As I continued pondering, I began to understand that narratives in video games have always been the most prevalent and notably nostalgic games of my childhood. Hell, thinking about all the games on my Top 10 List of Nostalgic Games has more than half the list contain titles with heavy doses of dialogue/text or detailed story progression. It took me twenty-something years to realize that the difference between Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Sunshine was the fact that Sunshine had more charm through its ridiculously idiotic story and character roster. Such is why I hold the latter to be a better experience, and a better game altogether.
So, with this in mind, the next time you come across a video game review from me, know that there are types of games I enjoy and those I don’t, but I try to critique a game to the nature of its parts and what I feel it tries to exude most notably from them. Still, I’m not perfect, and games like Sonic Mania will end up getting somewhat low ratings because my mind is accustomed to games with a lot more narrative-focus. It’s something I’ve had to learn to get over, though these internal stipulations do have their share of exceptions, hence why I said games are “usually” better with narratives. My fondness of storytelling is something that happened to cross over into my gaming preferences, leaving me to feel encouraged by the future of video games and what they can offer. Such a path will not always be straight and narrow, unfortunately.