What bugs me about people who rip into the stories of games which try to tell good, interesting stories but fail (at least in the eyes of the people doing the ripping), like, for example, Bioshock Infinite, is that the language used to mock the games often comes in the form of saying “Games can’t tell good stories, why should you try?”
Not that they’re saying games can’t be art – they know that games can be art, and often the people saying these things want more games to be art. However, dismissing the narrative of the Bioshock games as being too simplistic or too trite or playing with the players heartstrings too much is a bit like making fun of little league baseball players because they’re not hitting home runs like the pros. They may get there someday, they may not – but what good can mocking them for trying do?
If you really, really want better video game stories, then signal out the people who do what you want to see for praise, and if someone does something wrong, don’t just mock their decisions, talk about why it didn’t work for you.
I can’t code well enough to work on a AAA, but I can tell when a story works, and when it doesn’t and if it doesn’t work I can tell why. Hell, depending on why the story doesn’t work, I can tell you what it would take to fix it.
Shifting the topic somewhat – games like EVE Online and DayZ aren’t “fixing” game stories, or “telling” better game stories. People are using those games to tell interesting stories, sure, but describing them as the future of game storytelling (as I got the impression Patrick Klepek was kind of alluding to in his discussion of the Irrational Games closure with Alex Navarro), is at best erroneous. EVE Online and DayZ aren’t telling game stories to or with players – they’re giving them handycams and a box of props. At best the cameras will get used to make some interesting stories, sure. However, the difference is that EVE Online and DayZ have the added “feature” of facilitating a kind of electronic “happy slapping” that games like Dragon Age, Bioshock, Final Fantasy, The Elder Scrolls or other more single player, narrative driven games can’t really do.
There’s certainly a place for Minecraft and DayZ, and I don’t begrudge the people who enjoy those games the fact that they like them. However, I really don’t want the future of video games to be more games like that.
One last thing – if Ken Levine’s plan is to make games like The Way Z with his smaller, leaner team, I find the fact that Shawn Elliot lost his job at Irrational Games because of this slightly ironic – at least to me. You see, back when Shawn was on the Games for Windows podcast, he liked to talk about how he enjoyed griefing people in video games. In particular, one incident that has permanently stuck out in my mind is one where he, and another host of the podcast discovered a Grand Theft Auto IV Multiplayer Role-Playing server.
Shawn and his friend found this example of emergent gameplay in a sandbox environment utterly hilarious, and decided to stomp all over everyone’s sandbox. They logged in, and went on a rampage until they were kicked. Then they posted on twitter about this, and got a whole bunch more people to go into the server and continue rampaging until, ultimately, the server was shut down. Mr. Elliot considered this a wonderful success. That even probably happened about 5-6 years ago, but I haven’t forgotten it, and it’s forever colored my impression of Mr. Elliot. And thus, while I feel bad for the other 184 other employees of Irrational Games who have lost their jobs because of the new creative direction that Ken Levine has decided to go in, I don’t feel bad for Shawn Elliot.
With Shawn Elliot, at least, the bully has gotten his just desserts.