Remember the days when a game like Final Fantasy 7 was held up as a great example of storytelling?
Such a thought seems baffling now. As a young teenager, I have no shame in admitting I thought of it as a sweeping epic that touched me emotionally and intellectually. As an adult, I now realise that Final Fantasy 7 is about as erudite as a dog chewing a leather shoe. Take a look at a sample of what I suppose we should refer to as a script.
Barret – “The upper world… a city on a plate…It’s ‘cuz of that &^#$# ‘pizza’, that people underneath are Sufferin’! And the city below is full of polluted air. On topa that, the Reactor keeps drainin’ up all the energy.”
Cloud – “Then why doesn’t everyone move onto the plate?”
Barret – “Dunno. Probably ‘cuz they ain’t got no money. Or, maybe…Cuz they love their land, no matter how polluted it gets.”
Cloud – “I know… no one lives in the slums because they want to. It’s like this train. It can’t run anywhere except where its rails take it.”
It’s pretty terrible isn’t it? Look, I adore Final Fantasy 7, and it’s a game that has greatly informed my tastes. But let’s face facts here; if Final Fantasy 7 was released now, the story and characters would be ripped to shreds. What’s interesting is that it would have to be released within the last few years to receive that kind of treatment. Until this generation, anything with a half decent attempt at narrative or the tiniest speck of substance was held up as a shining example of storytelling. Of course, there are examples where such praise is completely justified. But I think it’s fair to say that most aren’t nearly as well-crafted as we remember them being. I think the main reason Half Life 2 was such a huge shock back 2004, is that for many people it was the first time they had played a game with writing and acting even on par with other storytelling media.
It’s not just a lack of exposure to quality narrative previous to this generation though. Most of us are fans of other media too; we know/knew what good writing looked like. What’s happened is there has been a shift in what video game enthusiasts value most from their experience with a game. The old saying used to be “gameplay first!” But that clearly isn’t the case anymore. If it was, there is no way The Walking Dead could have scooped up as many “Game of the Year” awards as it did. The Walking Dead is a superb example of writing and characterisation, but as game, it’s flawed. However, it wasn’t the bugs or crappy action sequences that people went on and on about on podcast after podcast. It was the choices everyone made, and our own personal journeys with Lee and Clementine.
Has storytelling become more important to the gaming community than gameplay? It’s a question worth considering, given recent evidence. That said, I don’t think this is the case. I believe the critical community have simply stopped giving games a handicap.
The debate over BioShock Infinite that is currently raging across all four corners of the net was the catalyst for this article. For the record, I’m very much in the “modern masterpiece” camp, but that isn’t what’s important. The fact that a game is generating this kind of intense debate and discussion, clearly demonstrates to me that people are now criticising and analysing video game narrative on same level they would for a film, a TV show or a novel. I still think the industry as a whole has a lot of growing up to do when it comes to narrative. But I’m confident more than ever, that we’ll get there.