Monday, 5 December 2011

"Do Games Need to Tell A Story?" Week 1 - Minimalism

 If not for the sake of saving the princess, then for what sake indeed?

I was recently chatting with my friend Rad about various and sundry things when a very important question was asked: do games need a story? In this current generation full of voice actors, scripts that might be as long or longer than Hollywood blockbusters, cutscenes that sometimes last for the better part of a half hour, and various other accouterments that are specifically relegated to delivering the story is it possible that in some cases it's unnecessary to do so?

Now, before I get started in earnest here I have to make a clear definition: every game has a premise. You can't really have a game without that much at least: for example the premise of Pong is to, well, play Pong; likewise the premise of Super Mario Bros is to traverse the levels and make it to the end. The story can overlap, or it can be different. Pong for example, has no story -- unless you really want to go out of your way to provide it with one -- it's just two paddles and a ball. Super Mario Bros does have a story: save the Princess from the clutches of Bowser. It's not a very fleshed out story, but then again it doesn't really need to be, since it provides enough narrative incentive to give Mario's quest a point.

Now comes the tricky part: could you still have a Super Mario Bros without the story? Well, short answer is yes you can. The premise is all that is really needed: to make it to the final level and complete the experience. But without the story a gamut of questions can arise: who is Mario? Why is he doing what he's doing? Is there a point to all of this? These aren't huge philosophical questions; they're just what players might find themselves asking through the course of playtime.

The story to Mario wasn't particularly riveting by any means; I think it took up all of one whole page in the instruction booklet. Despite the simple nature of the story though, the broad strokes pretty much answered the player's questions: Mario is on a quest to save the Princess. It doesn't need to be anymore than that, and there actually aren't any details added from there. For example, why is Mario doing this? Is he indebted to the Princess? Does he love her? Or is it simply because Mario is a hero and that's what heroes do? None of these questions are actually elaborated upon in the first game. Perhaps a player might have been curious, but never so much so that they would have felt slighted at the lack of answers. In the end Mario prevails, and whatever that ultimately entails is left up to the imaginations of the player.

Fast forward to the current day, with Super Mario Galaxy 2: much of the plot remains exactly the same: Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach, and it's up to Mario to rescue her and stop Bowser's nefarious plans. There are things in the game like cutscenes introducing bosses, perhaps some elaboration on how Bowser is causing trouble this time, but all in all not much has changed because it doesn't really need to. The Mario series has always been one the relied more on the strength of its gameplay than of its story. Certainly now more details are known: Princess Peach seems fairly enamoured with Mario, and he with her (at least at times), there are characters that help Mario on his quest, his enemies are more animated than they were in the old days, and he certainly has never looked better. In the end though all of this is really secondary to just making a game that's fun to play.

Where am I going with this? Well, these days it seems like more often than not, while games are still focused on being good games, there's also more and more insistence that games need a compelling narrative in order to be truly great. As I've just laid out I don't quite believe that this is the case, but I'm also far from saying that games should only have minimalist stories like the ones found in the Mario series. That's why I'll be focusing on different aspects of story delivery in games: what I believe is going right, and what is going wrong.

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