I think a great deal of videogame stories – particularly those of the bigger series out there – have a problem. They’re too big, too complex, and often, too convinced of their own brilliance. Videogame narratives tend to be either overly self-involved or so unbearably silly that we choose to ignore them, paying no heed to the talk of conspiracies within conspiracies or whatever the reason was for that alien invasion in favour or just blasting through enemies and savouring the gameplay (which is, by and large, usually rather good).
The thought came to me when reading details about the Resident Evil 6 plot, and realising that despite having played Resident Evils 1, 2, 4 and 5, I still felt largely in the dark as to what was going on. T-Viruses, G-Viruses, Uroborous, Las Plagas, all the characters and conspiracies and backstabbings…I can barely follow any of it, and nor do I feel compelled to. It’s over-convoluted nonsense. I fondly remember playing the first, and even the second, Resident Evil games. Enter a haunted house or fight your way through a zombie invasion – they were nicely contained narratives that were all the more immersive and gripping because I wasn’t getting distracted by the kind of tedious subplots and overwrought backstory development that’s now undermined the series.
It’s a problem inherent in many series that have got a bit long in the tooth. I won’t deny that I’m interested to see what happens next in the story of Desmond Miles, but the longer Ubisoft stretches out the narrative of Assassin’s Creed the more its tight, interesting story is beginning to unravel. Gears Of Wars story built throughout its three games, hinting at something deeper and brilliant beyond what we were being told, but then failed to take it anywhere, ending the trilogy on a damn squib of a conclusion that failed to answer most of the questions its fanbase wanted resolved. The Metal Gear Solid saga does have some fantastic story elements running through it – Metal Gear Solid 3 in particular has one of the great videogame narratives in recent memory – but that’s only if you can keep up with the tangled backstory and incestuous relationships of the characters. Anyone who could keep up with what was going on at the end of Metal Gear Solid 2 or throughout Metal Gear Solid 4 then we salute you, good sir.
There are plenty more examples – the later Silent Hill games, the F.E.A.R. series, and yes, even Halo’s story is, let’s be honest, utter nonsense. The longer a series goes on, the more ignorable its story tends to become.
The best examples of videogame narratives are those that are self-contained, unique, and most of all, simple. Red Dead Redemption is a great example, as is BioShock (the sequel to which threatened to destroy it’s well-constructed plot, but actually managed to develop the narrative without picking it apart completely). Final Fantasy VII told a beautiful story of love and saving the world without complicating matters with the needless exposition the series crams into its more recent entries, and although the Uncharted series may be a shameless imitation of Fifties adventure romps and Indiana Jones it can’t be denied that the formula works.
The Modern Warfare series is in no way a prime example of good storytelling, but the first and third entries into the series are indicative of the fact that keeping things easy to grasp always makes for the better story. They were simple manhunts, sending you around the world in a bombastic and exhilarating chase for the enemy. Modern Warfare 2’s story, in comparison, was an over-complicated trawl that threw too many elements into the mix, turning gamers off in the process. The return to the cat and mouse chase in MW3 fared far better.
I would even go as far as to say that the Kane & Lynch games, despite the fact that they’re undeniably less accomplished games than Halo, still have the better stories by way of the fact I can easily enjoy and follow them. I also fully expect myself to enjoy the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot over past franchise entries too, given that it replaces globetrotting and insidious conspiracies with one, singular plot element: survive.
I’m not saying that all videogame stories should be uncomplicated, undemanding affairs. BioShock’s certainly wasn’t and it worked, and I’ve no doubt Irrational will achieve something similar with BioShock: Infinite. But I firmly believe that developers need to learn when to stop adding elements and retconning their sprawling narratives in an effort to try and make something new. Yes, videogame developers are building entire worlds, but the stories they tell don’t have to be as complicated as the mechanics that underpin them.