In defense of story-driven games

I am a gamer. That word has many meanings, to me a gamer is someone who can immerse into games and really enjoy them, for whatever reason. For some people, that reason is Multiplayer and they tend to focus on games with strong multiplayer like FPS and sports and try to be on top of the leaderboards. For some other people, that reason is creativity and they tend to focus on sandbox games and build whole worlds in Minecraft. Other people are fascinated by playing god and shaping a world, which is served by games like The Sims.

For me, the reason to immerse in games is the story, which is why I tend towards RPGs.


There is a lot of bile on the internet about an Interview with one of Bioware’s writers in which she said she doesn’t really like playing games and thinks games should have a way to skip combat. The reactions she is receiving make me ashamed that I am considering myself a gamer, but then I also realize that there are a whole lot of 12 year olds playing on Xbox Live who like to use “Fag” as an all-purpose insult for everything. I could do the right thing and found an organization whose sole purpose lies in locating these kids and giving them the severe beating they deserve, but instead I chose to write a blog post.

First of all, let me talk about BioWare games and their writing. You can criticize their games for weak itemization. You can criticize Mass Effect 1 for the weak handling of the Mako and the fact that their side mission is one of 3 missions, repeated 85 times. You can criticize Dragon Age for weak combat balance (hence many people call it Dragon Mage) and you can criticize Dragon Age II for being a lot weaker than Origins. But each and every game they made (I haven’t played SW:TOR, so no comments there) was a highly enjoyable experience for me. Why?

Because they have the best writers in the whole entire industry. Mass Effect alone has more immortal quotes than other companies entire catalogues, not to forget one of the best scenes to ever make it into a video game. Dragon Age is worth playing if for nothing else then at least for listening to Alistair and Morrigan. And yes, I fully admit that as a heterosexual male, Leliana was my favorite side character, not just because I need a rogue anyway since I was playing a Mage.

A lot of people don’t care, and that’s okay, it’s a choice. A lot of people do care, and I am one of them. I have played through some truly horrible games, if for nothing else then for the story. I am an avid reader of fictional books, I’ve plowed through a lot of Star Wars’ Extended Universe, pretty much anything Robert Ludlum and Ken Follett wrote, I do hope that all of the Witcher books get  translated into English and I have a man-crush on both Neil Stephenson and Iain Banks.

When it comes to games, I actually read quest texts and follow story lines, and I know that if I’m standing west of a house and there is a small mailbox here, I might be eaten by a Grue later.

So when people object the notion of a skip-combat button, it puzzles me. Of course, I do remember a time where “interactive storytelling” meant something else. In the dark ages of the CD-ROM Revolution, we had some truly horrible “games” that were essentially just a collection of horrible FMV clips pieced together with laughable “game” sequences. Night Trap or Plumbers don’t wear ties gave “Interactive Storytelling” a really bad name because those pieces of garbage didn’t have an actual game to them.

When I think of good examples, I think of the X-Files game or Wing Commander 3 & 4. Especially these two Wing Commander games are a showcase of what Storytelling can do to a game. We have moved away from real actors towards computer generated imagery, but it is still about characters and their development. Warcraft 3 is an example of this, in my opinion it’s by far the best RTS ever made in terms of storytelling thanks to the depth of characters like Arthas and Thrall. Command & Conquers Kane is a similar example, even though his plot isn’t as cohesive.

I do not think that removing combat completely from a game and just hopping from dialogue to dialogue is the right solution. I do however stand by the opinion that combat is only one factor that make the game a whole.

I’m playing through The Witcher right now (in anticipation of the Enhanced Edition of Witcher 2, which I haven’t played yet). And by “playing” I mean: I got a Savegame Editor, gave myself Aerondight, Ard'aenye and a bunch of talent Points, set the difficulty to easy and started playing. So, how is playing with pretty much all challenges removed? It’s a blast for me! I can explore the World, I can talk to NPCs and fully immerse myself in the world. I did that with Fallout 3 and New Vegas again, same with Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I’m in love with the Gears of War Universe even though I think that Dom’s decision in Part 3 wasn’t given enough depth, it felt rushed. And let’s not get started about Anachronox, possibly the greatest game that no one ever played.

The combat is a large part of this, but for me it’s a means to drive the story. I’m not someone who tries to memorize tactics and use Fire Based spells against Water opponents and I sure can’t tell you how many Zerglings I need against an army of Firebats. When I play an RPG I pretty much pick an Area Spell and just fry opponents – Force Lightning in any Star Wars game, Igni in The Witcher, Fireball and Inferno in Dragon Age.

Some people prefer to spend their time really mastering a game, knowing all the weaknesses and game mechanics and the right answer to any challenge. That is a valid way to play a game (after all, that’s what defines a game as a game). For me, the game is a way to enhance storytelling over what a book gives me. I can make my own choices, I can shape my character, and I can experiment with how it plays out over time. Do I save or kill that character? Do I side with this or that faction? Will I pursue a romance with her or him or neither? I don’t want to spend my time dying on the same enemy over and over again, I just want combat to be there as a way to see how powerful my character can be and to give me a sense of progression when I give my character new skills. It’s there to draw out the story long enough to allow my mind to daydream without being bored and to really see the threat the game universe is facing. But that’s all combat is to me.

I may not play games over the period of several years, so in terms of pure time investment I may get less out of a game than someone who leads the leaderboards on Forza 4 or any FPS (with the possible exception of World of Warcraft, a game whose single player component has some truly amazing stories in it, even though it has a fair amount of filler material and plot holes). But the 40 to 60 hours I do get out of most games I play are extremely gratifying and worth every dollar. They make me happy, they inspire me, they improve the quality of my life.

People like Jennifer Hepler and the many, many other writers in the video games industry are heroes because of the many memorable moments they have given thousands of gamers like me. It’s sad that John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory still applies and will likely never stop being true.

I can only hope that people like us who enjoy the story and love to discuss it in a civilized manner give the writers motivation to continue writing memorable stories, creating fantastic universes and reminding me why I love this industry, this genre, this medium so much.

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