Written by: Nick Miller
In my book, probably to be titled something like "The Life And Times Of Someone Who Needs To Stop Talking About Shenmue," video games should treat plot well or poorly in a case by case basis. Tetris doesn't need a plot because it's abstract and a literal game. You don't really question the long blocks’ purpose in life or who is sending them all to their inevitable deaths. Mario has little plot because it's less abstract. You're there for the fantastic set piece challenges, but a question or two may be raised as to why you're there and who you are. Just as long as something is there, you'll buy it and move on. Ace Attorney lives or dies on it's plot because you don't click through lines and lines of text for the thrill of counting how many times you pressed the A Button. All of these game series are fun in their own unique ways, and a story (or lack thereof) has something to do with that. But there's a difference between "Stories In Video Games" and "Video Games As Stories". There’s a crucial difference between using the medium of Video Games to tell a story rather than putting one in there as a support for the game itself. This leads to why some games are fun for different reasons.
Going back to Ace Attorney, the fun lies in it's story and characters. It takes these elements of fiction and turns them into gameplay mechanics themselves. It starts with the basic idea that figuring out a mystery is fun, just like in movies and books. That is something the viewer/reader does in a medium that's non-interactive. So how much better is it when you can interact with the mystery, seeing if your guesses are right or not with instant feedback? In a movie, it's up to the detective to present contradictions. When they do it, it's possible you forgot about that contradiction and would be surprised when it comes back up. You feel a bit of satisfaction realizing how the mystery was solved, but it's far more satisfying when you play a game. The game will not go on without you, patiently waiting for you to figure out the mystery before moving on. It gets the player involved in the stories themselves, which I think is far more powerful of an immersion tool than the latest tech advancements or options to choose between different play styles. It tells a story in a way that only an interactive medium can, complimenting each other in a space where they both need one another. Visual Novels like Ace Attorney thrive on this method of storytelling, drawing story into a vital pillar of what makes the game work rather than having it as a wholly unnecessary addition.
There's something about most of the AAA industry that doesn't quite process this fact. For the most part, story and gameplay remain separate, with maybe a dialogue choice or two determining where the story goes. I don't think every game should have a grand story to tell if it has a plot at all, but it feels like plot and gameplay undermine each other when they are both good in two different ways. Assassin's Creed III is a good example of this. Gameplay is unfocused, but still playable, and the story has a pretty neutral look at the American Revolution that's refreshing when you live in a country always talking up how great it was. Each has their own flaws, but they are both generally good. The main problem is the plot is better, yet doesn't really take advantage of that from a gameplay perspective. So it didn't have to be a good story at all, and it would have just as well affected the gameplay. Not that having a plot go above and beyond is a bad thing, but it's a wasted effort that overshadows the game itself. Why couldn't they have a faction mechanic where you align yourself with either the Native Americans, Colonists, or the British, with benefits for each? This type of feature would give a sense of weight to the player’s choices. A lot of the game industry plays up the importance of story when they talk about their games, but usually, it ends up something like how Assassin's Creed III handles it. Story writers are there to just write a story that doesn't really weave itself into how the game works, but just gives a reason why you are doing your current task. Which again, is fine, but that's not using videogames to tell a story like so many would claim at a press conference.
I think there is a balance that can be struck, where gameplay and story meet equally. You don't have to sacrifice gameplay for a rich story experience like visual novels and you don't have to delegate story to the side like AAA games. I think one perfect example of story and gameplay working in harmony is right in the title of my book. Yes, Shenmue. When you explain the story of Shenmue, it's not all that complicated or meaningful. Boy goes on quest to avenge his dad who was killed by a Chinese Mafia leader. But what makes it stand out to me are the moments that make up that overarching goal. Each and every bit of gameplay has an equal story side that you associate with that moment. You don't get invested in the task you’re doing because of the story, you get invested in the story by association of the task. When you are catching leaves in Shenmue II, the moment becomes touching because of the zen like state you have to be in to catch them. The music and reason behind catching the leaves act as a support for that moment, so it feels complete. Without context, it seems pointless, and without the gameplay tying it together, the moment is full of stilted voice acting and animations. Neither one could have worked on their own, but together, it's beautiful. It's a sequence of gameplay moments like this that are strung together with a story, each servicing each other to make something that sticks with you. Not enough games tell a story this way, which is a shame because only video games could have made this story work.
But again, it's all case by case. Not all video games are there to tell fantastic stories, but for those who try, the only universal truth is to really make it feel important to the game itself. Otherwise, there's no point in making it a video game story. Whichever route developers take, it should be there to serve their game. Not to overshadow what makes their game fun, or worse yet, weaken it. If they want to make good on claims of making stories that immerse the players, it starts with games that work together with the stories they wrote instead of just a driving force behind it. Story can just be gameplays’ Uber driver, silent and getting the gameplay from point A to B, like most mascot platformers or puzzle games. But it can also take an active role, with gameplay and story both agreeing on what turns to take and where to stop for lunch. When it works like that, video games can be a wonderful medium to tell inspiring stories, and I think it's a standard the industry should strive for rather than talk about.