From technology to politics to video games; these are the random thoughts of a geek with too much time on his hands
I want to feel like I'm involved in something great...
Published on February 2, 2004 By Zoomba In PC Gaming
I just finished my third or fourth run through Warcraft III (Reign of Chaos and The Frozen Throne), and I've been keeping an eye on the upcoming release of World of Warcraft. What Blizzard has done is created a far-reaching story, one with twists, turns and more individual plot threads than you can count. The series started with a seemingly simple story of evil (orc) aggression against the forces of good (humans, elves, dwarves and their gnome friends) in a struggle for the world itself, and has since slowly explored the origins of the Orcs, their true nature and heritage, and the real reason behind the conflict (the Burning Legion). The series has expanded the view we have of their world to include an entirely separate continent that is inhabited by ancient races (Night Elves and Tauren) that have their own role to play in the epic events that transpire. The series stars with the simple good vs evil war, which quickly shifts focus from simply staving off the Orcs, to everyone focusing on defeating the Burning Legion and their tools, The Scourge (Undead). At this point in the series, the human and elven lands are destroyed, the elves of that continent are no longer immortal and serve the Legion to satisfy their magical hunger. The humans are all but extinct with small pockets surviving mostly in the new land of Kalimdor. The Orcs have freed themselves from the dominion of the Legion, and the Night Elves are merely trying to maintain a natural balance. But the demon threat still lingers, and the Undead have broken into two factions that now vie for control. This is a story in the vein of something Tolkien would write, complex with dozens of plot threads that initally seemed unrelated but all come together in the end to a great conflict. And the story hasn't finished playing out yet, World of Warcraft promises to continue the epic conflict on a real-time basis through somewhat monthly story updates. These are games that are truely epic in scope and strive to tell a great story.

My point in all of that is to note that the Warcraft series is an exception as opposed to the rule in gaming. More often than not, a story is written as an afterthought to give some context to a game. In many cases, there is no story at all, and the events of the game are just meant for pure action/adventure/strategy. These games can be fun in their own right, but they leave no real lasting impression on us. Games can live without story *IF* their gameplay is amazing. This is how shooters work for us, they're pure heart-pounding fun, but with few exceptions, they aren't deep experiences that we really remember. You don't really look back fondly on that particularly good shot you got on Demon 345621 on level 10 of Doom (usually, even here there are exceptions). These games exist in our minds for the period of time in which we play them, and after they quickly fade away. These games give you no reason to continue other than to get the chance to kill more enemies in the next level. These sorts of games have forever been in the majority. It's the games that break the mold and tell a story that we remember the most (Half-Life, Deus Ex, Baldur's Gate [all], more recent Final Fantasy games, etc...). These are games that are hugely successful, in large part because they tell a solid, entertaining story. Why then, do so few games work to include this essential element? Without their stories, those games would have been middle-of-the-road titles, lost in the swarm of look-alikes that are released every year.

We play video games to escape reality, to do things we can't normally do in the physical world (be it for legal, or physical reasons). Grand Theft Auto 3 is so popular in part because it lets us vent some of our more violent feelings and live out some fantasy behaviors. Who hasn't ever thought to themselves about taking a baseball bat to some moron's head over something? You're always hearing about how people would just love to strangle their boss or something like that. These games provide us an outlet to those feelings and thoughts. But beyond the need to vent frustration, games also give us an escape to fantastic worlds, universes where heroic deeds are common, where magic is everywhere, where we can save the world from the forces of absolute evil, save the damsel in distress, earn some cash along the way, and be remembered for centuries to come as the great savior of the universe/world. In games that attempt that, it is the story that carries the experience. The story provides the reason for doing whatever it is you do, it gives context to your actions and the events you experience. Without this, you are left to your own devices to find a reason to play. Many games do this, they provide an excellent set of gameplay mechanics, a good interface, all the elements to a good game, but at the end leave the reason for actually playing up to the gamer themselves. Games like Master of Orion 3, Galactic Civilizations, just about any MMORPG, most shooters, and a slew of strategy games.

Does this lack of story make these games bad? Not at all, it merely keeps them from being truely great titles that will be remembered several years down the line as classics of gaming. In a few cases (MoO3, MMORPGs), a good story could help people look past the shortcomings of the games themselves. In the case of games like Galactic Civilizations, MoO3, or any of the many strategy games on the market, a story gives a greater reason for doing what you do. Without it, these games more closely resemble sandbox simulations, where you are merely trying to reach some distant, ill-defined goal (kill everyone for example). Why am I fighting a given war? Why am I trying to take over the galaxy? Why am I in an arms race with everyone? Do we all just naturally hate each other and it's assumed that everyone else needs to be wiped from the game? What's so important about this particular position I'm defending/attemting to take? WHY AM I PLAYING THIS GAME?!

Over the years, I've gotten good at creating compelling stories in my mind for why I'm playing a game, I create plots of political intrigue, heroic conflicts and battles that the fate of my race/people/party hinges on. With games like MoO3 and GalCiv, I build my empire up in such a way that large conflicts take place at individual points (harder to do in GalCiv than in MoO3 because of the lack of travel lanes), I create strategic choke points, defensive lines, essential planets that provide something essential to my empire. But there are times where I wish I didn't have to do that, there are times where I want to be swept up in someone elses story, where I am experiencing a tale crafted by someone else, where it unfolds before me without my complete control and knowledge. This is the reason we read books and watch movies, because we love to be told a good story. Games take narrative a step further than we've ever seen, they add the ability for the viewer to actually take part in what's happening. Sadly, this opportunity is overlooked by games currently. We're still too caught up in the technology, trying to get the better looking water, grass that sways in the wind, hair that looks real etc... We have great game engines that look stunning, but that's as far as it goes for the most part currently. I just wish game companies would take a break from advancing the latest render engines, and take some time to use what we have to craft a truely great game experience. Imagine what Tolkien could have done with the tools today (assuming he was a computer person of course).

I want my games to tell stories, I want to feel like I'm taking part in something important and far-reaching. I'm tired of being another faceless soldier slaying the forces of hell, or some generic military general/leader fighting seemingly pointless battles over and over again.

on Feb 02, 2004
How much does it suck when you finish the game, or whatever... and you want to know what happens next...???

I find the stories of games tooooo enthrawling sometimes... and my social life suffers. I restrict myself to two games at once on my PC... at the moment is is WC III and Counter Strike. I simply will not purchase a lot of other games, because i know i will get addicted and become a big L 'user'

WoWC is definitely a game that i would love to play, same as Championship Manager, but i do myself the favour of not playing it... maybe when i get sick or someting
on Feb 02, 2004
games where i really liked the story:

thief ii (haven't finished it): great story, and you can catch whole chunks of it in the game itself: notes and letters are written that make you feel that the characters are alive. or just listen to conversations as people talk about so and so...

freedom force: epic comic booky type story

longest journey: a real epic adventure game

grim fandango had a pretty good and original story although some of the puzzles annoyed me

half-life: you feel like you're in a movie. "he's in the vent!" ba-bada-badada!

homeworld: like battlestar galacticayou have to lead your race through dangers to find a homeworld for your orphaned people.

star trek: bridge commander since it plays like an episode of ds9 or tng