Dear Bethesda, We Love You but We Love Story Too
By Nick Olsen
Tutorial on game play mechanics? Check. Brief backstory to explain framework and overarching themes? Check. Character creation through personality trait decisions? Check. Now off into the open expanse of The Wasteland/Tamriel you go; have a great time and remember to check in occasionally to advance the storyline!
To your credit Bethesda, you’ve found a formula for open-world Western role playing game (RPG) success and we love you for it. There’s a certain sense of empowerment and freedom associated with your games and a large part of that is not being hemmed into a game which remains locked on a linear path from beginning to end.
Exiting Vault 101 in Fallout 3 without a clear sense of what direction to head in search of your father disorients the player as if they had spent their entire youth locked in an underground bunker with no access to the outside world. Similarly, surviving a bullet to the head and waking up Goodsprings is an equally disorienting experience, as is the chaotic escape from your scheduled execution, via a fortuitous encounter with a dragon attack, in Skyrim. You’ve mastered disrupting the player’s sense of direction and purpose and we love the possibilities it opens for us as we spend time exploring every possibility of the gargantuan, fully developed worlds of each game.
We also love the fact that you’ve given us free reign to develop our characters to our liking, not only through our selected traits, weapons and armor, but also through the actions we take and the decisions we make throughout the game. Want to side with Caesar’s Legion in Fallout: New Vegas? Go for it, just be prepared to defend yourself when you encounter New California Republic soldiers. So much freedom to play in whatever way suits our whims; so refreshing.
And yet, after spending 130 gameplay hours developing and mastering the skills of a Khajiit, living honorably as a contributing member to Wasteland societies so that my karma doesn’t suffer, and seizing power from Mr. House to establish an independent New Vegas, we’ve got to ask: why did you put such little emphasis on story?
Deeply Integrated Stories Enhance Gameplay
Look, though the potential is there, most people don’t play video games with the expectation that the story intricacies will match that of a great book, but that doesn’t mean that we can accept a complete lack of story either. We don’t mean to suggest that you’ve abandoned story entirely; after all, you do provide us with light backstory which establishes setting and primary game purpose (hunting for your lost father in Fallout 3, finding the person and the reason behind your assassination attempt in Fallout: New Vegas, the impetus behind the rise of dragon attacks and how to end them in Skyrim) so it’s not like you dropped us cold into the game without purpose. But the lack of development of these stories throughout the game is a bit confusing and seems upon completion that it was an intentional decision to de-emphasize story in your games.
The thing is, we feel like you’ve got some great ideas which is why we’re confused by the decision to push them to the background. The storylines in the Fallout and Elder Scrolls games are all compelling enough that with a little more attention to detail they could propel the games into the upper echelon of the most memorable games of this generation. A deeper integration of the storyline with the great gameplay mechanics you’ve established and you’ve defined the standard for other developers and publishers to live up to. In fact, you don’t have to look hard to see the impact that a fleshed out and compelling story is already having on the video game industry.
The Mass Effect series developed by BioWare is a prime example of deep story integration in which the events of the game all act as direct extensions of the main story line and serve to advance the plot while simultaneously allowing for character development. There are very few missions throughout (the major exception being resource mining) which have no direct or indirect impact upon the primary storyline. In fact, BioWare utilized one of your core gameplay mechanics to great effect: every action the player takes has a lasting impact on both the game world and the overarching story. For example, if the player allows the Rachni queen to live in Mass Effect, she would return with critical interactions in the following games.
BioWare also utilized a similar element to your Fallout karma implementation with their use of “paragon” and “renegade” actions. These actions taken by the player influenced how characters throughout the galaxy would respond to the player through unique dialog options, healing or glowing scars, etc.
Others Getting in on the Act
Beyond the Mass Effect series, a handful of both independent and major releases have emphasized story and experienced both critical and consumer success. The most extreme example of this is Telltale Games’ episodic The Walking Dead, which primarily uses a point-and-click mechanic for players to interact with the world and make in-game decisions, while using the game itself as a medium for telling an engaging and heart-wrenching story. The Walking Dead focused less on game play and was far more linear than your games, Bethesda, and since it was developed from an existing comic series and followed a successful television series it could use story more effectively than other games as players were already largely familiar with the world from the other franchises. Regardless, The Walking Dead stands as a great example of storytelling in videogames.
Another story-centric game not quite on the grand scale of your productions is Supergiant Games’ Bastion. Narrated by an older character named Rucks, the game uses each level to tell the story of how “the calamity” occurred and why “the kid” is the only person capable of repairing it. The game features rich back story on the characters, the country of Caelondia, and the war between the Caelondians and the Uras (which was the impetus for “the calamity”). Each new discovery in the game, from characters and weapons, to environments and enemies, prompts a new background narration from Rucks, an element designed to engross the player in the story without pausing the game play. And it works near flawlessly.
A game which falls more on the mid-sized scale which successfully focused on story was Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake. The game is structured similarly to that of a six-episode television show with plot twists, cliffhangers and deep character development. In fact, the story is so central to the game play that it feels almost obvious and cliche that Alan, a novelist, must write the ending to his own novel (the chapters of which have come to life to create the game) to reach the resolution of the game. What’s most effective about Alan Wake’s emphasis on story is the way that Remedy used it to draw the player into Alan’s personal madness. Each page of Alan’s manuscript you find reveals more of the backstory for the book, and thus the game as well. Similarly, each radio and television program the player engages in provides deeper insight of Alan’s previous struggles with addiction and the pressures associated with being a famous novelist. Each of these devices serves to draw the player closer to identifying with Alan as a character and thus pulls them deeper into the insanity along with him.
An example of a game that uses story effectively on a grand scale is Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XII. A deep and complex story about underhanded political machinations involving a post-surrender assassination of a king, wrongful imprisonment for the assassination, a disposed heiress to the throne and subsequent attempts at restoring power to the people of Dalmasca (the country where the story takes place). As the story advances through the eyes of the main characters Vaan and Penelo, each new character introduces important background information which brings to light critical information needed to advance the storyline. This strategy serves to both keep the player engaged in the story as well as to keep them from getting overwhelmed with too much information at once.
The game features the usual Japanese RPG elements of teen heroes fighting monsters in an attempt to save their world, but the story in Final Fantasy XII is one of the deeper and more engaging in the genre. Beyond the battles against enemies there are behind-the-scenes political dealings and sabotages, and the final advances to restore power to the rightful heir takes place during an opportunistic moment when a major battle between the occupying Archadian forces and a Dalmascan resistance force breaks out. Beyond just the complexity of the story, the way in which key story developments are paced and delivered in time throughout the gameplay keeps the player engaged and ready to invest the time necessary to complete all of the elements of a gargantuan game.
It’s Not You, It’s Us…OK, It’s Mostly You
Bethesda, the truth is that we love you and we have for a long, long time. We’ve sunk more hours into playing your games than anybody else’s; we’re just ready for something more. We think you’ve got it in you, and we’re committed to seeing this thing through. There’s no need to change the core of what your games deliver, I mean let’s face it, we wouldn’t spend 130 hours or more tromping through the deserted Wasteland and the ice troll-infested ruins of Tamriel if we didn’t enjoy doing so. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t grow together, and part of that growth is better development and utilization of story in your games.
Keep the open worlds, keep the freedom and choice associated with your games, but rather than including a number of seemingly unrelated missions which have little tie to the the main storyline, start binding some of the loose threads together for bigger and more meaningful impact. Let’s be honest, the hassle of getting to Nellis Air Force Base, combined with the boring nature of the assistance quests in Volare! is hardly worth the Boomer’s support at the final battle of Hoover Dam. Return to Your Roots and similar quests in Skyrim felt uninspired and while some of the rewards were nice, they paled in comparison to the value of the Daedric quests and had no tie to the overall story. And for your cute little “wrap-up” story endings in the Fallout games, we’re not even going to pretend a little bit that those actually wrap up storylines and address our in-game actions in a suitable fashion.
So, let’s make a deal. You put a little more time into developing storylines and focusing on some of the finer details and we’ll continue to adore you and your games. In the end, this seems like a win-win. You take your games from great to amazing and we get a more satisfying experience that feels truly worth the unseemly amount of hours we spend playing your games.