I’ve been meaning to say something for a while that I don’t think I’ve heard anyone else say yet. It’s a problem that’s been bugging me about game stories for the longest time and no-one says a word. We get a lot of spectacle out of our industry, and if you want something a little more independent or abstract, that’s available too. But where’s the middle ground? Where’s the exhibition of simple emotion? Sometimes, I just want to a story that breaks my heart or reaffirms my faith in people and although I can shoot aliens in the face for as long as I want, it doesn’t seem like there’s a great deal of space for games trying to explore something as simple as love, in any of its infinite forms. That’s what I wanted to say. That’s what I wanted to scream.
Then I started Persona 4.
Persona 4 is the utter antithesis of everything I’ve come to hate about this industry and what it conveys. The dissonance, the power trips and fantasies, the stale monotonous conversations that ultimately come down to where I need to throw a grenade. P4 is an RPG that primarily concerns itself with introducing a tonne of characters and rewarding players heavily for just hanging out with them. I didn’t realize that until those interactions and hang-out sessions starting paying off about 20 hours into the game, and at least 10 of those hours were spent just enjoying the company of these make-believe people. The amount of Triple-A titles that have even held my attention for that amount of time is relatively sparse.
It’s worth making clear, I don’t hate most key blockbuster games, I hate that even when they’re removed from the equation there are very few games that have had an emotional impact on me. Looking back, all the best stories in games have either been funny, ala Portal, or clever, such as Bioshock. As someone enthusiastic about video-games, shouldn’t one of my favorite stories have had a profound emotional impact on me? Just a single one?
Look at other mediums. Let’s tackle books and films at the same time with The Lord of the Rings. What were the most affecting parts of The Lord of the Rings? It was never the battle for Helm’s Deep or the war on Pelennor Fields, it was always truer moments such as Boromir’s redemption, or Merry and Pippin taking their last stand or, of course, Sam and Frodo’s ongoing struggle not to deliver the ring, but to overcome their differences and remain friends. Nitpickers will always point out that Sam had motivation for going along as well, and they will find a reason to bitch in regards to any story, but does anyone truly think that he wouldn’t have continued in earnest strength if he didn’t share a real relationship with Frodo, if they weren’t true friends? Where is that sort of story in games?
Why use Lord of the Rings as an example? Because friendship is what keeps that movie and those books moving and the same can be said of Persona 4. I’ll bet most people describe Persona 4‘s story as a murder mystery, or a comic-thriller but really it’s just a game about friendship with some obstacles along the way and that was so immutably refreshing that I started looking throughout my back-catalogue of games to see if there’s anything with anywhere near as much emotional resonance. I came up with about three; Battlefield: Bad Company, although I do think this one could be my mind tricking me because I feel like the characters are fleshed out well through banter, and Prince of Persia (2008), which to this day contains one of the only two video-game romance that I have ever been sold on.
As you might have noticed, we’ve got a string of entirely different genres there which have pulled off something affecting to me (a JRPG, an FPS and an action-platformer) so surely it can’t be too difficult to implement these sorts of relationships into more games. I feel like most JRPG’s are trying to emulate genuine emotion onscreen without actually giving players a reason to connect to anything and that’s missing the point entirely. P4 gives players engaging fun characters that are fun to be around and in the long run, that’s all that mattered. When their character arcs got serious, I was ready to stand by them because that’s how real friendships work.
Achieving significant emotional improvement in larger games is not likely to be a focus for many developers for a while. It’s probably cost effective to continue doing what’s worked out well so far for you, but can you imagine playing a first person shooter in a couple of years that involves a truly affecting romance subplot? You don’t need to wait that long, you can just go out to your local store and buy or borrow a copy of The Darkness, which came out five years ago to relatively okay sales and slightly above average reviews. Despite the lack of crazed acclaim from either buying audiences, though, most players online can immediately relate to one another through their shared experiences with the games central romantic figure. Even if you can never ‘love’ a character, you can certainly connect with them for their relationships.
I must obligatorily point out that I don’t want every game to become a smush-fest of brotherly love, because diversity always has and always will be one of the greatest strengths that video-games have as an attraction. but right now that diversity is skewed in favor of gameplay rather than emotive storytelling. We’ve become lost to a field of genres and it’s gotten to a point where your taste can be summed up by relating what genre
you play. In the war between big budget behemoths and indie darlings, what I say now is not ‘where is the middle ground’, but ‘why is there so little?’. What I want to be able to say is that I might play an FPS, or I might play an RPG but honestly, I’ll play anything that has some emotion behind it.