Tobold's Blog
Thursday, June 06, 2013
What if we chose games like we choose books and movies?

I'm on some newsletter mailing list from IGN, and they sent me a link to their review of The Last of Us, an upcoming PS3 game. They gave it a perfect 10.0 out of 10. Metacritic already has like 50 professional review of The Last of Us, with an average score of 95 out of 100. The game isn't even out yet, but is already one of the best critically acclaimed games of the year. Not because of gameplay, which appears to be unremarkable, but because of great story-telling.

That lead to a curious reaction from me: I read these highly positive reviews of how brilliantly The Last of Us is telling it's story, and I only think: "Post-apocalyptic survival horror? Not for me!". That is I believe the critics when they say that this is great story-telling, and that causes me to look at this game as I would look at a book or a movie. And I don't buy books because of the cover or the font size or how easy the pages are to turn; I buy books based on whether I am interested in the story and the genre. The same with movies or TV shows, I'd rather watch a mediocre procedural detective show than any science-fiction or horror stuff.

Normally I choose games based on gameplay, so I'll happily play XCOM, even if I'm not a huge fan of aliens, but because I am a huge fan of turn-based tactical gameplay. I tried Omerta, where the prohibition era gangster setting is more interesting to me, but found that it was lacking in gameplay compared to XCOM. But if we arrive at a situation where gameplay is secondary to story-telling, then my selection criteria would change as well.

How about you? Can you see yourself choosing games based on what genre of story they are telling?

I often do. I can't really stand any games that are based on contemporary (+-100 years) warfare even if I might play the exact same game if it was re-branded as sci-fi or located in the middle ages. Gameplay still matters a lot (as does the quality of a book or movie), but a game (just as a book) needs to have some spectacular recommendations for me to go outside of familiar territory.
What I would hope is that if the games with great story telling are successful, more games will want to tell great stories to get players and I will end up being able to combine great stories with gameplay I like.

I'm not really into any one genre in terms of games and films, so this is less of a concern to me. However, the types of games I play are quite limited. I rarely play FPS games, for instance. That being said, I am seriously considering getting Bioshock Infinite just for the story telling.

That doesn't mean I will end up playing it through. I am not particularly good at FPS games and might just fail utterly. So a game needs to have at least gameplay I can tolerate/manage no matter what the storyline. A great story is useless if I can't see it through.
I don't pick games based on the story at all. I don't play games for the story, and I actively dislike games that 'force' it upon me with unskippable cutscenes and similar.

That being said, I enjoy games with good storytelling - games like Bastion, and similar things where the storytelling is cleverly melded through the gameplay (I actually really like games with readables/audio logs around) rather than there being a game with a story forced through it.

I don't see myself ever buying a game for the story, because when I want to immerse myself in a story, I watch a movie or read a book. When I want to play a game, I don't want to be constantly interrupted by cutscenes.. but I do enjoy good game storytelling, and it adds massively to the game.. but the underlying plot doesn't actually matter that much.
I bought heavy rain for PS3 and that game is not exactly great from a gameplay perspective. Just walking around and a few QTEs here and there. But still, it's one of my favorite games.

You could argue that it's more an interactive film than a game though...
Postapocalyptic zombies? I would never touch that as a movie.

And yet: The uncharted games were absolutely great (at least the first two). So I watched the Last of Us trailers just a few day back. And I will play this game.

In fact: This might just be the second game in the last 5 years that I buy at release for the full price.

If it is anything like Uncharted 2 it will be worth it.

And then I can re-sell it of course, having paid 15 Euros in the end, which is actually comparable to a book or a movie...
I'm not sure people need to be too worried. It may be just that game critics have an inept technical vocabulary in which they often use the word 'story' when they mean 'atmosphere'.

I did read a review the other day, and it looks like what it mainly has is atmosphere in spades, rather than some sort of novelistic 'story'.

Maybe this is Half Life for 2013.
For me it is a bit like Mazlow's hierarchy. Gameplay comes near the bottom for me while storytelling is near the top. Setting and ambience come somewhere in the middle. Just like Mazlow the lower levels need to be satisfied before I can even think about the higher level stuff. However gameplay will never on its own make me fall in love with a game. To put this another way I much prefer a game with adequate gameplay and a compelling story in a setting I like to another game with terrific gameplay but a lesser story and setting.
Well, you just killed the game for me.

I'm sure Last of Us is a pretty good story. It might even be a pretty fun story that would hold up as a fun little thing if you saw it in a B movie. Not dropping 60 bucks and playing an otherwise unremarkable game to see it.

Though I have to say I'm rather surprised by your taste in genres given your whole MMO/D&D blog thing.
It's a bit tricky. I'd say I approach games looking first at their gameplay genre (rpg, strategy, etc), and then by their content genre (scifi, fantasy, western, etc). And games with a gameplay genre I prefer get some slack about how closely the content matches my preferences.

I'd say I'd do something similar with movies, first picking a genre like action, drama, disaster, etc, and then a setting like post-apoc, modern day, etc. And movies that fit my preferred genres get some slack about where they are set.

Some slack is not the same as saying the story doesn't matter. Ni no Kuni, Kingdom Hearts, White Knight Chronicles, all had decent gameplay, and were in my most preferred genre, but the horrible horrible stories wouldn't let me get anywhere with them.

If anything I'd say I'm more willing to experiment with not-preferred-genre games than I am with not-preferred-genre movies. I hate first person shooters, but if someone tells me that bioshock infinite is amazing, I'll give it a try. I hate romantic-comedies, and I don't care how popular it is, I'm still not going to watch it willingly.
Though I have to say I'm rather surprised by your taste in genres given your whole MMO/D&D blog thing.

Why? Are you, like many people do, group medieval fantasy together with science-fiction and consider that one either likes both or none of them? The MMO/D&D blog thing as you call it is primarily medieval fantasy, which in my eyes is a very different thing than futuristic science-fiction.

To understand what I dislike about science-fiction, you only need to look at what vision early science-fiction had about how the world would look in the early 21st century and compare that with today's reality. I much prefer sword & sorcery stories which are clearly labeled as fantasy to something that pretends to be an extrapolation of the future but which for me as a scientist appears extremely improbable.
Oho, Tobold.

This is only very rarely what science fiction is about.

In literary science fiction imagined technological advances, gadgets or the like are but a mere story device. These assumptions allow the author to explore his characters developement in hole new ways.

For that to work, the science part need not be realistic. For example, every singe time travel story omits that when someone were to travel back in time, the hole planet earth would also be at a very different location. Nonetheless these stories can explore relationships that forever would be out of reach of regular fiction.

Having said that, for every SF book I read, I read to fantasy books. I guess these genres appeal if not necessary to the same people so still to the same nerd characters. They are grouped together because of that.
"To understand what I dislike about science-fiction, you only need to look at what vision early science-fiction had about how the world would look in the early 21st century and compare that with today's reality. I much prefer sword & sorcery stories which are clearly labeled as fantasy to something that pretends to be an extrapolation of the future but which for me as a scientist appears extremely improbable."

I think you might be taking it a bit too literally there. Sci-fi is not really predictions about the future as much as it is a mental experiment to think about issues. 1984 wasn't saying that in 1984 Britain would be run by fascists, it's about the totalitarianism Orwell saw around him.

Even Verne was talking about technology and thinking about issues even when he turned out to be hilariously wrong. Of course there's a lot of bad sci-fi out there, but it's not especially fair to judge a genre by its worst works.

As a scientist with an imaginative bent I'd have thought you'd enjoy it. But then again I guess you've shown you really like rules, so I guess I can get why a genre that is about bending and breaking the established rules of science and society would annoy you while a genre that is totally disconnected from those rules by time and magic would be enjoyable.
I read fiction that is well-written. The setting or subject matter is a factor but not a decisive one. I would certainly prefer to read an author with an original and well-tuned prose style writing about a topic in which I am not particularly interested than a mediocre hack writing about something for which I have a predilection.

In MMOs I probably have a stronger genre preference but I would certainly still play an MMO with a setting that I don't warm too if it was sufficiently well-made. The Secret World is a prime example of that.

As for your comments on science fiction, it's probably wise not to generalize about things for which one has scant interest or affinity.

Definitely, in answer to your question. I read Fantasy/SciFi books by choice, I prefer the same genres for films (but also watch a lot of random international films due to language interests). When it comes to games I do apply the same filters at least in the negative sense - i.e. I'll never try The Secret World because I'm not into horror/thriller/grimdark.

Within the fantasy/scifi genres, any MMO with a detailed and varied world has a chance to get me interested - but the gameplay needs to be up to scratch as well for me to stay interested.

@Bhagpuss: As for your comments on me not liking Science Fiction, it's probably wise not to say something about people for which one has scant interest or affinity.
I used to buy a lot of games just for the story (Metal Gear Solid), but these days I usually prefer gameplay. A good story can enhance the gameplay, but most games won't be good at both. One of my favorite games this generation was Portal 2 because it had both interesting gameplay and story to me.

If I only care about the story, I just "watch" the story on Youtube. Maybe that's something developers can capitalize on. Release the regular game for people that want to play for the normal price, but also release a "Let's Play" video of the story at the normal cost of a movie ($25 for bluray). They could cut out load screens, any time the player is fiddling with menus and such, keep the story flowing nicely.
Genre of story is certainly a factor for me - I'm pretty big on story, really. That's why I'm probably going to pass on The Last of Us and I'm still considering Remember Me.

But... it isn't the only factor in my decision-making, whether for movies, books, or games. This is why I'm still "only" considering Remember Me rather than already having picked it up, just as I don't go see every scifi/fantasy movie that's released.

The two big differences I see in choosing what to buy across these different media are actually: 1) buy-in cost for a new release game is a good bit more than a book or going to a movie, and 2) the volume and quality of reviews between a game and a novel can vary greatly.
Interactivity is not required in books or movies - it is in games. If you give me a game with a fantastic story but crappy controls I'll probably not play it.

Story is important sure, but a game needs to have the whole package to be awesome.
I have been eagerly anticipating The Last of Us for months. In fact, it was one of my core reasons for finally purchasing a PS3 (given it was an exclusive). While gameplay + story is ideal, I am much more inclined to give a game a break if the narrative it contains is entertaining, thought-provoking, or is capable of making me feel something (angst, sorrow, etc). Of course, I grew up on a diet of JRPGs, all of which essentially feature the same combat mechanisms with different plot lines.

"Go read a book/watch a movie." I do that too. The problem is that a movie is over in 2 hours, and books rarely last more than 20 hours whereas I can experience the immersion of a game narrative of the same setting for 100x as long.
"A movie is over in 2 hours." Yes, but that makes the story more concentrated.

Consider EA Casablanca:

"Play it again, Sam."

"I can't, Rick, the G key is broken!"

QUEST: Find a new key for Sam's piano.
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