The Last of Us has a terrible story. Were it pitched as a film, TV show or book, it would be mocked for it's lackluster plot. As would Mass Effect. As would Uncharted. As would Bioshock Infinite. And I'll tell you why.
One of the things that often annoys me most about games journalism is the lack of distinction between writing and story. While games are getting better at the former, with recent titles approaching the characterisation of some of the better films of our time, the latter is still sorely lacking, in part because of the fundamental nature of game mechanics, in part because of lack of ambition. But we're not going to talk about how to improve stories in games, we're going to talk about why current games, even 'story-driven' ones, don't have good plots.
Spoilers for Mass Effect 2, Knights of the Old Republic, Uncharted, Alpha Protocol and The Last of Us might lie ahead.
First, we have to note the difference between story and writing. A story is a plot, an idea in your mind. It is the kind of thing you read in a Wikipedia plot summary. The best stories aren't defined in simple terms like 'maturity' or 'ambiguity', they can be anything from simple fantasies like 1977's Star Wars to much more complex journeys that engage with the audience in different ways. In essence, a five-year old could come up with a brilliant story, but they might not be able to write a brilliant script.
This is where writing comes in. Writing is what brings a story to life. The interactions between character, the little moments in between the plot twists, what everyone actually says and does from scene to scene.
THIS is where some modern games excel. Both Uncharted and recent Bioware titles have adopted companion 'bantering', in which allies have informal, often funny, conversations with the player during gameplay. The games are also (in many ways) notable examples of good writing in the industry, with characters that have their own motivations and backstories. The element of interactivity in the Mass Effect franchise, for example, further provides the player with a way to engage with the writers in their own way, 'roleplaying' their way through the campaign.
What modern games do not have, are good plots. Consider Mass Effect 2. Widely lauded as one of the finest stories of recent years, the plot amounts to "Player dies. Resurrected by ambiguous man. Gather allies. Kill aliens". There are no twists, no turns, and no shifting goals. 40 minutes into Mass Effect 2 you are given a goal. That goal remains the same until the game is beaten 36 hours later. Contrast that with even a pulp fiction film, like Star Wars. When Luke begins his journey, he has no idea his aim will be to kill Darth Vader. Even thirty or forty minutes into the movie, his goes remains simply to leave the Death Star. It is only after Obi-Wan dies, that he understands it is his 'destiny', to kill Vader.
The best stories don't necessarily make for the best games. On paper, even Bioware's very traditional 2003 game, Knights of The Old Republic, sounds significantly better than Mass Effect 2. Starting off as an unknown footsoldier with no memory of who you are, you are thrust into the middle of an alien city run by your enemies, with only the vague goal of rescuing a Jedi master who went down on your ship. Upon doing so, and leaving the planet, you train as a Jedi and hunt down maps to the Bad guy's stronghold. On the verge of victory, you find out that you were indeed the villain's former Master, someone who slaughtered billions, and that the Jedi lied to you to lead them to him. Then you kill him.
Nothing extraordinary, but it still sounds far better than the other game. And yet ME2 is arguably (clearly, in my view) the better experience. It is more polished, has better writing (and far less cheesy and expository dialogue, though it is still there in places) and plays better as well. And that's the key to selling a good story.
Would The Last of Us be anywhere near as good without the voice acting quality? Without every cinematic and face being beautifully animated? Without the music? A good story would shine through regardless. Good writing would probably not.
An example people often pull up of a 'flawed gem' is Alpha Protocol. Citing its 'great story', AP's valiant defenders posit that despite shitty gameplay, Obsidian's 'story' is fantastic. They couldn't be further from the truth. The plot of Alpha Protocol is boring. It concerns itself with fighting a generic private military company that has infilitrated the government. Your secret agency has betrayed you, and you must destroy them. That's it. No twists, no turns, no introspection on the life of the protagonist. And while AP has good writing, that's all it has.
What these examples prove is something that is (to me) abundantly clear. That when even the best story driven games (The Last of Us) for example, barely scrape the narrative quality of a crappy HBO drama, storytelling in games is in a rut.
Next week I'll look at how that might be fixed, and why gameplay driven design might not always be the best approach for narratively focused game.