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The Power of a Good Story

Before I start, I just want to point out this post has spoilers for the following games:

  • Final Fantasy II
  • Final Fantasy VIII
  • Final Fantasy X
  • Final Fantasy XIII
  • Final Fantasy VII Remake
  • Metal Gear Solid
  • Metal Gear Solid 3
  • Policenauts
  • Resident Evil
  • Spec Ops: The Line
  • The Last of Us

As video games develop, the stories they weave have become more and more elaborate. While many do not quite rival those told in film, there are some that have come close and even pushed the boundaries of the medium. This doesn’t mean that a good plot is necessary for a great game. Many games are all time classics with little to no plot and this isn’t limited to the early days of gaming. Even today, there are a plethora of great games that encourage people to explore them through great game-play, excellent level design or unique concepts. Games like Super Mario Bros. and Sonic The Hedgehog are absolute classics because of their pick-up and play style amongst other things. The Legend of Zelda is well known for it’s wonderful locales, brilliant gameplay and secrets to explore over a strong narrative. However, some games benefit greatly from a strong story, lifting them up, while others can sometimes feel hampered by a poor narrative. RPGs tend to feel the effects of this more often than not so they will be overrepresented here (also, I love a good JRPG, especially Final Fantasy). These are all my own personal opinions and you may very well have different experiences.

I think a good place to start would be my inspiration for this blog post – The Last of Us Part II. There was some controversy surrounding the game in the run up to its launch. I haven’t played the game, so I won’t go in to too much detail but I am aware of the certain plot points that caused contention (thanks to the fact that any time anyone posted about it, some tool would post spoilers thinking they were great). Instead, I want to focus on the original game, The Last of Us. I originally played the remastered version a few years ago. I didn’t find the gameplay ground breaking. In fact, I felt a lot of games pulled off the stealth and combat mechanics so much better (a jack of all trades, master of none if you will), but it was the story that kept me going back for more. From the first chapter and Joel’s tragic beginning, to his growing bond with Ellie, it kept me lurching on. The ending was incredibly bitter-sweet but very well told. By the time I’d finished it, I enjoyed the narrative and its haunting atmosphere but wasn’t exactly won over by its game-play. It’s one of the reasons I haven’t purchased the sequel.

Another influence for this blog post was Final Fantasy VII Remake (oh boy, here he goes). The combat is smooth, the magic is once again useful (I found Final Fantasy XV’s magic to be a bit redundant) and the characters have been well fleshed out. In fact, 90% of the game is a joy to behold. The problem for me comes in the form of the new content. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the fleshed-out story and was looking forward to changes but it’s how the changes have come about is the issue. There is definitely a drop in quality from plot points that were in the original (and fleshed out) and those that were added for this. I think it can be summed up in one entity – Whispers. The Whispers are there to keep everything in line with the original (yes, I’m aware of the irony) but they come across ham-fisted and often poor. They can make important scenes feel obsolete. One example is Tifa rescuing Cloud when he falls off the Shinra building. When you think about it, Cloud could never fall so that moment with Tifa is greatly lessened. Another area is how they may impact the context of the original. If this turns out to be a sequel, then many key points of the original may have a different meaning, i.e. was that action taken because the Whispers made it happen. I obviously don’t know how this will all turn out but I don’t really have the same hype for the rest of the sequels (however many there will be).

Let’s move on to a few other entries in the Final Fantasy series. I’m going to start to start with Final Fantasy II as an example of a potentially great story lost. This entry gets a lot of flak for how the experience system works but I don’t think it gets the love it deserves for its story. The Emperor is a menacing villain who can rival the likes of Kefka and Sephiroth for one of the greatest in the series. The problem is how the story is told. Final Fantasy II’s plot is there but it feels fragmented. Many of the Empire’s deeds are just passing comments and the true expansion of the plot came in the form of a comic released only in Japan. This is a real missed opportunity but you can still catch up on it through the Final Fantasy wiki (which I’d recommend you do).

The next Final Fantasy plot I want to briefly explore is Final Fantasy VIII. It’s wacky, confusing and feels like it unravels after the first disc. I once had a strategy guide that explained the plot because it was that fragmented. But there is one scene that led to a collective sigh in my school growing up. One scene that was stranger than most. A scene that feels awkward. Yes, I’m talking about the Trabia Garden scene where the main characters discover they were at an orphanage together. It’s an odd one that to this day still makes me cringe. The idea that Irvine knew because he didn’t junction GFs but didn’t say anything, the fact GFs lead to long-term memory loss, that almost every main character has a link to the orphanage, it all feels off. It could be a great scene and an excellent plot point but the way it’s told just has me roll my eyes.

This is the final mention of the Final Fantasy series, promise. This time I want to compare how the narrative is told in Final Fantasy X versus Final Fantasy XIII. The thirteenth entry in the series is one of the more controversial games in the franchise. Instead of focusing on corridors or combat, I just want to explore how we experience the world in it. In Final Fantasy X, we learn about the world as Tidus learns about it. We discover Sin, Yu Yevon and the church through story points. We learn of the Final Aeon and the sacrifice as Tidus does. Our reaction may even be the same. The world is revealed before us as we play through it, without us needing to deviate from the main path or read any codex entries. Final Fantasy XIII handles things a little different. The main points are all there, the party being turned in to l’Cie, the conflict between Gran Pulse and Cocoon, Barthandelus’ plan to merge with Orphan, it’s all there and revealed to us through the main story. However, there is a reliance on the codex entries and the Cie’th crystals to expand the lore and if you don’t read them or do said missions, there is a lot to miss out on. This can help to expand a world and give context to the characters actions.

Let us move on from a video game series and talk about one man, yes that man – Hideo Kojima. How could I talk about video game plots without mentioning him? His games can have some of the most interesting, convoluted and nonsensical stories ever told. And yet, they’re amazing. Let’s start with Policenauts. I had to get a reproduction copy for the Saturn in order to play this. The story seems straight forward enough, the main character’s ex-wife is killed after asking him to investigate her husband’s disappearance. However, as the story unfolds, you fall further and further in to the rabbit hole. Not only is it about a disappearance, it’s about organ trafficking, political conspiracies and an illness that affects the people living long-term in space. Everything is so well presented and how it all unfolds is a joy to behold. As a point-and-click, it is heavily reliant on its story and thankfully it’s a great one.

Since I’m talking about Kojima games, I might as well reference the most obvious one, Metal Gear Solid. This is a great series that could stand up on its game-play and graphics alone but the plot adds a bit of spice to it. Giant robots, arms controlling bodies, internet conspiracies, rescuing a dog, the series has everything. Sometimes it can feel very convoluted but that’s part of the charm. As you explore Shadow Moses Island in the original, you begin to learn very quickly that not everything is as it seems. There is a bigger force at work here and the eventual twist is something the game hides well. This carries over in to the rest of the series, with Metal Gear Solid 3 (in my opinion) being the best story in the series. That final battle among the white lilies where you discover the Boss’ true mission is probably the most iconic scene in the series for me.

Obviously, the plot doesn’t have to be in the foreground. I have mentioned Final Fantasy XIII above but there are games that have pulled off this style well. The first that springs to mind is the Resident Evil series. Here, there is a central plot in each game that is told throughout the game, but there are overarching narratives that are hidden in diary entries you can pick up. While not necessary to understand the main story of the game you’re playing, they help to define the world of Resident Evil. I think the perfect example of this is the Keeper’s Diary in Resident Evil. While brief, it gives you a small glimpse into what it was like during the initial outbreak, the transformation in to a zombie, and the last few moments of “human” consciousness.

The final game I want to explore is Spec Ops: The Line. For me, it was a great shooter that has you make your way through a ruined Dubai with two squad-mates. It sounds like a standard game from the last generation. However, its plot is what elevates it to brilliance. Walker’s trauma, caused by the white phosphorus attack, is very slowly revealed to you has you hunt “Konrad”.  The game does a brilliant job of masking it from you but at the same time drops subtle hints from your squad-mates, Adams and Lugo. You’ll notice a few of these during your second playthrough, which you probably will go for since the game features four different endings depending on your choices. I’d recommend hunting this one down. Also, keep an eye on the title screen. It slowly changes as you progress in the story.

I hope you enjoyed my little exploration of video game stories. Obviously, there are tonnes of plots out there. What are your favourite ones? What narratives elevated or devalued a game for you? Let me know.

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