Experienced Points

Experienced Points
The Story Doesn't Matter

Shamus Young | 30 Mar 2012 21:00
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Another important point is that a great number of people simply don't care about story. They don't care if characters are consistent, if the lore makes sense, or if the player character was obliged to do stupid things in service of the plot. They're happy as long as pressing the buttons is fun. (I'm not being snarky. It's perfectly reasonable to only care about gameplay. As long as you're enjoying the game then you're doing it right, whether you pay attention to the story or not.) On my blog, I usually do long-form analysis of things, covering multiple entries, often weeks or months after release. Heck, sometimes I'll spend ten thousand words analyzing part of a game. The most common criticism I get is, "You're just looking for things to complain about." People ascribe bad faith to my motives, assuming I'm just looking for excuses to bitch and moan because they can't imagine that anyone could care that much about the story of a game.

Even if story comments do make it into a review, nobody can agree on just how much they should impact the score. Angry Joe hated the ending to Mass Effect 3 really bad, but he still gave the game 8/10. Was he wrong? Should he have punished the game even though it was 30 hours of fun followed by ten minutes of drooling stupid? Depends on who you ask, and it's basically just an extension of the whole, "How to you assign a number to a game?" argument anyway.

Story quality is also dangerously subjective. Reviewers are forever hounded with "you over-rated this game, so clearly you are taking bribes" and "you under-rated this game, so clearly you're a hater who was prejudiced against the game all along". If you want to head off these ankle-biters, it's a lot easier to stick to the mechanical subjects and leave the subjective stuff out. For example, I can fault Mass Effect 2 for putting opposing actions like "sprint" and "take cover" on the same button. That's a thing that actually happened, and it's not really up for debate. It's a lot safer to stick to concrete subjects like bugs, interface, and gameplay flow, rather than getting into nebulous arguments about whether or not Kaiden and Ashley were properly characterized.

So that's why story isn't taken into account when games are reviewed. There's not enough time, it's difficult, usually people don't care, and if you try the audience will just punish you for it. And this is fine. Most people looking for reviews on day one are just looking for red flags to warn them away from dropping their money on duds. There's plenty of time to put the game under a microscope later. Compare Susan Arendt's concise and straightforward review of Final Fantasy XIII-2 with Jeff Dunn's study of the different approach of Final Fantasy XIII and the fan response to these changes. People looking for consumer advice can read what Arendt wrote, and people looking to continue the conversation after playing the game can read what Dunn had to say.

Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and now author. Check out his new book!

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