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People who have lost any time reading my reviews will have noticed that I’m a bit of a story snob. I love games with good stories and will overlook a lot of faults if a game can give me a few endearing characters or a satisfying ending. The other side of that ever-spinning coin is that I’ll savage a game if the characters are repugnant, the story is full of holes, the premise is ludicrous, or the ending fails to tie things up. This is true even if the gameplay is good.

I’m not saying all games need to be packed with characters and plot like The Longest Journey in order to have a “good story”. In fact, sometimes less is more. To illustrate my point I want to use one of the very best cinematics from the last few years, the intro to Left 4 Dead. This four and a half minute clip shows a skillful and extremely economic approach to conveying information to the viewer while delivering solid movie thrills. You can deconstruct the thing shot-by-shot, line-by-line, and see that every moment fulfills a purpose and adds to the whole. Everything that is said or shown is there to introduce the world, set the mood, establish the personalities of the characters, or teach vital gameplay mechanics. Often it accomplishes several of these at once.

It is because of this efficiency that the final product is so entertaining. The writers didn’t just design a big fight scene and then try to shoehorn in some stiff dialog about how the zombies behave. Unlike a lot of videogames (and some movies) they don’t use action as a sugar to cover up the bitter medicine of plot exposition. The two work in harmony, and each makes the other more enjoyable.

The other noteworthy thing about the story in Left 4 Dead is that there isn’t much of it. There is exactly as much as we need for the game to work, and no more. Once the particulars are set up, the story doesn’t keep shoving itself to the forefront and getting in the way just for the sake of trying to be like a movie. The designers didn’t put in an ongoing plot where you chase around some mustache-twirling idiot of an antagonist who engineered the entire zombie plague and now wants to kill the survivors to complete all the items on his “clueless villain” checklist. They didn’t put in some “obvious traitor” side plot. No global conspiracy. No author-insertion mystery oracle to deliver exposition. No awkward love story. Nothing about saving your parents / children / significant other from the threat. The story is small, lightweight, and packs enough punch to set the mood and tone for dozens or even hundreds of hours of multiplayer zombie-smashing.

Often I take a popular game and deconstruct the plot, talking about the character inconsistencies, plot holes, bad pacing, forced exposition, hanging plot threads, and just plain old cheesy dialog. The response from die-hard fans will invariably be to point out that “games are about gameplay”. Which I guess means you can’t ever criticize a story ever, no matter how lame or insulting it is?

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They’re right that games are about gameplay, but this is like saying that action movies are all about the car chases and explosions. Most action movies are vehicles for stunts and destruction. But the story is there to make those stunts and fireballs matter. The story gives the action weight and context. An action movie that was two hours of nothing but disconnected footage of car jumps, crashes, and exploding vehicles would be wearisome to the extreme. I don’t mean to go all MovieBob on you, but fights are a lot more interesting when we we care about the people in the fight and we understand why they’re fighting. We might be here to see some spectacle, but the story is there to give those moments tension and emotional heft. It’s no different with videogames.

Whenever I bang on my “this story sucks” drum I invariably get someone asking me, “Why don’t you just go watch a movie if you want to see a story so bad?” Which seems to imply that you shouldn’t expect good stories from games. But if you think videogame stories have to suck, then you’ve been playing the wrong games. KOTOR, Jade Empire, Thief, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Max Payne, Sonic Unleashed and the aforementioned Left 4 Dead all manage to deliver both engaging gameplay and a well-written story.

But the “go watch a movie” taunt overlooks an important point: If the story doesn’t matter, then why do game designers waste so much time on them? Why do game designers keep putting horrendous stories in their games if they don’t want to tell a story in the first place? I understand that good writing is hard. Not everyone can do it. Constructing a story with a compelling arc, a solid foundation of backstory, and believable characters can be a complex task. Weaving that tale into gameplay is an additional challenge that moviemakers don’t have to face. I understand that there just aren’t a lot of people up to this level of challenge, particularly since most game designers began as programmers instead of writers.

Have a lot of story in your game, or don’t. But whatever you do, don’t just put in story because you want to make a movie where the player steers the camera and decides who gets shot first. You can see this evident in games like Resistance, anything by Epic, Resident Evil, and a host of other generic shooters where reviewers have to apologize for the story before they can tell you how fun the gameplay is. (People keep telling me that Resident Evil is supposed to be a send-up of classic horror movies, but I don’t buy it. In order to be a “send up” it would have to satirize the originals, not simply duplicate their stupidity. And in any case, “farce” and “tension” go together like marshmallow fluff and entrails.) These games could be more fun if the writers said less and left more to our imaginations.

Sure, I’m a story snob. Not because I demand that all games tell Planescape: Torment-level stories with Shadow of the Colossus-level emotional impact, but because I demand that if a story is in the game, it should be worth seeing.

(Also, I was just trolling you with Sonic Unleashed. Let’s see if anyone ragequits the article and comments without reading all the way through.)

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, and Stolen Pixels, Shamus Plays, and Spoiler Warning. He’s really busy.

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