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Why I don’t like Stories in Games

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7th July 2017


“So, you’re making a game?”


No question irritates me more in game development than “Cool you’re making a game, well what’s the story?”. To me, it screams amateur. It’s the type of question I’d expect somebody who doesn’t know much about games to ask, perhaps by your grandma or colleagues at the day job. I’m not trying to be harsh, but games are much more than that.


Great mechanics can carry a bad story, but bad mechanics can’t carry the world’s greatest story. As I write this I’m trying to think if this rule applies to other media. Can awful actors save an Oscar winner’s next screenplay, can great lyrics save a bad singer? Perhaps these aren’t quite the same but these are what I’d call core building blocks within their respective art forms.


Due to their age, it would be unfair to overstate the importance of examples such as Tetris, Pacman, Space Invaders in demonstrating success without narrative. For modern examples, we could look at Minecraft, Spelunky, Trials and Counterstrike. These are all successful games, without a real story. Even the stories in some of the most popular franchises such as Elder Scrolls and Fallout that try to produce a compelling story which aren’t ultimately what you remember the series for.


I’m not calling for narratives to be removed from games, but rather let’s describe and build games based upon a solid foundation. Rather than “Is it fun to exist in a medieval world and save the princess?”, ask “Is it fun to ride horseback and joust in online multiplayer?”. By starting with fun mechanics, we can iterate and build the skateboard, then the scooter, bicycle, motorbike and finally the car. By building mechanics, first the game is more likely to actually get finished and be successful.


In my experience, developing and working with other developers, the narrative is almost always moulded around whatever mechanics you have available. Why build your game to tell the story of a young warrior who fights a dragon to save the peasant village, if fighting a dragon isn’t very fun? Fighting dragons in Skyrim became tedious after the first few you defeated. Would it have been better to rework the story so that it didn’t rely on fighting as many dragons to acquire abilities?


So next time you meet a developer and they tell you about their new game, don’t ask what the story is about, instead try “What’s it’s USP, why is it fun?”. A good developer should be able to get you hooked immediately “Oh my game is cool because you can jump onto the moon whenever you feel like it”. And this makes a lot of sense because when I think of other popular games, I’m never remembering them for their story. Gears of War had this really satisfying headshot mechanic. No Man’s Sky literally let you visit any planet. Fifa lets me assemble a team of the world’s best football players. Minecraft lets me build whatever I want.


Great mechanics can carry a bad story, but bad mechanics can’t carry the world’s greatest story.