“Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” -John Carmack, co-creator of Doom
You don’t have to be a maestro of Mario to see that video games often struggle to find original premises. A simple glance at the front page of the digital PC game marketplace Steam reveals a smorgasbord of me-toos and also-rans, ranging from loving tributes to out-and-out rip-offs. Still, while players have little patience for games comprised entirely of mechanics lifted from their more successful brethren, most are content to give developers a longer rope when it comes to matters of storytelling and the all-important “lore.”
And why not? That the writing quality of most games is abysmal is an axiom so deeply embedded in every level of gaming culture that one might mistake it for gospel (after all, to some gamers, the above John Carmack quote isn’t too far from a divine edict). The most flagrant carriers of this malaise lurk not at the bottom of the barrel, nor in the critical circles that gave up on it long ago. No, the games that most deserve scorn are not those that exhibit the worst of it, but the ones that could do far better, were it not for their own complacency. With that in mind, let’s begin with the broadest of strokes: the five most depleted settings in video games, in no particular order. This isn’t to say that these various styles of story are necessarily doomed from the start, but merely to suggest that those who trade in them ought to look for a route less traveled.
1. HAUNTED HOUSE IN AN ASYLYM ON AN INDIAN GRAVEYARD
Anyone acquainted with the scream-clogged channels of aspiring YouTube sensations will be well aware of this scenario. A favorite of the “scare-‘em-up” sub-genre, in which players creep through frightening corridors while avoiding theme park-esque jump scares, the Haunted House/Asylum/Indian Graveyard trifecta represents the very core of most of these games: an amalgam of horror clichés stitched together with drab hallways and tedious scavenger hunts. Still, while these titles’ gameplay can be staler than the carcasses that inhabit them, a unique backstory can more than make up for it. Unfortunately, most of the horror games that crop up on Steam usually settle for the usual trappings, and their review scores reflect that.
On the other hand: The Chuck-e-Cheese-inspired Five Night at Freddie’s might not have the most robust mechanics on the market, but its ludicrous popularity proves that people want a little more creativity in their shambling monstrosities.
2. THE NOT-TOLKIENVERSE
Much of the appeal of fantasy lies in the myriad ways that works can depart from the mundanity of our daily lives. How ironic, then, that so many examples of the genre are so terrified of putting an iota of daylight between themselves and their inspirations. Though the massive living worlds of games like Skyrim and Dragon Age can scrape days off players’ lives as they explore every cave and field, the civilizations that lie between can leave much to be desired. Indeed, the characters and quests on offer—the noble elves, the swarthy dwarves—are cut so closely from the cloth of Tolkien and his ilk that one might expect his son Christopher to be thanked in the credits. There’s nothing wrong with a little sword and sorcery, but when everyone seems to have the same fantasy, it’s time to change something up.
On the other hand: Their legendary difficulty may deter some, but From Software’s Souls series offers a crumbled vision of dark fantasy that owes more to the Norse pantheon than Wheel of Time.
3. STAR FIGHT
Let’s face it: we’re all suckers for the swagger of a good space opera. The sizzle of lasers colliding with cold steel; the creak of an unknown species’ maw opening for the first time; the grunts of our intrepid protagonist as he battles it out with the dark overlord—it’s the kind of thing that gets the blood pumping. But there’s only so many times that humanity can be threatened by a malevolent alien force before the shtick begins to wear a little thin. While the medium has had its fair share of galaxy-spanning tales—most notably Halo and Mass Effect—very few games have tracked the minutiae of a truly Space Age life to the extent that popular non-game works like Firefly and Cowboy Bebop were able to. With a whole universe of stories waiting to be told, perhaps we can aim a little higher than yet another star war.
On the other hand: The spaceship similar FTL: Faster than Light offers a variety of randomized scenarios that make its swath of cold void seem more inhabited than most—though you’ll have to brave the pursuit of an entire fleet in order to experience them.
4. AMORPHOUS MILITARY CONFLICT
It’s 2015, and it’s time for war. Not just war—future-war, with guns that reload themselves and mech suits that punch through walls. You’re not really sure where you are—after all, in the future, everything’s painted the same luminescent gray—but you need to get in there, fuck some shit up, and get out. Now that you think about it, you’re not really sure why you’re doing it, either. You dimly recall some sort of mission briefing, where a tired-eyed general was rolled out to explain the situation in the vaguest possible terms. Something about a dictator, or a president, or maybe a prime minister…you’re not sure. It all runs together. Regardless, you’re sure you’ll find him at the end of that final corridor, all but twirling his mustache as he laughs maniacally. You look forward to it.
On the other hand: Spec Ops: The Line is one of the only video games that has anything to say about war, even if it’s not quite sure what that statement ultimately amounts to.
5. YOUR OWN BACKYARD
Perhaps it was inevitable that games’ obsession with scale would eventually manifest in developers creating the very cities they live in as meticulously as the tech would allow. Still, fourteen years removed fro, the realization of Grand Theft Auto 3’s faux-New York, Liberty City, these same developers have yet to determine what exactly these digital metropolises represent. While GTA seems content to use its sprawl as a medium to convey some of the broadest social satire this side of Adam Sandler, developers such as Ubisoft have attempted to infuse games like Watch Dogs with mechanics that draw attention to some of the core questions of our age—albeit unsuccessfully. Art that purports to reflect reality can carry much more baggage than say, Super Mario Bros.—it would be nice if some of these games did something with it besides serving the fantasies of those who play them.
On the other hand: The classic Japanese roleplaying game Earthbound depicts a twisted vision of suburban America filtered through decades of imported pop culture and childlike naiveté.
Steven T. Wright is a freelance writer living in and around the Southeastern United States. He enjoys reheating yesterday’s coffee, complaining about wrestling, and listening to rap music from before he was born. He’s still in the market for an OutRun 2 machine.
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