There’s a narrow line that games have to walk when it comes to story. On one side, we have a story that seems not to acknowledge that it’s kind of stupid that you spend most of the time in it shooting everyone in the face and grabbing anything that’s the slightest bit valuable. On the other, we have a story about how stories don’t matter and you’re just here to shoot things and grab stuff. I find both of these deeply unsatisfying.
“Well,” you might say, “then why don’t we just make games that aren’t just mechanically motivated by shooting and looting?” Which is a real good question but let’s look past that for now because, you know, even if we make a lot of those, the ol’ rooty tooty shoot’n’looty is still an appealing formula and we’re probably going to want to keep on making them. Sometimes I want to shoot something in the head or buy a magic sword. However, I don’t need or want the game to pretend that this makes me the god among men who is the real cool hero no matter what the kids at school say; at the same time, I also don’t want the game to make stupid jokes about all of the EPIC LOOTZ I will find when I go into this HILARIOUSLY contrived situation because games r dum, right? I would like the game to provide a premise wherein I have a reason to want a sweet fucking magic sword, a situation where finding that sword is possible, and let me go. I don’t need to be told I’m the chosen one, I don’t need to save the world, I just need to be able to exist in a situation where I could plausibly want to defeat an opponent or find an interesting item for something beyond its own sake.
Even if my in-game motivation is solely greed, solely my character wanting to have a luxurious retirement in a nice castle somewhere, that still a reasonable and relatable motivation – one that makes a lot more sense than that of most game characters, at that. I would very much like to be rich right now myself. And yet even these flimsy justifications rarely get used, tossed aside either for grand stakes that are completely unrelatable (The end of the world at a minimum – usually the end of the universe) or for nudges and chuckles about how it’s all about the lootz and the sweet 360 no-scopes and jesus fucking christ just kill me already.
So many games give every impression that they hate games. They would either rather ignore everything game-like about themselves and try to be very important and serious (please ignore how absurd the actions you’re taking are whenever a cutscene isn’t playing), or present everything about themselves as a joke (haha you’re an idiot for caring about this world and therefore spending any time in it), than engage with what they are. I can’t help but feel that a big unspoken reason for the success of the Souls games is that they present what’s going on as significant without pandering to the player’s sense of self-importance. Sure, you’re the ‘chosen one’… but it turns out there’s been plenty of chosen ones before you and most of them just went crazy down in a hole.
Yeah, I know, it’s also annoying that every essay keeps turning into a rant about how Dark Souls gets everything right. Don’t think I’m not also frustrated. I’ve been frustrated for a long time.
I never really recovered from my disappointment with Left 4 Dead 2. Even its protagonists didn’t take it seriously, couldn’t treat the death of everything they’d ever known as anything but a fun zombie-themed vacation. It’s a Video Game Sequel: Everything becomes bigger and more explosive and more ‘awesome’, at the cost of complexity and nuance. Because, yeah, Left 4 Dead was an action-packed shoot-fest, but it also had tiny moments of genuine horror and sorrow. Apparently, judging by the fan reaction, I was one of the only ones to miss those when they were gone.
It’s just easier to make a game a caricature of games, make it all about shooting zombies and blowing things up. Because, hey, if everything is maximum stupidity, then it all fits together, right? So much for ludonarrative dissonance.