If you’ve been hanging out around here for a while, you’ll probably recall that the single biggest part of any game for me is the story and characters. This isn’t to say I don’t play games without a great narrative and some solid characterization, but when I really dig my feet in and get down and dirty with a game, I like seeing some substance to it, instead of superficial multiplayer or a half-assed single-player campaign. At the same time, though, I do think a game’s writers can get too carried away making a complex story that is possibly hard for the player to follow. When they link the characterization to that story, it sometimes turns into a clusterfrak of confusing banter about things the player can’t care about even if they tried, because the narrative is so convoluted they can’t understand it. So, there is something to be said about simple, even cliché, stories.
Typically the mindset of gamers that play a lot of story-driven games is that they don’t want a cliché stories, characters, settings or themes. Whether we think this the case or not, developers undoubtedly take note of fan reactions, and adjust to them. Picture yourself at an RPG developer’s meeting…
“Hey guyz, people complained that our characters were too cliché, whatever shall we do?”
“I think our next game’s main character should be a half donkey transvestite who is brought up by a puke-green-skinned alien in an average rural town, but is really from a jello-covered planet in a far away star system. Throw in something about a crazy wormhole from this medieval planet to his homeworld, an evil crab that is trying to bridge the gap to take over both worlds, and a huge, giant snow cone that is hurling toward the planet he grew up on, which holds the key to his origins but is going to destroy all life as we know it.”
“Oh, yeah, that sounds awesome! They won’t be able to complain that the story is cliché, I can’t think of any other games with a half donkey transvestite that is trying to save his way of life from a giant snow cone!”
Okay, you get the idea, right? All these complex, convoluted, borderline-insane stories are generated because players complain that stories in RPGs are too cliché. Yet, when this maniacal amalgamate of random story ideas is put into a game – giving the fans seemingly what they want – they do a complete 180 and complain that the story is too labyrinthine.
While I, too, enjoy a deep, involving and sometimes elaborate story, if done right, there is something to be said for keeping things simple. A few reasons spring to mind.
First off, people have to understand the story to get the most out of it and to care about what the characters do. A prime example of failure in this regard is Final Fantasy XIII. The story was highly complex, took a lot of effort to get into and, ultimately, couldn’t connect with the player to let them care about what the characters did, which is basically saving their home, Cocoon. Sure, I thought the character interactions were great, and that made me care about the characters, to some extent. But, beyond that, everything was so far-fetched that I couldn’t connect to their feelings about the bigger picture, what was going on around them and what they were fighting for. This disconnect is unfortunate and, in my opinion, comes about because of the writers trying to be overly complex in defining this story.
Secondly, as an extension to that, a simple story – something perhaps the player can relate to – allows quick and easy identification with the characters and their plight. While this isn’t always the case, it tends to be the more straight-forward stories that grab my attention the most, simply because they don’t take a whole lot of contemplation and thought before I can sympathize with what is going on. This connection is very important, and I think sometimes game writers lose sight of that, although not intentionally, by thinking up these intricate, intense storylines that are hard to wrap our brains around.
Perhaps even starting the game out in a simple manner, then building up to a more complex plot device, would be the way to go, instead of simply dropping a player into a story that is very complex from the beginning. Look at games such as Final Fantasy VII, Star Ocean: The Last Hope and Ys Seven – they all start very simply with a single, manageable plot device. Then, over the course of many hours, they build up to something a bit more intense, but are never boring along the way, keeping the player attached to the characters the whole way through so that you really can connect to them and understand them better when things start getting kind of crazy.
In fact, you could go the route of putting all the complexities of a game into the mechanics themselves, and keep the story relatively straight-forward. I’ve been playing around with a preview copy of Atelier Rorona for the last few days and I believe this is a prime example of a simple story and relatable characters, but with much deeper, more intricate underlying game mechanics. The alchemy takes center stage to create the complexity that a player may want from their games in some way, while the austere narrative and involvement in the characters is there to draw the player in emotionally, filling that need.
Finally, one of the biggest ways to connect a player to a character is with emotions, as I just mentioned. Simple, raw emotion is preferred, not some contrived plot device that attempts to illicit an emotional response by confusing the player into thinking that they should care about this character and what is going on. Final Fantasy VII is possibly the purest example of this. The death of Aerith wasn’t something that happened for the sake of just being there, or for some complex story idea. It was done as a poignant plot point that almost stood outside the realm of the story itself.
What I mean is this: No matter what was going on in the story, no matter what characters we were using, no matter what we were thinking – we had seen and gotten to know Aerith during the early part of the story. Having that suddenly taken away from us when we weren’t expecting it was a simple measure to bring out those raw emotions in the player. She was a simple, yet extraordinary girl – a regular person in the circumscription of the story. This was something many of us could relate to – we know regular, yet somehow extraordinary, people in our everyday lives. We look up to them, we admire them, we call them family or friends.
What better way to bring out that simple emotion and feeling of loss than to take away someone who could be compared to that – our friend or our family – within the realm of the story we were playing through? Strip away all the complexities of the story itself, and bring things down to simple, yet piercing, loss. Nothing more, nothing less.
I’ll reiterate this again, because I feel that sometimes game writers and developers miss the point. Many times it is the simplistic, the accessible, the mundane that we relate to the most, not some over-the-top story brought about by a drug-induced vision of counterfeit greatness. Sometimes, bringing things down to earth is the best thing you can do to really draw people into the story. Once that happens, a little wackiness can be thrown in for good measure. However, getting the audience to connect to the story and characters should be top priority, otherwise it is likely all for naught, as no one will really get into the game and see its story to the conclusion.