During GDC, Riot Games’ Narrative Lead, Tom Abernathy, and Microsoft Game Studios’ Design Lead, Richard Rouse III, gave a speech entitled “Death to the Three-Act Structure.” I am not so much concerned about their findings and arguments concerning the three-act structure, but more about their assertion that the plot of a game does not matter.
They say that players often have difficulty reciting the plot of a game, but can easily tell you about the various characters in a game and their personality, meaning that characters are far more important than plot. I totally understand that players can remember characters better, sure. But, when they say that plot is “highly overrated,” I have to disagree.
In many story-driven, or as Abernathy and Rouse would say, character-driven games you spend nearly all of your time with at least one of those characters, listening to their thoughts, feeling their emotions, and watching their actions.
Compare that to the plot. While that is always present in a game, is it as in your face as the characters? Absolutely not, and rightly so. Why? I ask that to ask this: what is it that drives a plot in any story, be it a book, game, movie, TV show, etc? The characters.
It is the wants, desires, and agency of the characters that drive a plot forward. Now, what makes the character progress the plot based on their wants and desires? The plot itself. For example, in Mass Effect, why would Commander Shepard do anything he/she did without the plot? Without threat of the reapers and the like, there would be nothing for him/her to do. Of course that can be replaced with a different threat/enemy, but the fact remains that the plot is not only relevant but important. Mass Effect would not be nearly as memorable if Shepard just went off doing his/her own thing and stumbling on to random events.
To keep it in the limiting terms of Rouse and Abernathy, the plot gives context for the characters to move and act in. If you think about it that way, characters and plot are not separate, but dependent on one another. Each drives and changes the other, progressing the story and developing the character. The fact that Abernathy and Rouse are unaware of that is a little worrying.
To just look at this quantitatively, compare the amount of time you spend with a game compared to something like a movie. Many story-driven singleplayer games take around 20 hours to fully complete – and that is usually not counting any side missions.
Compare that to a 2-hour movie. Just by reasoning it out, one can understand that there is a vast difference between staying engaged in a plot of a movie compared to a game. Not only do you spend more time with a game, meaning a longer and larger plot, but you are also engaged in other ways as well, like playing the game.
Taking it one step further, compare the amount of time you spend with a game and its plot to a TV show, like Breaking Bad. Can you tell me all the intricacies of the Breaking Bad plot, not just a basic plot summary? I probably couldn’t and I am a huge Breaking Bad fan. Not even intricacies, but hit the main events of the show. I’m sure I would miss a few.
I can’t remember everything, but I can surely tell you that I enjoyed Breaking Bad immensely. Why does gaming need some other kind of standard? What makes its brand of storytelling, or as Abernathy and Rouse would have it, the lack of storytelling, so much different?
I’m not sure how to answer that, but I can say that with Breaking Bad, or any game, I could likely refresh my memory to the plot by reading a quick summary of events. Or if I heard of some event, it may click something and I could tell you about some other things surrounding that event.
Basically, I don’t think the phenomena of players forgetting plot elements to a game is unique to gaming. I can forget plenty about a movie I just watched or book I just read easily. Through repeated exposure though – rereading, replaying, talking about it, etc. – I could remember more and more.
My final point is to just look at the biggest hits and critically acclaimed games in the past few years – nearly all have not only a good plot, but a great one. One that is integral to the game. Games like The Last of Us, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, the Bioshock Series, Grand Theft Auto V, Witcher 2, the Mass Effect Series, Red Dead Redemption, the Half-Life series, and so many more.
Many of those games were highly praised in no small part to the smartly written story. One of the biggest talking points about The Last of Us was about how it had elevated storytelling in gaming as a medium. To say that plot doesn’t matter is naive and in some ways lazy. To create an well-written plot is demanding , difficult, and time consuming.
That is not to say that all games have to have a great plot either. Many good games have little to no plot at all and do just fine, choosing to showcase their gameplay instead or just the experience of the game itself. Games like Dark Souls, Journey, Bastion, and others. Even those have some semblance of a plot though.
In summary, we should not be criticizing the value of plot in games, but celebrating and forcing it to progress further. A well-written plot will give all characters some kind of urgency and motivation, facilitating both the story’s overall progression and that of the character.
Look at Vivi, one of the most liked characters of all time, from Final Fantasy IX. He is a black mage that doesn’t really know who he is, where he came from, or what he can do. He was raised by a Qu and nearly shut off from the world. He is scared, lacking confidence, but curious. Eventually he finds other black mages, but realizes they are different. Why is he different from them? Why do they “die” after a year and he hasn’t? Those kind of questions, which help to motivate Vivi, came about from the plot. Without them, his character would be totally different.
Look at the Half-Life series for a purely plot example. Most of the characters are not really memorable, other than they drive the plot and, I would argue, are somewhat stock characters. But, I’ll be damned if I am not wondering what the hell is going on with the plot. That curiosity drives me to return to the game, and hope for the return of a new one soon. Not unlike many other people I would guess.
Creating games where the plot and characters facilitate one another should be the future of gaming, not just sweeping plot away because it is difficult or some misguided belief that characters and plot are somehow separate.