The debate over whether a good storyline matters in video games is one that has gone on for quite a long time. In the first of two articles, we looked at some games whose experience directly hinged on having a great story. However, in this second article, we explore some video games that provide amazing experiences with little or no story at all.
Some gamers out there couldn’t care less about a story; for them, video games are all about the gameplay. The challenge of conquering a goal is what drives many gamers to invest substantial time in their hobby. With some games, a deep and engaging storyline would detract from the focus on that challenge. Who cares about why The Grey Wardens were betrayed at Ostigar? Why does it matter what happens if Kefka moves the statues out of alignment? Why aren’t people instead focusing on the fact that some dude got a 1’58″38 time on Mute City 1?
Of course, the strongest argument against story being a necessary part of video games would be Tetris. This is about as hardcore as video games get: no explanations, no reasons, no motivation. Just you, Tetrominoes, and your friend’s high score. Why are the blocks falling? What is it you’re constructing? What exists outside of the rectangle the blocks are falling into? Who’s building these damn things? Who cares? The point is, blocks are falling, lines need to be made, and scores need to be beaten. Like Chess, there is no need to understand why…all you need to understand is how.
Some games provide a compelling narrative that deepen the experience, yet are wholly unnecessary to enjoy the gameplay. A good example of this is Ikaruga. Most people load up Ikaruga and proceed to blast the hell out of everything that moves. That being said, were you aware that Ikaruga not only has a storyline, but a fairly in-depth and detailed one? Not that it matters, since your enjoyment of Ikaruga isn’t really affected by it. Knowledge about Shinra and the Horai won’t make shooting down enemy ships any more fun; you can still enjoy your time with Ikaruga completely unaware that a plot even exists.
Perhaps the best example of “there is a story, but it’s there just to serve as an excuse for the game” would be the early entries in the Mario series. The princess has been taken, you have to rescue her; that’s about it. But it serves as a reason as to why you are jumping through pipes and stomping goombas. It provides you with just enough motivation to continue…or, who knows, maybe you don’t need any motivation. I mean, come on, do you really need an excuse to squish those guys? They’re nothing but mutated mushrooms…they weren’t meant to exist.
Smash TV is another fantastic example of “story as an excuse”. You are on a violent game show from the future, in which you have to fight your way through waves of enemies in exchange for big money and big prizes. Game show, enemies, guns, prizes. That’s all the motivation we need to go out there and rip apart hundreds of adversaries. We don’t care about why these particular contestants were selected, nor do we care about how many viewers the show gets on a nightly basis. We care about whether another ‘nade launcher will show up while fighting Mutoid Man.
Another great example of something you can sink a ton of time into with little or no story present is a game like Battlefield 2. I have logged dozens upon dozens of hours in Battlefield 2, fighting other players, having sniper matches, and blowing up avatars to smithereens. But why? Why were we fighting? What international conflict was the driving force behind these opposing armies? Team Fortress 2 is another good example of competitive multiplayer without requiring any story. These two groups aren’t comically blowing each other up for a reason; they’re doing it simply because they want to.
The original Bubble Bobble is an intensely entertaining and engaging game…yet no reason is provided for the situations encountered. Why are we underground? Why are these dragons fighting these enemies? Why are there letters floating around these various chambers? What kind of dragon shoots bubbles out of its mouth? It doesn’t matter. The fact is, there are monsters who get really angry after a short period of time, and it’s up to you to trap them in bubbles and transform them into various goodies.
Dragon Age and Tetris will both suck up hours upon hours of your time, but for entirely different reasons. One keeps you coming back for the depth of its narrative, and the other keeps you coming back for sheer simplicity. Each type of game has its place in the culture, and both of them are equally important.