Earlier today, our very own resident editor Alex Plant published an article on how ‘Zelda Games Should Never Be Based on Story.’ I can’t help but disagree.
Me and Alex differ when it comes to our philosophy on video games, and I love that because we can both partake in intellectual discourse from two entirely unique perspectives.
For me video games are about experiencing an interactive story, for Alex it’s about the gameplay. However, he is still vastly interested in story, just as I am in gameplay. We like both and fully recognize the importance of their roles, but we’re oppositional in how we think the balance should be between them.
So after reading Alex’s piece, I can’t help but come to the defence of storytelling in video games.
Alex’s main attraction to Ocarina of Time was being able to run around a fantasy world with a sword and shield. For Majora’s Mask it was the mask system, being able to change into a Deku Scrub, a Goron, or a Zora, and racing against time. For me, on both counts, it was being run around a fantasy world and experience a story there.
But, like I said earlier, while we may prioritize elements of gaming differently, we still love the other side of the fence. I too loved all those gameplay elements, just as Alex loved the story presented, in both Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask.
In his article, Alex states that what initially attracts him to specific titles isn’t the potential story opportunities, but gameplay ones.
When Alex sees an atmospheric trailer for a game, he gets excited about what he can do in that world; I get excited about what type of story could transpire in that world.
Sure, I’ll get excited about being able to do certain things, like how I’ll be able to travel across the latest rendition of Hyrule, but I always connect that back to how the developers will use those moments to inspire emotion. Alex will think more-so about the mechanics.
And this thought process is completely valid. It’s a game, it needs to have mechanics, and those mechanics need to function in intuitive and satisfying ways, but if you’re going to have a game with a shred of story, the story needs to be thoroughly covered as well.
Obviously a game needs to have great gameplay, and there are excellent games, which I love whole-heartedly, that are 100% gameplay/0% story, such as Tetris and Mario Kart. However, if you choose to include a story element in your game, you better give it the same amount of attention you would give developing gameplay. Develop each 100%, don’t half-ass either.
Skyward Sword was a game that was both about story and gameplay. However, while the motion controls were a success, the story (for many, not all) was not.
Just like Alex, I was extremely excited to try out Skyward Sword’s mechanics and agree that they are the intuitive controls the series has been moving towards all along, and really help immerse players into the game.
However, I was bored out my mind playing Skyward Sword, and ultimately walked away from the game unsatisfied, despite being very impressed with the game’s mechanics. I just didn’t find many of the presented situations very immersible, despite being able interact in cool new ways within those situations due to the motion controls.
The other problem was that Nintendo set the game up to have a story, but then feel short.
They pushed the story elements to the very beginning, very middle, and very end, leaving these giant gaps of seemingly endless gameplay between, which began to feel pointless and contrived after awhile. It created this giant disconnect between the game, and the story they were trying to tell.
Even worse, the story that they had was poorly executed, full of expository dialogue and missed opportunities (Why wasn’t Fi actually developed as character? Why did they suddenly pretend she had undergone such development when she said farewell to Link at the very end? Why weren’t awesome and well-thought out parallels made between Fi and Ghirahim? Oh that’s right, because they turned this incredibly potent character (who could have basically been Dorthy from Big O, but wasn’t) into a redundant help box, who ultimately served little purpose in both the gameplay and story side of things despite being the Master Sword.)
Ultimately, the story elements were not integrated with the gameplay elements, but kept separate from each other. Because of this the game, like so many other video games today, was basically a video game with occasional clips from a poorly constructed movie.
Video games are not films, nor are they books, and they should not be treated as such. But just as storytelling is approached differently between film and literature, so too must storytelling be handled differently in the medium of gaming.
As Alex pointed out, we have a slew of story-oriented games that have failed triumphantly. Not only is this because the stories are poorly executed, but because the stories don’t fit the medium.
However, there are some shining examples of games that feature beautifully written and expertly constructed stories that do fit the medium and are balanced successfully with gameplay.
Two of the best examples that come to mind are Shadow of the Colossus and Journey. Both have excellent gameplay mechanics and premises, revolutionary on both counts, though in different ways, but they are also brilliant examples of telling stories the right way through video games.
They do it by keeping things simple. Rather than getting bogged down in exposition and lore (lore is great, but it shouldn’t be spoon-fed), which disrupts pacing in other titles (Zelda being a large culprit of this). Yet, while they are simple, they remain complex in the story they are trying to tell by the uniqueness of the story’s basic premise and through the little details that are presented to the player throughout the game, which eventually build-up to rather large impressions.
In both Journey and Shadow of the Colossus, these details are not presented through dialogue, but are shown in the world itself and in the way objects and people respond to a player’s action. These games are showing, not telling, following the number one rule of story-telling.
Another great way these games do this is through atmosphere, the depiction of the world itself through imagery and sound. As I’ve already established, both Alex and I are attracted by atmospheric trailers for games, not only because of the potential we see in these images, but by the sheer iconic-ness that is created by them. Not only do these images create long-lasting impressions, but they help create mood, and they therefore affect the way the player feels and responds to a game, whether it’s the response be to a game’s story or gameplay.
A game must have a smooth and seamless control system that does not distract a player and bring them out of the game. It is a plus that these controls push the bounds on how we can interact with the world the player is presented.
But while the way we can take down a boss should be cool and fun, the way we feel about taking down that boss is equally important. Based on the developer’s choices when designing a boss and boss arena, we will either feel triumphant for taking down the evil beast (Zelda) or we will sad because the great creature never did anything to us, it never even fought back (SotC). These residual feelings are strengthened by the already established story that player has been presented with up to this point, and our impressions of what will happen next, now that this boss is out of the way (will be be relieved that boss is gone because it will finally reunite us with Zelda, or will we feel guilty and apprehensive at continuing this quest because it seems like we’re performing more evil than good; not to mention the guy giving us all our instructions is super shady?)
As you might have guessed already, I’m relating Zelda to Shadow of the Colossus. The two tell entirely different stories, but they can come to these through similar methods of execution. However, note how much you can interpret from a game like Shadow of the Colossus, which tells you very little, only what you need to know, to trigger certain thoughts and emotions. Journey is even more minimalistic, but the metaphors that are created through the atmosphere and gameplay tasks are enough to tell a thoroughly engaging and deep story.
Zelda, as of late, feels like it’s trying too hard to tell a story. The Zelda team needs to step back and realize that they are approaching story the wrong way. The game doesn’t need to tell the player how the characters feel, they need to show it; The game even more so, doesn’t need to tell the player how their own character feels, it needs to make the player feel a certain way without letting the player realize they’re being manipulated.
They don’t necessarily have to change the story, but the way it’s presented to the player, who shouldn’t feel like they’re being told a story, but living one.