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Is Different Better? How Narrative Contexts Create Modern “Classics”

My cousin and I, traveling across Ohio on our way back from a wedding, had a long discussion about The Last of Us. He waxed poetic on the virtues of the game, how much he enjoyed the narrative and how well done the stealth-action was. To a certain extent I agreed. While Naughty Dog’s latest opus was a truly quality experience, providing many gamers with characters that they grew attached to through the tense atmosphere and emotional story, I couldn’t help but see the cracks in the mold. I asked him if the same game with a more mundane story would have carried the same weight with him, and his reply was a hesitant “no.” What he said afterwords echoed my thoughts.  The mechanics of the game were too similar to other titles to be enjoyable on their own, and without the emotional ties to the characters, the combat loses tension. However, the uniqueness of the game’s setting coupled with the fresh take on tired tropes leaves the gamer’s palate satisfied.

The Last of Us forces me to consider what I believe is an increasingly important questions as the gaming medium becomes more diverse: Is different better?

Allow me another example, one that has been haunting me for some time now. BioShock was released to intense critical fanfare. Lauded across the board by both players and major gaming websites and magazines, BioShock currently garners the highest rating for an first-person shooter on Metacritic. Some would argue that it is well deserving. The game boasts one of the most iconic gaming worlds of the last ten years, a twisting narrative, and what can still be considered impressive visuals and astounding sound design. It was also a mediocre shooter with spongy enemies, little enemy variety, a repetitive hacking minigame, and one of the most contrived boss battles of any game this console generation. It did not feature multiplayer.  When it was released, BioShock was different than anything that had come before it from at atmosphere and setting perspective. Art-deco horror at the bottom of the sea. Narrative told through audio logs and scratchings on the wall. But stripped down, the actual game part of BioShock isn’t necessarily impressive or original. The rest of the game is just different than anything else we’d seen.

The same is true of Portal. A first-person platform puzzler which created countless internet memes, spawned a lauded sequel, and vindicated long time fans of Valve and their productions. At its core, the game is not much different from what else has been done, aside from using a nifty door-weapon.  The puzzles were not necessarily challenging, and required more timing than ingenuity. Put against a funny robot for a little bit of quirk, and you have something special.

I’m not trying to take away anything from these games. I enjoy all of them. BioShock remains to this day the only game that I ever wrote and submitted a full-length FAQ for. I’ve played and loved Portal and its sequel (although I’m still firmly in the belief that Portal 2 was overpraised), and The Last of Us gave me a fun few hours, even if the story was a tad clichéd. All of these titles deserve merit in one extent or another. But the unerring praise that they solicit seems, at times, unwarranted. BioShock has virtually no replayability due to a lack of additional challenges or modes.  Portal certainly doesn’t, being a puzzle game (unless you count the challenges later added to the Still Alive version). The Last of Us provides updated multiplayer, so we can stick around with that one.

None of these three titles did any one thing best except for tell a story and absorb the gamer. You want tighter cover-based combat and control? Gears of War is here for you, and without the cheap one-shot enemies. Want a more varied puzzle experience? Mobile games are starting to be the frontrunners in that genre, pushing out new level packs and updates regularly. And just about any first-person shooter with a good label will compete for a spot next to BioShock, if you can sacrifice the narrative.

When I look back on these games, I hold one question in my mind above any other as far as if the game was great: was it fun to play?

You don’t hear people talking about playing BioShock. You hear people talking about the story. They argue and debate and fight over nuances in the narrative. They reminisce about when certain plot points developed. They talk about how they felt. I have yet to encounter a retrospective on BioShock that so much as mentioned gameplay. So was this game fun, or was it different? If it’s different, and made us feel different things, is it better?

The Last of Us solicits many discussions over themes in the narrative. We’ll talk about Joel and Ellie and how they grow over the game. We’ll talk about how we’d act in similar situations. But many people I’ve talked to have echoed the same sentiment about the stealth portions of the game, and how the lack of any indication as to your current status could often times get you caught and killed. Or about how the AI ceaselessly charged at you without regards for its own safety. IGN calls it a masterpiece. I’ll call it solid with flawed gameplay. The story is just post-apocalypse zombies, but this time it’s fungus. Fungus zombies are different. But are they better?

Portal put us in empty rooms and told us to use our minds to solve the riddles. There’s no talk about tricky solutions. People being proud over moments of enlightenment in the game. People instead make jokes about cake and talk about a homicidal robot. Different for a puzzle game. But better?

I think that gamers everywhere are reaching a point where we have become aware of a sort of saturation in the market. Shooters everywhere. The resurgence of the adventure game. Racers and sports titles rehashed year-over-year. Our minds are starved for fresh experiences. So when something different comes along, we get excited. But it is my firm belief that our excitement should be kept in check. We are handing out too much praise for different. We should be asking ourselves if its better. We should be looking at narrative as a context for gameplay, not the other way around.

I genuinely think that BioShock and The Last of Us would have made for equally thrilling movies as they did games. I think that it says something to even have that thought, because it makes me question the worth of the gameplay part. This isn’t far off from how people feel about Metal Gear Solid and Heavy Rain. There is a lot of narrative worth, and being a part of that narrative can be exciting. But stripped down, we should ask ourselves if the game is fun. Would I play this game with a less powerful narrative? How important is overcoming the challenge versus witnessing the end of a story? If the story were different, would I still be playing? Is this only interesting because its different? In a regular context, would this be nearly as interesting? Am I having fun playing the game?

To me, Bioshock wasn’t fun. I wandered from can to can, dresser to dresser scavenging artifacts and shooting the same four bad guys over and over. BioShock Infinite has ridiculously broken combat with the Possession tonic and a terrible boss fight with a ghost. Stellar setting, though. It’s cool frolicking through the clouds in a sky city born of the 1920’s. Different. Yes. Better? Hardly. Infinite has me convinced that anyone who can write a decent piece of fiction has a bright future in game development.

I think we need to give credit where credit is due. Showcase the games that aren’t necessarily different, but happen to be better. For as much vitriol as there is for Call of Duty, you can’t deny that the game does what it does extremely well. Tight mechanics and a varied multiplayer allows for vast amounts of fun. The narrative is ho-hum, but the game is admittedly fun to play. It’s important to remember that. Super Hexagon is an elegantly simple yet deviously hard challenge game. No narrative, just basic gameplay that we’ve seen before in other slalom games. But it’s polished to a mirror sheen. The Pokémon series has been retooling and upgrading on existing systems for over a decade, and even the original entries into the series are still amazing.

Stop being so impressed by a new setting, a gimmick mechanic, or a robust story. Focus on if your games are actually fun. If you have fun with the games I mentioned above, then that’s great. Just don’t lose sight over what makes a game a game in the first place. It’s great to have context for games, but they shouldn’t overshadow the true purpose of a game. Ask yourself if your games are fun, or if you are in it for the story.

Eric Beasley

Eric is a high school science teacher and gamer who hopes his life doesn't one day become an episode of Breaking Bad.

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