Molten Boron Rambles Disjointedly About Video Games, Episode 1: Plot


I have a question for those of you who play or have played video games: Do you pay attention to the plot? If so, how much?

I ask because I've always payed attention to the plot, read all the dialogue, etc. I even scrounged around for the readme file that had the plot in Doom (yes, Doom did have a plot!). As I've encountered more people who play video games, though, I find that I appear to be at the extreme end of the spectrum in this regard.

I noticed it when a former roommate was playing through Final Fantasy X. He just breezed through the dialogue and didn't bother finishing the game, even when, with the amount of leveling up he had done, it would have taken him about 5 minutes, as the culmination of, I'd estimate, 40 hours of play. He played for the play element, and that was it. He had a general idea of how things were going, but didn't really care enough to read/listen to all the dialogue or see how it all turned out.

My subsequent roommate was so impatient with plot elements that he skipped through the introduction and 30 second level intros for Katamari Damacy. The plot was entirely extraneous to the game experience.

The first roommate justified this with a quote from John Carmack, the technology guy behind Doom. I'm not sure what the exact wording was, but the gist of it was that plot in video games was like plot in pornographic movies. The creators felt obliged to put it in, but no-one really payed attention or cared. Carmack and his friends at ID software led the movement towards less plot in games, beginning with Doom, which had just the barest thread of a plot, and culminating in Quake, which I believe was the first ever video game with no plot whatsoever. You were a dude in an arena and you killed things. Killing things was good, getting killed was bad. That is all ye know in life, and all ye need to know.

I probably take plot too seriously, but I still feel like it ought to be there. I can't get interested in a game if I don't have any motivation whatsoever for what I'm doing, even if the motive is something silly and nonsensical, like the president's been kidnapped by ninjas or my pet frog jumped on a barrel of radioactive waste in my backyard, mutating and growing in size, then falling through a hole in the ground, and I have to rescue him by pursuing him through the massive underground kingdom under my house, in a miniature pink jumping tank named Sofia III.

At the same time, paying much attention to the plot does feel somewhat dumb. Great writers don't work in video games. Plots tend to vary from "something the designer scribbled on a napkin to justify the action" to "elaborate pre-teen melodramas that also, coincidentally, involve saving the world." Whether there's a lot of plot or a little, it's all pretty bad when you put it in perspective.

There's been some grandiose talk of video games as the next great medium. Interestingly, though, a lot of people who approach video games from other media take plots as their starting point. You hear of people like Steven Spielburg approaching games and thinking of them almost like choose-your-own-adventure novels, where the player is controlling the story. The problem with approaching it from that perspective is that there's a great deal of talent in the industry, it seems, for designing games that are fun to play, to look at, to listen to, but not a lot of talent for storytelling or writing.

But that just raises a question: Should video game designers focus on plots? Probably not; video games are plenty entertaining now with gameplay and graphics at the forefront and plot an afterthought. Frankly, the Spielburg idea sounds like it would make for a terrible game, and I think that's the point. A game with a great plot and terrible gameplay is a bad game. A game with great gameplay and a terrible plot is a good game. Approaching video games like interactive movies betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of what video games are about. It's seeing video games as a sort of quirky modification of the medium of film, rather than as a unique medium all its own.

At the same time: Should video game designers put more effort into plots? Almost certainly. The gameplay has to come first, of course, but there's an entirely undeveloped vector, albeit a secondary one, that designers are ignoring now. Video games, I feel, can't be truly an artform unless there's a serious effort to explore everything they're capable of, and that includes plot.

Moreover, it feels like plot is the best way to draw outsiders into video games. Non-video gamers are, by their nature, accustomed to non-interactive media, in which the plot is the primary draw. When you see reports in other media about the rise of video games as a medium, you don't see talk of developments in gameplay and interaction; you see talk of increasingly sophisticated and mature (both in the sense of actual maturity and in the sense of violence/language/sex) plots.

So. Um. I take plot too seriously, because plots as they exist now tend to suck. But this is a problem, and game designers should pay more attention to plot. At the same time, they shouldn't do this to the detriment of the other aspects which are more primary to game quality. Thoughts?


I'm normally fairly enamored with the plots of games (at least the first time that I play them), and even made an effort to enjoy plots that were obviously there just as fluff, like Kingdom Hearts. Very few NES games had any plot worth mentioning. Nine times out of Ten, reading the manual got you the first half of the plot, beating the game got you the second.

I do enjoy most RPG plots, even though an awful lot of them (Final Fantasy anything, anything emulating Final Fantasy-ish Angstfest) annoy me at least a little.

I tend to enjoy a few very niche plot types the most. The one that immediately comes to mind is Final Fantasy Tactics, and anything in its Genre of plot, typically called "Batshit insane." I enjoy them for the same reason I watch Coyote Ugly and laugh. It's like watching a car wreck--you can't look away, and you get overloaded on a lot of levels, so your senses don't seem to be functioning correctly. What is causing this? Why, the insanity of the Japanese and their translators!

But the "Episode 1" title made me think of the prime example that annoys me when I think of Video Game plots: Xenosaga, episode 1.

Oh, man. Interactive Movie is being quite liberal with that adjective. 45 minute cutscenes! 45! 45 minutes where you sit and look at Barbie dolls doing boring things in outer space! Yeesh. I didn't despise the game outright, simply because I -WANTED- to like it very badly. I wish this hadn't been the case, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder set in firmly a few weeks after finishing the game, and the ennui is still lingering.

Now I'm angry about remembering Xenosaga. But at least Zach is happy that his post-coaxing finally paid off.

Speaking of nonsensical trainwrecks, have you seen the opening to Katamari Damacy? Oh man.

I can't believe I bought Xenosaga twice. I bought it full-priced new, then it got scratched up to the point of unplayability (without my having actually played much of it) and bought a replacement copy for $20.

I seem to recall somebody urging me to, saying it was a good game. J'accuse, Monsieur Alex!

Well, I really really did WANT to like it. And aside from during those scenes, while I was playing the game, I really did like it, if only by forcing myself to. The recommendation was made with no malice intended, but the hilarity that ensued was still worth it.

And, no, I still haven't been exposed to Katamari Damashi yet, I keep meaning to. Ah well, the complete dearth of decent video games lately is disheartening. I don't want to buy a DS for Advance Wars, which is about the only tempting console game I've seen in a while.

Ah, well, back to my corner to cry and dream of happier days with a new Zelda and FF12.

You used "at the same time" as a segue three times in this entry: twice at the beginning of paragraphs and once in the middle of a paragraph.

Since I will passionately embrace any puzzle game or two-dimensional platformer whether it has a plot or no, and reject any other game out of hand with an equal disregard for all things peripheral to gameplay, that's about as close as I can come to constructively commenting on this entry.

Well, I do have things to say about this, but I'd like to start off by congradulating Dianna, who I think is more deserving of the Zach title than he, himself. See, in our house, when someone takes the effort to correct somebody on something he or she said (pronunciation, incorrect meaning, wrong facts, using a word too much), we call it "Zaching". Guess who loves to do that? Anyhow, we've discovered that nothing feels more like accomplishment than Zaching Zach. So, for that, I salute you. More on topic, I always pay attention to the plot, but generally what makes me decide to play, or not to play, a game is the battle system (cause they're all RPGs). This is the reason that I stopped playing Xenosaga after about 25 seconds. It's always fun to have a nice, involved plot, but I don't usually get annoyed with a game over its plot. Also, as a side note, hooray for Disgaea 2! There's a series with a fun plot.

I thought the 'at the same time' comment was directed at me at first--frankly, I'm VERY apt to repeat phrases I like to use. But even before I used ctrl-F to check who, exactly, made the error, I suspected it was Zach, not me.

We both have had the same weakness for re-using certain clever-sounding key phrases over and over in our "trying-to-sound-intelligent" rants.

Also, Hi, Kelsey. Haven't talked to you in a long while, but you're obviously doing quite well. =)

^_^ Hey Alex.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on September 30, 2005 10:41 PM.

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