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Does Story Matter in Games?

On April 19th, Christofer Sundberg surprised the Twitter gaming community when the Just Cause developer and founder of Avalanche Studios posted, "Why should a game have an end? Why bother about story when all data proves that players don't care?"

He elaborated in a separate Twitter post: “6-12hrs [story driven] AAA games makes no sense commercially any more. There are exceptions like Last of Us of course. Stories can have an end earlier, but the game needs to live longer (like in +40-50hrs) to make sense commercially.”

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Are players becoming bored of stories in games? Is there a need to add content beyond that of the main story/campaign? This seems to be Mr. Sundberg’s view on the subject. He even backed up his statements with, “18% of all [Just Cause 2] players, played through the main missions/story.”

While that seems like some pretty legitimate data to back his own theories, it seems like he chose the wrong game to back his statements. Sandbox games are very much an “anything goes” type of genre, and most games in that genre tend to give the player more options. There are some exceptions, though. I personally found Grand Theft Auto IV’s story more compelling than any of the other gameplay features.

It’s also worth noting that the plot in Just Cause 2 wasn’t exactly great, so Sundberg’s statistic doesn’t hold up too well. Here’s an excerpt from GameSpot's review of the game: “The story is all silly fluff, standing out more for its so-excruciating-it's-almost-good voice acting and broad ethnic caricatures than for any intricate plot developments. (Don't bother looking: There aren't any.)”

Maybe if Sundberg would have spent more time on weaving a solid story together, players would have completed the main missions. Despite that, JC2 was still a solid game, which poses the question of whether a developer should even bother with the main campaign, if that’s not the focus of the game.

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The Call of Duty series isn’t successful for their short and lackluster single player campaigns, so why bother including them at all? Most CoD players spend most of their time gaining ranks on in the online multiplayer world. However, the single player campaign isn’t something that most developers completely want overshadowed.

In most cases, the campaign in these types of games, more or less, act as a tutorial into the vast worlds that await the player. They introduce the player to the many options they can choose from. For example, Fallout 3 introduces you to the basics through the relationship that your character has with their father as they live inside of Vault 101, safe from the nuclear fallout. Through this setting and character relationship, the protagonist and the player both get a taste of what to expect as they grow and gain new attributes. By masterfully weaving backstory, character development, plot hooks, and gameplay introductions, the developers prepare the player for the inevitable future to come. Once the first climax is reached in the game, the character is forced out in the dangerous wasteland. From that point, the player is given the option to continue on his/her main quest or, instead, discover the other mysteries that lie hidden in the wasteland. Either way, the story still plays an important role in introducing the players to this world, even if they choose not to follow through with the rest of the main plot.

So, is story important to video games? Veterans of the Call of Duty franchise, who chose to trade in last year’s edition for the newest edition of Call of Duty: Modern Ops: Black Ghost War III: Zombie Edition 5 ½ may disagree, opting to purchase this year’s version only to play the added online features. However, for newcomers, the single player campaign may be the way to become acquainted with the game. Even if they only choose to play the first few missions, it’s still a way to become familiar with game, without the harsh learning curve that comes with the brutally competitive online play. Personally, without the help of the main story in Batman: Arkham City, where the player learns how to perform the combat mechanics and use the necessary gadgets, I would have never been able to complete any of the Riddler's Revenge challenges that come as a supplement to the campaign.

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Now, what about games that strictly focus on the plot alone? As Sundberg stated, the The Last of Us, would not be able to find success without the strong story and character development that ties the entire game together. I don't believe that the point Sundberg is trying to make is that these games are becoming a thing of the past. Games that focus on story alone are still well received and evolving into something more than just the average gaming experience.

Heavy Rain is one example of how the story in games is changing. The plot, which is the main focus of the gamer’s experience, is shaped around the choices that the player makes in the game. In fact, Heavy Rain plays more like an interactive cinematic experience than a typical gaming campaign. The sale numbers prove that this was a strong selling point for the game.

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Telltale’s The Walking Dead series is a recent example of how pulling the focus on plot and character development can make a thrilling experience for players who are looking something other than a playground of gameplay options. This episodic series received high acclaim, even garnering several “Game of the Year” awards in 2012.

So, was Sundberg over exaggerating with his comments? They may have just been taken a bit out of context, but it is still important to note that, even in the largest open-world games, story is still an important element that ties everything together. We won’t be seeing a decline in story-driven games anytime soon.