Maybe nobody cares about this except me, but I see all these game critics wittering on about games not being able to do linear narratives well, and saying they should just stop trying, because great mechanics are what make games great, etc.
Here is my question to those people: if it’s only great mechanics that make games great, why is it that anyone at all likes the first No More Heroes - or any of Suda 51’s games, for that matter? Why are his games fun? Objectively, the gameplay mechanics and systems of No More Heroes range from above average to horrendous. Killer 7, taken solely on the quality of its mechanics, is a 3 or 4/10 at best, but many people call it a masterpiece. Why?
This is probably a more subjective account, but I’ve beaten Alpha Protocol twice and loved it both times, and that game is objectively terrible. I mean, even after a few patches, the mouse still doesn’t click what I want it to click in the menus, and sometimes fails to work entirely. The game messes up menus. If you use anything but the pistol, you’re screwed, cover does not always actually cover your character’s body in the way it’s supposed to, a nonlethal playthrough is actually easier than a lethal one… The game has a laundry list of issues. So why did I play it twice? I’ve never done that with any other RPG, nor with most games. If solid mechanics are all that’s important, why have I played Alpha Protocol twice and other, better games only once?
Because those games don’t have snarky badass photojournalist Scarlet Lake, or douchebro rival Shaun Darcy, or the gloriously insane Steven Heck, or the mysterious Albatross, or sweet, faithful hacker badass Mina Tang. Those games don’t let me reply to emails the characters send me in exactly the same way I make dialogue choices in conversations. Those games don’t generally give me the option, however illusory, of a nonlethal playthrough. The narrative is more or less linear, but it genuinely reacts to my choices. It makes me choose the lesser of two evils and live with my decision. It’s the story, the dialogue, the characters, and the choices which make Alpha Protocol one of my favorite games of all time. If games aren’t able to make the player care, why was I genuinely upset and disturbed and hurt when I found out a certain character had betrayed me? Why, in Dragon Quest V, did I grind for twenty hours solely to forestall the potential grim fate of my childhood sweetheart for as long as possible? Did the mechanics engender that feeling in me, or was it the expertly crafted - and utterly linear - narrative? Where is the line drawn?
And a lot of these same people said Uncharted 3 and Portal 2 were some of the best games of the year! And they are, don’t get me wrong, but they are absolutely linear, strict, focused experiences. They have solid mechanics, to be sure, but nobody would love either of those games half as much if you took out all the narrative bits. Can you imagine the original Portal without GlaDOS? It’d be an interesting but ultimately forgettable puzzle game. The Companion Cube would just be a cube with some weird heart on it or something.
Why are these people so quick to condemn linear narrative? Because it doesn’t “embrace the potential of video games” or “allow the player to tell his or her own story”? Yes, those are great things, but why does every game have to be sandbox-y and revolutionary and blah? Isn’t the potential of gaming limitless? No, cutscenes and QTEs don’t take advantage of the strengths of the medium. So? The problem with cutscenes and QTEs, in my view, is that most of them are awful. Just like most game narratives. They interrupt the flow of the game, sure, but that’s only a real problem if you’re a frustrated film director like Hideo Kojima. Who’s a bit of a hero of mine, for all his eccentricities, but he does like his long, hilariously nonsensical cutscenes.
What aggravates me about this whole argument is the elitism of it. Just as with PC gamers who snidely dismiss consoles as “toys” and old RPG fans who argue that Mass Effect isn’t an RPG because you can aim a gun at something and actually hit it, the idea that games “must” do something to be “fine examples of ludonarrative” is really just another way of saying “I don’t like this kind of game, so it needs to go away and be replaced with only the sorts of games I like.” And the reason they don’t just say that is because that argument is the argument of an entitled whiner.
And, look, I’m not saying cutscenes and QTEs are some sort of universal good, because they’re not. As I said, the vast majority of them are execrable. I like it when games tell a story through the exploration of a space or the interaction of systems. Dwarf Fortress is one of my favorite games. I’m into all the stuff these people are into. I’m just not deluded enough to think that’s all games can do.
Games just might be suited to certain types of storytelling more than others, but they’re an art form.
And art can do anything.