Joe brings up an interesting point, but I see story and action as complementary pieces. Some narratives are passive and intimate while others are bombastic, needing plenty of action to work. What matters is achieving a deep connection with the player.
Telltale Games have become one of my favorite and most respected developers literally overnight. Recently, against my own better judgement, I gripped my controller with mixed anticipation and anxiety late into the night when I knew I would have to walk out my front door for work in the morning. Yet, even with the threat of extreme tiredness almost guaranteed, I had to finish the final episode of Telltale’s award-winning Walking Dead series. Having joined the “walker” bandwagon late with the television series, I was reluctant to believe any meaningful story could come from a series centered on zombies. Little did I know how emotionally engrossing the universe based on Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels would be.
After obsessively watching the television series from the pilot all the way up to the third season in a little more than a week (yes, seriously), I realized that if a developer could create an experience as heart-wrenching as the TV series, then it would be something truly special.
What sets Lee and Clementine’s story apart from literally everything else I have ever played is not just the superbly written characters but also the emotional impact that comes from every player choice. These decisions don’t just feel superficial, they present real conundrums. For me, the choice mechanic was far more refined than similar systems featured in games like BioWare’s Mass Effect series. The key to The Walking Dead’s choices is the complete absence of a moral code. Ultimately, you only answer to your conscience after making your decisions.
Perhaps I have grown tired of the bloated role-playing titles and rehashed military shooters that have released in a period where the current console generation is on the verge of retirement. Maybe my feelings might simply be a case of cynicism from growing older. One thing I am sure of, though, is that I have begun to value strong narrative above everything else as a means of holding onto my attention. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is probably the best example I can use to explain my convoluted views more coherently. Treyarch’s latest iteration of the COD franchise is, by all means, a magnificent first-person shooter. Yet, it is the first one since I started playing the series that I have simply lost all desire to play.
This isn’t because the game is bad (it’s easily as good, if not better, than previous entries), but upon reaching the halfway mark of the single-player campaign, I realized that I was just playing without any motivation. The arsenal of guns felt punchy, the locales were exotic, and I had the mindset of a soldier. Yet, despite all of this, I still felt completely disconnected from the game’s world. The Call of Duty series isn’t renowned for its resonating narrative, and regardless of how action packed everything around me was, I just couldn’t find entertainment in killing large swathes of grunts with little more justification than “they work for the bad guy who wants to make the world burn.”
Mass Effect and Eidos Montreal’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution are superbly crafted games, but even such widely praised titles felt artificial in their climaxes with awkwardly presented, arbitrary choices. Above all, I think what makes Telltale’s efforts so unique and entertaining is the nature of the story that they are telling. The characters’ struggle for survival is emotionally familiar, and that creates brilliant entertainment value. Just like in Kirkman’s novels, the zombies are simply a means to an end in telling a story of how extreme situations can fundamentally change a person’s nature. The characters are struggling in a fictional world with very real, human problems.
Undoubtedly, everyone has different tastes, and I would never expect or want everyone to share this view. As I have conveyed in this article, I am by no means trying to detract from titles that prioritize action over narrative. Above all, the games industry is desperate to prove it is capable of telling mature stories, but I think it has already achieved this lofty goal. The question that remains on my lips is: Can a game truly have both an enthralling narrative combined with an equally stunning amount of spectacle?