"Saving the world" is just lazy storytelling, argues Brendan.
By Brendan Keogh on May 28, 2013 at 10:08 am
You know what I love? Games where I don’t have to save the world. Or the universe. Or the country. I love games where the stakes are something more personal and mundane. Games that have a story that just has me deal with one person’s problems as they go about their life. Rather than being uneventful or boring, it is these stories that I feel most emotionally attached to.
The vast majority of mainstream games are about saving a large, indefinite number of people from some fundamental, massive evil. Either I have to save the planet from some evil intergalactic force, or I have to save America from evil communists, or I have to save the entire universe from some god-like evil being. Sometimes this is a direct story event—a timer is counting down until the nuclear missiles are launched. Often, it is more indirect — let the bad guy get away with this stolen technology and it will mean a new world order!
Undeniably, there are plenty of great games in this save-the-world archetype. But it’s just so… easy. Want to make your audience care about a story? Tell them everybody is going to die. It’s the lazy way out.
The problem with it, for me, is it often becomes abstract. Individual characters and their personal stories are overshadowed by large, abstract, depersonalised objects like ‘Earth’ or ‘The Universe’ or ‘America’. The stakes aren’t bigger, they are just more abstract. You can only care about the planet blowing up so much.
Instead, I love those games that focus on the personal stories. The stories that most of the world won’t even notice, but which might mean life-or-death for the individuals at the center of it. Even though the stakes in these games might be more mundane, the face they are more personal helps me to be more emotionally evolved in the story.
It’s something that has always attracted me to Rockstar’s games. I love how Grand Theft Auto IV is just about this one guy in a massive city that couldn’t care less about him or his woes. Nothing Niko Bellic does, no matter how absurd or bombastic, ever puts the entire city at risk, never drastically effects Liberty City. Life in the city just keeps going, with or without him.
Even as Max Payne 3 progresses and secret conspiracies are revealed, the story and who it effects is still contained to a knowable region and group of people. With Max, I go through all the ridiculous, over-the-top action I might with any other videogame character, but instead of saving the entire world, I’m just trying to save a few people and kill a few others.
I was not a big fan of LA Noire’s gameplay. But even still, I became engaged enough with the story to see it through to the end, simply because it was so contained. There were characters I could attach to and empathise with. I was able to tolerate the gameplay that wasn’t really for me because there was something personal for me to become emotionally attached to in the story. I wasn’t just going through the motions to save the world like I do in so many games. I was doing something that was meaningful for a few people.
And that’s why I love not saving the world. Each of these games have a story with knowable, human characters with knowable, human problems. I find it much easier to connect with and empathise with one person than I do with ‘the entire world’. Raising the stakes to a save-the-world level can create amazing set pieces for a game, to be sure, but it can also lose those characters that allow us to connect with a story in the first place. Sometimes it is just so refreshing to just be driving around a town solving a murder. It’s more mundane, but it is also more personal.