I love story-based video games. That needs to be said. I am not the one for online Call of Duty shootouts, but I am always interested in story campaigns, however corny or outright bad they are. My favorite games (excluding Super Mario titles) are mostly story-based. But at the beginning of 2023, I catch myself thinking more and more about how some games need to shut up and just let me play.
Let me explain. While I do appreciate a good story, not every game needs one. Mario games are one example — even though, at best, they manage to tell a banal semi-cohesive epic about a kidnapped princess/creatures/sibling, they remain one of the best examples of what this industry has to offer. Not every game can be The Last of Us or Red Dead Redemption 2, and that’s okay.
And yet, among most developers, there’s this feeling that they have to give us something, some padding to justify us spending 10-20 hours with their creation. Some substance. Some meaning. Call it whatever you like. I call it unnecessary.
The latest example for me is a game called Marvel’s Midnight Suns. A surprisingly well-received title turned out to be a decent mix of Marvel heroics and X-COM-esque gameplay. It’s still not nearly as good or memorable in my eyes, but that’s beside the point. The main thing is that capable and experienced developers managed to create an interesting tactical card-based game with tense battles and flashy visuals. Now, I was excited about it, as a fan of all things tactical, but in the end, I dropped it after a few hours. Not because it was bad but because the artificial padding was so thick that I couldn’t justify devoting my evenings to it.
The game tells a story about an ancient warrior woken from his/hers slumber by a team of eclectic mutants and superheroes. Ahead of her is yet another quest to stop an all-powerful fiend (aka their mother) from destroying the world. Now, I am not a snob who proclaims his love for true kino only — I think I watched all of Marvel’s cinematic feature films and even read a few comic books. I am down for some heroic action, but let’s face it: the plot of Marvel’s Midnight Suns is an atrocious new attempt at telling the same story for the hundredth time.
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There are comic books with fantastic plots (V for Vendetta and Watchmen are my favorites), but we are mostly faced with another villain of the week and the exact same resolution. I don’t care. I am here to play a game, and yet, Midnight Suns didn’t let me. After an enticing tutorial, it stopped me again and again to tell a story about characters I didn’t care about. It didn’t let me progress until I had a “bonding session” with one of the heroes. And after that, I had to talk with my late sibling’s ghost. And after that…
The issue is not that Midnight Suns had a bad story. It worked. And the dialogues were actually pretty witty. I just didn’t care. I wanted to play a game, not watch a subpar animated movie with awful graphics.
If that sounds like a “me” problem, it totally is. As far as I know, millions of people liked Marvel’s Midnight Suns in its entirety, and I am happy for them. But the issue is more endemic for people like me, who either have no time or patience for thirty minutes of exposition before every fight.
Take another example. Nintendo just released its first big entry of 2023 — a game called Fire Emblem Engage. It’s a good-looking game in the long-standing series of tactical RPGs. I was pretty excited to play, but this time, I felt spent after only 30 minutes of introduction. Why? Typical of Japanese games of that nature, it threw tons of exposition my way, complete with clichéd tropes like the main hero having amnesia and being an all-powerful creature from the past. This is literally the same plot as Marvel’s Midnight Suns, by the way. As well The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Yeesh, talk about a narrative-driven medium.
Did I care? I did not. That game is fun to play, but when I imagined just how many dialog options I would have to skip, that was it for my interest. Why can’t more games be like Into The Breach? You have one window with an exposition, and then that’s it, non-stop action. I guess that’s an example of when having a limited budget is a plus.
In my mind, if you have nothing to tell, don’t do it. Make a game fun, and that’s enough for most of us.