I have been a gamer for what amounts to be a pretty long time; not as long as some, obviously, but it frightens me to know how many years I have on a lot of people out there. Growing older means responsibilities, it means 40 (or 50 or 60) hour work weeks, it means raising a new generation of gamers, it means a loving wife, it means family, it means weekday and weekend activities, it means so much...more. More of everything. And that's a good thing. No one wants to be stuck in a rut for their whole life. But it also means less time for the hobbies we enjoy.
I love games. I always have. I always will. I just have to be a bit more selective in my choices now, since my time for gaming as dwindled significantly in the past five or so years. Raising two daughters with my wife is a full time job on top of the full time job I already have. I make time a few nights a week after the girls are in bed, and on the weekend evenings. I even have nap time to myself some days (though that will be ending soon, I fear). So I take time where I can, when I don't have things to clean or projects to do (or sometimes when I do).
I love multi-player games. I have amazing memories of recruiting three friends to journey to my house for hours of Goldeneye, Super Smash Brothers, NBA Jam, the variation of WCW game that was out, or whatever new game we wanted to try before going back to our favorites. In college, we smashed eight football players into one dorm room so we could hook up two Xboxes and play the original Halo between practices. I have invested hours and hours into the iterations of Bungie's masterpiece, done my share of Call of Duty, and most recently tried my hand at dominating in the Cruicible for Destiny. It's enjoyable and I've always had that competition bug in me. We live in an amazing age where you can relieve that competitive urge out through the internet with the press of a few buttons. That being said, whereas before I had time to hone my craft and learn the nuances of each multiplayer game and arena like a detective scouring a crime scene, I simply do not have the amount necessary to become truly great. I used to. I still contend that my best friend and I could have ranked in the top 20 in the world in Goldeneye, though maybe that's nostalgia taking over. So now I play for fun when I do play against others.
I've always enjoyed campaigns and single player stories, but now I find myself gravitating to the solo side much more than multiplayer. We live in an amazing time for storytelling in video games; with the machines we have access to now, the possibilities for amazing experiences and adventures are absolutely endless. I'm not the only one, either. Look at some of the amazing series we've had that are praised for their story as much as their gameplay: the Bioshock series, The Last of Us, the Mass Effect series, the Dragon Age series, any offline Final Fantasy game, the newest Tomb Raider, the Metal Gear Solid series, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, The Walking Dead (any Telltale game, really), the list goes on and on and on and on.
There was a time where a lot of games, though certainly not all, had a frame story that was the excuse for gameplay. Donkey Kong Country: your bananas got stolen! Go fight some lizards and have a blast. Mega Man: threat to humanity! Go annihilate a bunch of robots and enjoy the hell out of it. And while they may still be the case, the individual games where the story is slim to nil are always seen as a huge detriment. Look at Destiny - the mechanics of the game are superb. You hardly ever hear anyone complaining about the quality of the gameplay. But the story? Who doesn't complain about that (its other flaws notwithstanding)? A great story is becoming so commonplace, a subpar narrative or the absence of one is almost universally damning to a single player game. There are a few exceptions when the pros are so outstanding and numerous, or the core mechanics work without a story (see: Destiny), but more often than not, if you're not invested, you don't care. We now expect to be part of a story that we influence and make our own. It's exceptional because you are the story. It's your actions. Your decisions. Your choices that matter. And it's convincing. Get some good voice acting, great writing, art direction, pacing, and you have a truly memorable experience. A damn near artful interaction with a world that exists completely in a digitized state.
So how can it go so wrong in some games so perfect in others? It's never been a "new" innovation: story has always been important, but now it's more important than ever, especially for parents with spouses. I want to be on the edge of my seat to know what's going to happen to my character the next time I boot up. Some weeks I may only get a few hours to play, and with that little game time, I want to invest my time wisely. Honestly, if I'm not interested, I don't play. Gone are the days of slogging through a game on the weekend just to see it through. Some developers get that. Others do not, and refuse to learn.
I played through some of Resident Evil 6, purchasing only after the price dropped. I played through Leon and Chris's chapters, though I'm not sure why. I guess nostalgia had a lot to do with it, because I had invested time with both of those gentlemen in previous games. Was it fun? Kinda, I guess. Leon's scenario was alright, but Chris' was not that fun, and once I started playing...Jack's (?) scenario, I really realized I did not care one bit about how the game ended or why anything was going on. The mechanics were nothing special. The setting was similar to the last few (though Leon's was admittedly a bit more spooky than the previous game had been). Nothing made me excited me to play it. It was the opposite of what made Resident Evil 4 special: innovative and precise gameplay with interesting characters you legitimately cared about. Turned Resident Evil 6 off and never turned it back on. There were better games to spend my time on.
How about my favorite game of all time, Chrono Trigger? To me, it's a perfect game. Great gameplay (I'm a sucker for a good turned-based RPG), beautiful SNES era sprites and art, phenomenal music, and an amazing story. I'm not saying anything groundbreaking here, of course; almost everyone acknowledges that Chrono Trigger is a beloved and amazing game. There's a reason this is an almost universal claim. In an age of cart based games with 16-bit graphics, Square managed to create one of the greatest stories in an RPG to date. That's no small feat when you consider the amount of visual stimulation that can be put into a modern game.
It's like a movie: you see the characters, hear their voices, get a sense of their personality, and find one that you can identify with. We are to that point with videogames; even if you don't identify with some part of the main character, chances are there is someone in the game you do see a part of yourself in. Or maybe you just really enjoy the character. Whatever it is, with so many different aspects to each character and story arc, it's much easier to feel a compassion for the character(s). A game like Dragon Age: Inquisition has loads of voice acting, conversation, choices, emotion, character depth, detailed graphics - basically everything a movie has, just in digitized form, and you control the outcome. That makes it much easier to identify with, and you create the Inquisitor as you see fit, which is an easy way for the player to immediately care for the character.
Most recently, my favorite single player game has been The Last of Us. Incredible game. Fantastic graphics; wonderful, heart breaking story; top notch voice acting; lifelike graphics. I loved every minute of it, though this one is a little easier to peg as to why for me. I could easily identify with Joel because I have two daughters, and those of you who have yet to have kids won't truly understand until you have them yourselves, but the thought of losing them is absolutely excruciating. So when I went through the opening scene, playing as Sarah, I knew it was going to be bad. Boy, was I right. And watching that scene with Joel and Sarah play out, it just crushed me, because I could easily see and feel the horror of that happening, so I immediately identified with Joel. I am not ashamed to say I may have teared up a bit. Same thing with Ellie; you could see the way the game was going with their relationship, and I felt the same way Joel did. At the end of the game, if it would have given me a choice whether or not to go through with what Joel did, you bet your ass I would have killed every son of a bitch in that building.
Being able to identify, majorly, with a main character enhanced my personal experience with the game that much more because not only do you see yourself in the character, but you control them as well. You're living out a fantasy, another reality, while still seeing pieces of yourself doing it. That's powerful.
A game like Chrono Trigger? An inch sized protagonist who never speaks and has a handful of animations. Every other character has a text box and the same amount of animations, and yet it is easily my favorite game of all time. Easily. It's not even that close, though a few more recent games have crept up a little closer.
Is it nostalgia that does it? Being the best of it's time? What makes it so great when others seemed to falter? Growing up, one of the first RPGs I seriously played was Final Fantasy III on the SNES (which, as we all know, is really VI). I had played through II/IV, but was still a little young to grasp the true meanings behind the game; I just liked fighting and leveling up. Right now I'm playing through FFVI again on my Playstation Vita and it's fun, but...it's not what I really remember. It's enjoyable, but it doesn't give me that deep sense of joy that other games do or did. And it doesn't hold a candle to Chrono Trigger which I play through at least once a year.
It truly is a sum of its parts. Writing, art direction, music (oh the music), combat mechanics, humor, drama, all of it. Personally, I cannot find a single fault with the game (except for Chrono Cross, natch). I have nothing really to relate personally to the story; I am not a squire-turned-frog, a princess, a robotics genius, a robot, a warlock, or a tribe leader. Perhaps the answer lies with Chrono. He doesn't speak, so you have to imagine the words he speaks. He's an outsider wherever he goes, and who hasn't felt like that? He makes unusual friends - sounds normal, right? And though they may be vastly different, they are together. A group. A family. Who doesn't see themselves in that, whether or not they have it already or just want to have it? Square managed to put together a story for the ages, a time traveling journey with characters you truly care about to save the universe. It's exceedingly cliche, but it's done so well that the cliche doesn't seem important. It's about the people you're doing it with, the diverse background of this eclectic group that have come together from across time to prevent the apocalypse. In short, incredible.
Story is important. Maybe the most important thing. Every major medium hinges on a great story, or at the very least, incredible characters. If a TV show doesn't have an engaging narrative, what's the point? If a movie is dull, do you feel better for forcing through to the end? If a novel's plot is too convoluted or the writing is bad, is it enjoyable to put hours and hours into it?
No. Story is everything. Why should gaming be different?