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Videogames have been a storytelling medium since text adventure games on early computers became popular among the early gaming crowd.The plot factor started taking more and more prominence in the early and mid 80s, thanks to the advent of computer Role Playing games, like Ultima or Wasteland. The common use of excuse plots, lacking basic descriptions or motivations to motivate the events, which became a staple of gaming for a long time, came about with the Arcades and cartridge based home systems like the NES or SNES, which couldn’t contain as much information as a computer, so most of the time games wouldn’t have much of a storyline, with the notable exception of Role Playing Games.
As time went on, the genre matured along with its audience. These days, the idea of a game without a plot is unacceptable. Stories have become part of the experience as a whole, and as such they get better over time, with a few exceptions that either remained grandiose since the beginning (The Elder Scrolls, Point and Click adventure series’, Fallout, etc.) or remain bland even to this day (Metal Slug, which resorts to the old technique of not having any in-game plot; or the Mega Man franchise, which has gotten convoluted and almost unapproachable due to massive amounts of retcons, just to end with games that rehash the old nearly absent narrative), but today I want to address an issue which you’ve probably already deduced from the title, unless you’re stupid.
In media, in general, sometimes a story is told as itself, being entirely self contained and requiring no further development. However, it’s very common to see franchises that span beyond a single iteration. This normally means the progression of the plot will stretch out over multiple self contained entries within the same series’.
While there’s nothing wrong with this, since it gives the story a bigger focus and more time to develop itself, at the same time it can lead to unfortunate side effects.
It can happen that a series’ will become stagnated in a single point in its progression. The cheapest way to profit from a series’ is to make the plot move anywhere but forwards, which is becoming alarmingly common in the videogame market.
This phenomenon is by no means something originated as of recent years. Take, for example, Capcom’s Street Fighter franchise.
As most of you may know, the second iteration of the game was updated and released multiple times over the course of the 90s, due to how immensely popular it was both in the arcades and home consoles. This is not good. Having the same game be released over and over again eventually leads to the creators thinking they can spit out anything and we’ll pour money into it.
A more modern, negative example of this effect can be observed with Namco-Bandai’s Ace Combat franchise. Ace Combat is a series’ that’s spanned since the early 90s to this day in the Playstation family of consoles. It’s a Arcade style flying simulator set in the world of Strangereal, a world similar to earth with plenty of counterpart cultures to our own, but with it’s own history and mythology.
The third game in the series’, Electrosphere, was set in the future, where corpocracies had taken over the world and kept fighting their own personal battles with each other for personal profit. The game featured entirely non-linear storytelling that branched out within the missions and led to 4 different endings, all with animated cutscenes. Sadly, the American release of the game had almost the entirety of the game cut off, leaving it a plotless game with no end. However, that is not the issue I’m addressing right now.
After 3, every game in the series’ has been set within the period between 1990 and 2015 within its own world, and has dropped various hints and has lead up to the events of 3 (The most prominent examples being The Unsung War and Advance). However, ever since Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War, the plot hasn’t moved forwards in the slightest. Zero was a prequel to 5, Fires Of Liberation was almost completely unrelated, and the last two games (not counting a remake of 2), Joint Assault and Assault Horizon, have been set in the real world, completely ignoring the established canon.
Now, let me contrast this with another very long series’ with a huge fan following, which I’m quite fond of myself, Metal Gear Solid. To my experience, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of The Patriots is the best ending for a franchise as far as videogames go. Don’t go to the comments section to verbally assault me yet, allow me to elaborate.
The Metal Gear franchise is a mindbogglingly complicated plot which I will summarize some other time. To give you an idea, it’s divided into three main series’. There’s the original games on the MSX and MSX II computers back in the late 80s and 90s, the Solid series’ on the Playstation consoles, and the prequel series’ in the PS2 and PSP. All of them tie in together in 4, which makes about 10 games, not counting special editions, which, in turn, give way to a gigantically overstressed plot with a great deal of plot threads and unresolved plot holes.
Now, Guns of The Patriots is often criticized because of having approximately Nine hours of cutscenes in the entire game, the ending cutscene and epilogue alone lasting for a good 3 and a half hours. If you miss a single minute of it, you might be left behind in the whole series’.
Yet this is necessary, because having to not only tie in to a game with an ending so surreal it’s been analogized as the 2001: A Space Odyssey of videogames, without ever being in space; but also needing to have its own plot (otherwise it wouldn’t be much of a game).
And yet, it pulls the whole thing off perfectly.
See, the thing is, it gives closure to absolutely every aspect of the games that could raise questions. Everything, minor as it may be, is addressed and eventually sorted out in the course of either the game or the ending. It leaves no room for a sequel, since all but seven of the main characters (out of nearly 20 recurring characters in the games) remain alive in the end (one of them having but a few months to live) and need no more development. The series’ in its entirety reached its apex, and ended. The only other game to be released was the last of the prequel series’. There is absolutely no need for a new game in any segment of the story. It’s over. Not that it stops the developers from having a new installment on the way in the form of a spinoff title, with the creator having jumped ship a while ago.
That’s the thing, any sort of story is ultimately just the buildup to its conclusion. Not giving it proper closure is diminishing the importance of every event in the story up to that point. And as such, it might as well be left open to interpretation.
I’m not against the idea of making money off of a given series’, or if the creators want to make more installemnts or expand upon the world. Worldbuilding and Expanded universes are a good thing, if you don’t believe this, go ahead and take a look at the Star Wars franchise. A universe so rich and large that you can’t help but feel overwhelmed by it, yet every plotline has reached its end within the series’.
Another current example of a series’ overstaying its welcome comes from the Kingdom Hearths series’, which after the second game has gone nowhere, plotwise, releasing prequels, gaiden games, and a plethora of other materials, but the ongoing plot remains unresolved.
Now, sometimes this can be done right. See, for example, the ‘Final Fantasy series’, where every new game is set in a completely new world and storyline than the previous one, with a few exceptions. Here, the franchise can theoretically go anywhere, since every installment is a new story almost completely unrelated to the previous one.
Or, if you don’t like Final Fantasy, there’s Bethesda’s excellent The Elder Scrolls franchise, which have a similar structure for each new release, only it all occurs within the same universe. Yet, every game always reaches the end of its story. It leaves a few open strings, but the story in question is over.
My thesis of the week, like any other storytelling medium, videogames need to get closure in their plots, One thing is trying to flesh out the story, maybe make money on the way, but if you purposely hold back the plot to a grinding halt, it undermines the importance of the whole thing, and eventually it will cost you a sizable portion of the fanbase. And when you’re making a videogame, what’s more important, money, or the game you’ve been working on for years now?