When was the last time you played a video game for the story it offered?
It’s a legitimate question. How many people bought Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare because of the interstellar story about the rebellion of a colonized Mars, and not because it came with the series’ latest iteration of multiplayer or because some copies came with a remastered edition of the critically acclaimed Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare? How many people bought Destiny 2 because they really wanted to know what was in store for the Traveler and the remnants of humanity, and not because they enjoyed the gameplay of the original Destiny? How many people bought Overwatch for its story about the rebellion and consequential oppression of sentient artificial intelligences, and not for the fast-paced multiplayer?
I can answer that last question easily, even without much research. None. Overwatch doesn’t have a campaign mode. The only part of the game resembling a campaign mode was a seasonal game mode that ran for a few months before being removed from the game almost entirely, with only character skins remaining to remind us of its existence. And yet that hasn’t stopped over 30 million people from buying the game, with the vast majority still enjoying it, given the almost universally positive reviews that the game has received from both critics and fans alike. More and more, campaigns and the worlds that games are built around seem to be falling to the wayside in favor of solely-multiplayer experiences. The continued success of games such as Minecraft, League of Legends, and Overwatch just proves one thing:
Games don’t need campaigns to be fun. And that’s a bit of a shame in all honesty. A good campaign can create artists. The worlds that games can breathe life into can convince people that the world that they’ve thought up in their own mind can actually come to fruition. I’ve been inspired by great video game campaigns throughout my entire career as a writer, games like Half-Life 2 or Halo: Combat Evolved were monumental in turning me into the writer I am today. So for me to see a large number of major companies in the video game industry, like Valve or Blizzard, turn away from crafting such inspirational works of fiction in favor of multiplayer only content has been rather heartbreaking to me, personally.
But, to be fair, did they ever need to have them? The earliest of video games, like Pong or Tank, obviously didn’t have campaign modes. The mere spectacle of being able to control the movement of pixels on a screen sold those games in the 70s. The 80s saw the explosive success of arcades, and the machines like Pac-Man, Asteroids, or Donkey Kong that populated said arcades didn’t need campaign modes to be fun. They were the digital equivalent of board games like Clue or Monopoly: games that were meant to simply be fun time-wasters at best, or shameless attempts to take as many quarters from children as possible at worst.
And none of this is an issue. It’s okay to pick up a random game just to have fun. Those games were all sold on the idea of being able to be picked-up and put down at any moment. Nobody expects to pick up Pong or Pac-Man and get a novel’s worth of backstory to either (though Namco has attempted to do so with Pac-Man). You pick these games up, and if you have some fun, then you’ve spent your money well. But what about when a game that’s meant to focus on the story, chooses not to focus on it’s story? Well, that’s less okay. RPGs, for the most part, sell themselves on the worlds that their developers have hand-crafted for them. Ideally, you should pick up an RPG because the world that you want to join is interesting. So imagine being sold a diverse world, only to figure out that the world itself is as deep as a puddle. It’s the equivalent of being sold a horror movie and getting a philosophical arthouse film instead.
Here’s a test for all of you who played The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: how many times did you complete the main quest? How many characters have you given realistic, deep backgrounds that fit somewhat into the lore of The Elder Scrolls series? How many of you, like me, heard the Greybeards yell your name, and immediately sprinted the other direction, onto a quest I really wanted to do? If you are like me, then you’ve never completed Skyrim’s main quest. Six years into the game’s lifespan, I can’t seem to find the willpower to finish it.
I could offer the same test to those of you who have played Bethesda’s other RPG powerhouse. How many of you finished Fallout 4’s main quest with any faction? But the better question would be how many of you genuinely cared about the main quest in either of these games?
For those who don’t know (a low number by now, I’m sure), Skyrim’s main quest involves your character being the latest chosen one who is the only one in the entire world who can actually kill dragons. Your quest, therefore, is to kill all the dragons (or, at least, all the mean dragons) and free the world from their tyranny (a tyranny that seems to only follow you and you alone). You go about this by traveling from one edge of the country to the other, dealing with the civil war that has engulfed the land and the boring peace talks and diplomacy that goes with it. However, you spend so little time with the leaders of both faction that you can’t even bring yourself to care about the success of either, especially considering one is full of racists who want to take the country back and (insert joke here). Right before the finale of the quest, you are forced to sit through a 12-minute, unskippable series of peace talks about which faction is given the rights to which town (towns that you are in no way required to visit by the way). In that moment, your autonomy as a gamer is taken away, and that one moment is, without a doubt, the main reason why nobody finishes the main quest for Skyrim. It’s like being given a political science lecture from two different professors that have the personality of stale biscuits. At that point, Skyrim ceases to be a video game and becomes a video: something you watch.
Fallout 4’s main quest involves the kidnapping of your kid in a post-nuclear war world. Your goal as parent of the post-apocalypse is to find your son. In order to do so you must explore and join a faction, which forces you to complete whatever quest the faction offers, which can lead to other quests and more exploration. You could spend a literal in-game decade just ignoring the quest to find your son, and many do.
And that’s the weird dichotomy: people enjoy Fallout 4 and Skyrim. I enjoy both of them. They both play extremely well and are fun, but nobody cares about the campaign that is their foundation. I think it’s fair to say that nobody, at least nowadays, buys either of these games for their campaigns; they buy them because they saw funny mod videos on YouTube and said: “wow, that looks like fun.” And, to some extent, even people who bought these games on launch knew that the best part of both of these games would inevitably be the mods that would radically alter the experience. Very few people bought these games with the intent to become immersed within the world presented to them.
And for an RPG, a genre of videogames focused solely on the player role playing as a character within a world, that’s a shame. For an accurate comparison, think of an action movie like Die Hard. Imagine if everyone in the world who liked Die Hard, liked it solely for its soundtrack. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t feel right. Die Hard is supposed to be a hardcore, gritty action movie filled with explosions and bullets… but the soundtrack is the main draw? It doesn’t make sense, right? But that’s the state of two of the biggest RPGs of the past decade. People don’t come for the story you can build with a character, but the world that can be built around said character.
But as recently as 2015, the same year that Fallout 4 was released, this wasn’t the case.
Life is Strange, a slightly pandering but overall interesting game, sold millions of copies with only its story to offer. Essentially a point-and-click adventure with little-to-no actual gameplay to speak of, the game sold itself on its characters and its choice of topic: the complexities of growing up, and the exploration of sexuality that comes along with it. The story spoke loudly enough to make millions of people buy it, and that is no small feat, even for a game that came after the runaway success of Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 1, a very similar game set in the universe of AMC’s ultra-successful show.
The list of games that sold themselves on story alone in 2015 would be incomplete without mentioning the juggernaut that was, and still is, Toby Fox’s Undertale. The small kickstarted game was made almost entirely by a single man with themes about fandom and obsession (and irony, apparently), depression, loss, recursion, hope, determination, metafiction, and more, all while playing fantastically by blending RPG, puzzle, and “bullet-hell” elements. Undertale is and will forever be a masterpiece when it comes to both writing in gaming and gaming in general. To borrow from Hbomberguy in his video on Undertale, “Perverted Sentimentality: An Analysis of UNDERTALE,” the writing in the game is even deep enough to comment on the obsession that the player will likely have with it, criticizing the player for starting a new game after they have reached a “happy” ending, thus forcing the entire cast to return to the lives they had wanted to escape from… just so that the player can go through it all once more. It’s a deep, heart-wrenching thing to force the player to think about the consequences of their actions and whether or not their love for a game is healthy. This is the kind of philosophical thinking that a well-crafted campaign can form, bringing up themes that wouldn’t be unfamiliar in a classic work of literature.
But, so what? What does any of this mean? Does this mean I want a story mode in everything? Well, no. I don’t. Telltale’s Minecraft Story Mode is an obvious cash-grab that fails to understand anything that one’s individual level of creativity is what makes the original Minecraft an enjoyable experience. Overwatch doesn’t need a campaign because a full-dedicated campaign wouldn’t mesh well with the fast-paced hero shooter who has been balanced specifically for multiplayer. Games that don’t need campaigns shouldn’t force them in for the sole purpose of pleasing people.
But games that already have campaigns should try their damnedest to make them worth the investment. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare will always be remembered fondly for both its revolutionizing of online multiplayer, and its deep, story-rich campaign. Its now-iconic scene of an entire American platoon, including the playable character, dying in the fallout of a nuclear weapon and literally deafening the mighty roar of the American army while displaying that their stereotypical might isn’t enough in the modern day, the penultimate scene to dissect in order to understand how to give an emotional gut punch. Halo: Combat Evolved brought first person shooters to the consoles and provided players a whole universe that had been painstakingly handcrafted by Bungie, with characters as iconic as the Master Chief and Cortana, characters that can provide understanding into what makes a character good and iconic. Mass Effect introduced players to an entire galaxy complete with several different races, each with their own evolutionary and sociopolitical histories that you learn as you continue to play, one that I willingly put over 300 hours into over three games and helping me understand how to craft a likeable universe. All three of these games could have taken the modern route of simply pasting in a boring, bland campaign mode that would satisfy but not really challenge. But they didn’t, and instead their developers focused time, energy, and effort into the campaign modes of their games. Because of this, these three games are considered masterpieces in their genres.
But now Infinity Ward is making another cut-and-paste Call of Duty game with a paint-by-numbers campaign that attempts to make you relive the nuclear bomb scene in Call of Duty 4 on a near constant basis. Bungie released Destiny 2, a game with forgettable characters whose backstories are hidden away on a website that is not in the game. And Mass Effect 3 had an ending so unlikeable, that it sparked a massive debate about the rights a game developer has to their game’s story. Mass Effect 1 & 2, The Halo franchise, Call of Duty 4, and Undertale all inspire me to be a writer. They inspire me to write science fiction, they inspire me to go into screenwriting, they inspire me to write humor and horror. Years from now, when I’m in the middle of writing something, I can guarantee I will start up these games and feel inspired to create, and that’s pretty special in my mind.
– Nick Drabant