Gather round; heed this tale of woe…
We all love a good story. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Deep Impact (only me?). At no point do the main characters go gallivanting off to help some random nobody fetch 27 bits of not-important for little or no reward. So why is there a tendency nowadays for video game storylines to be constantly interrupted by a variety of miscellaneous tasks? Obviously, video games are a totally different format for telling a story to say a movie or book, but it’s clear to me that the importance of main quests and their associated storyline is starting to fall into the background. Instead we have tedious side quests, unnecessary collectibles, and other (mostly) useless ways of filling our games with time-wasting tasks.
I first noticed a major shift when Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 first arrived on the scene. Activision seemed to realize that people were more interested in getting their teeth into the multiplayer portion of their game over the single player. So more energy was spent honing the multiplayer, meaning the single player and the linked storyline got less care and attention. I am in no way blaming Activision for anything; they did what worked for them and have crafted a franchise with a very loyal and mature (ahem) fanbase. It’s just that other companies started to think that maybe they also didn’t need to put so much time and effort into the main narrative of their games. Obviously, shooters have always trod the line between being multiplayer focused and storyline focused, but maybe developers took too much of a lead from the Call of Duty mania that was sweeping the world.
Assassin’s Breed of a new genre
Then a new type of game came along to make the problem worse. Assassin’s Creed was characterized by allowing a player to partake in a whole host of disparate tasks, and letting us just generally prat about in whatever fashion we chose – a true sandbox. It was novel and interesting at the time. Though the previous year saw Grand Theft Auto 4 released, which was also open world, there wasn’t the same feeling of absolute freedom, that in Assassin’s Creed came from flying across the rooftops and being able to explore every nook and cranny for collectibles. Sure, the main storyline wasn’t really the main focus any more, but Ezio Auditore was such a lovable rogue that we forgave the game its faults. Though as the years wore on, and ever more Assassin’s Creed games were released, the franchise caught a disease. Other titles started to become infected with this horrible blight, turning the bright-eyed and newly burgeoning open world genre into a festering mess of mediocrity.
This plague: the Ubisoft Syndrome. Main symptoms: climbing radio towers/vantage points, pointless sidequests, and long bouts of boredom. Again, due to the success of Assassin’s Creed as a franchise, more developers seemed to get the idea that they could neglect crafting a main storyline in place of just stuffing these elements in to their games to fill up another 10 or so hours. As time went on, and our consoles and PCs grew more capable, the games we played became grander in scale, with bigger worlds to explore than ever before. But this just went to highlight how empty those world really were. Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag seemed to be an exception to the rule, but the similarly themed Assassin’s Creed: Rogue did what Ubisoft does best; repeat the formula and just pack more pointlessness into the world. Ironically they could take heed of Far Cry 3 star antagonist Vaas’ words: “Insanity is doing the exact same fricken thing over and over again expecting shizzle to change“. (Rude quote was retroactively made family-friendly.)
The plague spreads…
Today, games that have no place taking the Ubisoft formula of creating masses of content over quality narrative are starting to appear. Titles that should have sparked a gaming renaissance in 2017 have been struck down by developer laziness, a preference for bundles of useless, rubbish stuff to do over excellence. Prime example, Mass Effect: Andromeda. Oh how I was disappointed by this game. BioWare, the kings of narrative (albeit lurking in the shadow of hyper-corporation EA in this instance), have crafted one of the most dull, unoriginal and trite experiences of this generation. Sure, Mass Effect: Andromeda has some quality moments. The ending and the moments leading up to it: simply spectacular. But having to go through perhaps 40 hours of doing absolutely nothing relating to the main quest/narrative was utterly shocking. The most harrowing aspect of the whole affair was the potential for it to be a masterpiece.
Another case in point, Final Fantasy XV. The majority of the side quests can be characterized like this: talk to person, take 5-10 minutes going to place, press X (maybe a few times), take another 5-10 minutes travelling back to person, talk to person, complete quest. How did anyone think this was fun?! And because there’s simply so much to do in between main story missions (and like many of you, I find it difficult to move on until everything is done), you forget what happened the last time the developers could be bothered to play a cutscene or have a meaningful character interaction. I had to google the storyline of FFXV after I had finished because the in-game exposition was so bad. That is unacceptable! Even, dare I say it, Horizon Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild suffered from the Ubisoft Syndrome to some extent, but luckily they were only in the early stages of illness.
It’s pure, refined, ultra-concentrated, triple-distilled laziness, a laziness that’s rapidly moving through the industry. And it will continue until we make a loud enough noise. Because for some developers, it’s much easier to create 100 tiny, inconsequential storylines than one massive sprawling edifice of narrative. Luckily, there are still plenty of untainted bastions of purity like The Last Guardian to help us keep faith, but how long is it until finding games that deliver truly engaging narrative without time-wasting busy work becomes a thing of memory?
Just to be clear: this isn’t an attack on Ubisoft, only what they helped to spawn, and lazy developers that seem no longer bothered with creating engaging, unforgettable storylines. Still, just for fun, imagine for a moment if Ubisoft tried to create a game on the narrative scale of say Final Fantasy 7. Their heads would explode.
Let us know what you think of this issue in the comments section below.