Opinion – Pushing The Background To The Background

(Note: This piece contains minor Borderlands 2 spoilers)

Remember when video game stories weren’t really fully fledged stories, when they were slabs of text before a game? They were usually clunky and almost always got in the way of the action. Games have come so far since these days, becoming denser with story and lore. There are some games that present it all seamlessly; just look how games like Grand Theft Auto IV or Half-Life 2 managed to weave narrative and world-building into dialogue and into the environment.

However, more and more games are hiding narrative and history into the background — through diaries, through audio logs, even outside the game itself — and it is a real shame that this is the case.

My problem with these things isn’t the fact that they exist, it’s that in almost every instance they are implemented, they are relegated to the lowly status of the collectable. Sure, this is usually to encourage players to wander off the main path, but it almost defeats the purpose of exploration. Rather than simply soaking in the world and discovering all its little secrets, you’re forcing yourself to look down every path and look up every nook to find these logs which, more often than not, just blend into the scenery. It just sucks out any semblance of fun.

Take Halo 3: ODST. Hidden around the overworld were audio logs which told Sadie’s Story, an excellent piece of audio drama which created a cast of characters worth caring about while cleanly providing some context to the game’s events; seriously, you should check it out. However, to get the next piece of the story, you had to aimlessly wander around the town with the hope of stumbling upon an audio log. And half the time, you had to slog through a needless battle to reach the blasted thing!

This actually detracted from the experience of the game. Why are there a bunch of enemies here? Didn’t I take them out last time? Where the hell did that shot come from? Wait, why am I back where I was TEN MINUTES AGO?! WHY ARE DISCS SO HARD TO BREAK?! Ugh, screw this, I’m going to YouTube. In searching for these logs, my opinion of the game turned from mild content to active hatred, both of the game and, to an extent, of the franchise.

It’s a terrible shame that these logs are regularly obfuscated. They are more than a mere collectable — they provide context to the world around you, flavour to your surroundings and, more generally, a reason for you to venture around the world other than to kill time or get a quick dopamine hit. In the best case scenario, then can redeem a game, or at least a small element of it.

A good example of this comes from the recently released Borderlands 2. During your adventure, you encounter Tiny Tina, a psychotic 13-year old bomb-maker. On the surface, she is a one-dimensional character whose shtick is “ I’M A GIRL WHO TALKS LIKE A PIMP! OR SOMETIMES A BRITISH DUDE! GEDDIT?!?!?!” Surprisingly, there’s actually more depth to her than a hackneyed goof. It’s impossible to go on without some mild Borderlands 2 spoilers, so skip the next paragraph if you want to continue enjoying the game at your own pace.

During the final mission of Tiny Tina’s story arc, you bring a bandit named Flesh-Stick to her, ostensibly for a “tea party”; naturally this results in Flesh-Stick strapped to a chair while thousands of electric volts course through him. As Tiny Tina is torturing him, you overhear the reason why she is so deranged: Flesh-Stick sold out her family, and she was forced to watch as her parents were killed. This is a great example of how backstory should be presented: Organically and in a way that the player can easily absorb.

Contrast this with the recent trend that’s popped up: The use of transmedia promotions to elaborate on backstory. It seems like every other modern game comes paired with a comic book tie-in that acts as a prequel to its events. It’s a topic that I want to bring up again in the future, but I can’t write this piece without bringing up one particularly egregious example.

Batman: Arkham City is, in my mind, one of the worst offenders of hiding backstory in recent times. The origins of the Arkham City — y’know, the entire setup for the game’s premise — is told through a series of six comic books. If you’re just playing the game like a normal person, you’re forced to just accept that the mayor of Gotham City decided to turn a major portion of his city into an open-air prison; its never actually referenced in-game. Actually, I lie: Arkham City’s origins are mentioned in the game — you just have to look for the audio log.

Game worlds have, without a doubt, become richer with story and texture, and much of this content is very much worth checking out. Yet more and more games are pushing these elements to the background, chucking them in the corner, or literally excising them from the game. If a game is going out of its way to create such an expansive world, why is it so afraid to show it off? It’s cases like these that almost make me wistful for the days when games presented story upfront in giant slabs of text.



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[Image credits: Giant BombVentureBeat, Warner Bros., Moby Games]