A Simple Story
A man rebels against an evil empire. He finds love, only to lose it to the cruel twist of fate. He loses himself, only to find it again in a misty place. He faces off against a father figure in a foreboding locale. And, in the end, he is triumphant.
Anyone would say I’m describing Star Wars, but only someone particularly bright (or who’s read the next paragraph) would say I’m also describing Final Fantasy VII. The structural pieces of both the crowning achievement of sci-fi film and Japanese video game both feature roughly the same plot. The fiddly bits are different, but at their cores they tell the same story.
A week or so ago I was talking to a friend of mine about what made Harry Potter great. We bandied about all sorts of ideas. We talked about its evocative fantasy before realizing that, yes, all of that had been done before. We talked about its plot, but then we realized its plot was confusing tripe that doesn’t make any sort of sense under thoughtful analysis. We thought it was the characters, and while they’re certainly good characters they are not enough to carry the story by themselves. No one I know reads Harry Potter because of the titular character, the boy who has no personality.
No, the reason Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Final Fantasy VII all succeeded the way they did is simple: their narrative follows a very simple string the reader can follow by osmosis from having experienced it so many times, while the color around it paints each world as something that spawns pounds of fan fiction on the internet.
The best plots in video games are simple, while their stories are complex. They create evocative worlds where we can imagine other action occurring off screen, while telling a very simple plot. We can go play old Super Nintendo RPGs nowadays and enjoy them because, while the plots they tell are simple, they have worlds that our imaginations can fill in. Their stories spark our imagination.
But let’s go back to plot. The best plots, full stop, are simple, not weighed down by considerations that will overwhelm the viewer, the reader, the player. Narrative, at its best, is a simple thing. We crave conflict, and a narrative with a delicious bit of antagonism as its hinge is much more likely to move smoothly than one which buries its hooks deep in a well of distracting details and relationships. We’re much more likely to follow and enjoy a story with a plot hook we can follow (a murder mystery at a high school, a boy’s quest into adulthood, saving the world) than we can one that’s bloated and absurd (a political war between two factions, trying to save your family from destitution, working at a laundromat).
And yet many video games go down this road, burying us in unending waves of detail before giving us anything to truly bite on. You are not given conflicts as motivation, but rather a vague sense of what past video games expected of you to do to advance. You go to the next town because you did that in Dragon Warrior. You click on the red dot on the map because that’s what heroes do: they click on the red dot. You’re working to make fifty gold because you need it to escape from destitution, even though you seem like one of the richest, most powerful people in town already.
The most recent glaring example of this kind of playing with expectations is Dragon Age 2, which took a bland and unlikeable cast and then put them in no situations which felt even remotely interesting. They were all too complicated. Hawke and his family were fleeing from this overwhelming torrent of dangerous, hateful creatures, and rather than focus on the life and death struggle they were going through the emphasis fell on the conflict between Aveline’s husband, a templar, and Bethany, Hawke’s mage sister. Yes, their animosity kept the player informed of the larger plot that would, eventually, come to be in hand, but it made one of your sibling’s eventual deaths cold and emotionless. And once you got to the main game it got no better. Rather than offering the player a hinge of conflict for motivation, it decided to throw a number of unrelated ideas out, preventing the game from ever really finding its narrative traction.
There were a lot of complicated plot elements, but there was relatively little story. The City of Kirkwall was one of the most interesting in the world of Dragon Age, as someone who has read obsessively on the franchise, but in practice it comes off as cold and unfeeling. It’s a place where encounters are around every turn and there’s probably dragons even though dragons are rare and magnificent because dragons are more interesting than conflict.
Contrast this to a game like Bastion. Bastion has a very simple plot: find a bunch of macguffins, restore the world. You want these items because your house got destroyed, because your life’s been destroyed.. To this very, very simple base is added a heaping helping of stylistic flavor, an eventual question of human nature, and, finally, at the very end, new and interesting twists.
The best narratives, the most memorable of narratives, do this: they hook you with what you know. As someone who experiences a lot of media, I’m always allured by the idea of plots that tell something completely different, but when I actually get around to them I usually find them flat and difficult. It’s hard, nearly impossible, for someone to get into something that doesn’t offer an easy method of access. A story’s got to have a beginning you can latch on to. It’s got to give as much as it takes; while I love new ideas, the foundation of any story needs to be the old, to let the player find their way into the fantasy of the world. Complexity doesn’t ruin stories, but it is important that the simple and the familiar is the base, so we can latch onto the story and the plot.
Let’s go back to Final Fantasy VII for a moment. FFVII succeeded because it took a very natural plot and developed it into different directions. If I were a literary critic, I would describe the basic story of VII as monomythic. Campbellian, for Joseph Campbell, the famous scholar who discussed how all stories were essentially the same. I wouldn’t agree with his point on all issues (though I won’t fault you for doing so; he has a much more impressive name than I do), but in this case I think it is valid: Final Fantasy VII followed the monomyth. It was a story we’d heard so many times before, gussied up in a new for 1997 fall sweater, ready to hook with its narrative and impress with its details. It found emotion in the plot, and it found lasting appeal in things like the city of Midgar, the character of Cloud, and that song that plays in Cosmo Canyon. People were saddened by Aeris’ death, they related to Tifa and Barret*, and they were mystified and enthralled by Vincent the half Dracula.
Now, how about its sequels? Anyone who is anyone will admit that Dirge of Cerberus was misguided and pretty uniformly terrible. Its weakness came from its focus on Vincent, the most confusing and ridiculous character in Final Fantasy VII. Vincent, red cloak and all, represented the worst things about the game: its excesses, its attempts at being mysterious, its coolness. Unfortunately, a lot of fans loved Vincent. They thought he was a great character when he was just an empty personification of the games’ style, and they clamored for more of him. Square Enix, in their wisdom, gave us that: a heaping chunk of style, backed up by no discernible plot. Vincent’s motivations are that he is mysterious, the cop out of young adult literature. You can make a mysterious character do anything, but you’ll never believe it if you look at it objectively. Dirge of Cerberus gave us a fashionable shell to an awful plot.
Many games have tread down this path, and most of them have died. Rather than focus on telling a story that will hook the player, they tell stories designed to mystify and, more importantly, to make good trailers. Everyone gets excited about games about Otaku slackers with lightsabers, being a personification of 1990’s war, and being a badass rebel wizard, but the games themselves offer us nothing memorable. Forgettable complexity, designed to get teenagers excited about the idea of the franchise rather than to craft a quality plot. The plots we remember are the ones that place us as something simple, in a wonderful, amazing place, doing incredible things to accomplish simple goals. That, in the end, is what we’ll remember.
*Sure. Why not. I know a lot of people with gun arms that can also become a chainsaw or a wrecking ball if you equip the right thing.
**Bottom chart came from here! Best visual representation I could find.
***It is here, after the dust has settled, that I will tell you that all of this is quite obvious in other fields like film, literature, et cetera. My mission, since I started blogging here over a year ago, has been to talk about video games like other media are talked about; it’s only when that happens that they will be seen as truly legitimate. One of my fellow writers raised this point, and I felt it salient to point out that yes, I realize all of this is truly obvious to a film critic. Is it obvious to someone who reads about video games, though? Don’t know. I hope so, but it’s always good to throw things like this out there. Besides, this month’s theme is simplicity, right? Might as well present a simple concept about simplicity.