Video games look beautiful. Too bad their stories suck

Commentary: The games we play and play have become spectacles unto themselves, but the shoddy stories they tell just haven’t kept up.

Daniel Van Boom Senior Writer
Daniel Van Boom is an award-winning Senior Writer based in Sydney, Australia. Daniel Van Boom covers cryptocurrency, NFTs, culture and global issues. When not writing, Daniel Van Boom practices Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, reads as much as he can, and speaks about himself in the third person.
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Daniel Van Boom
5 min read
Guerilla Games

Am I gaming in a parallel universe? I read or talk about video games daily, but I never hear anyone acknowledge what I think to myself constantly: The stories in video games suck.

True, the actual game part of video games is more important than the story, and that part remains as fun as ever. But the stories often feel put together with the finesse of a college student writing an essay the night before it's due.  

Let's take a recent example, Assassin's Creed: Origins. I wince when I think about the hours it must have taken to craft the game's beautiful world, but I gave up about seven hours in. I feel guilty for not liking this one, but for as fully realized as ancient Egypt was, I had no reason to care.

You play as Egyptian warrior Bayek, whose son was killed by nefarious fellows who are manipulating the politics of the day -- standard fare for an Assassin's Creed game. In a typical "tough guy with a heart of gold versus the evils of the world" tale, you're out for revenge, and to stop the bad guys' scheming. But everyone in the story feels recycled. No one offers anything we haven't already seen in dozens of movies and games before.

I played about seven hours of it, so it's possible the remaining 23 were Vonnegut. But how good is a story if it takes you eight hours to get invested?

Scene from Assassin's Creed: Origins.

Ancient Egypt is full of life in Assassin's Creed: Origins, but none of the game's characters are. 


I'm not picking on Assassin's Creed, because this is a problem across the medium. It's a sore spot for me. I was a dedicated video game nerd from as early as I can remember -- until about 2007. That's when I went from playing two or three titles a month to playing two or three a year. Like a lot of people, I often try to recapture the glory years of my youth, but I now find the stories in games a hurdle. 

I contacted three AAA developers, Ubisoft, Guerrilla Games and Naughty Dog, about the state of video game storytelling, but none of them got back to me.

AAA games or B movies?

The video game industry has grown hugely in recent years, and is expected to generate over $100 billion this year, according to Newzoo. But the quality of the narratives told throughout that gameplay hasn't blossomed in the same way. 

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Games, now with budgets that rival those of Hollywood productions, often try too hard to feel like blockbuster movies. In the video game world, we call those "AAA" games.

Take Sony's Indiana Jones-esque Uncharted games. Developer Naughty Dog actually planned the action set pieces of Uncharted 3 and then crafted a story around them, creative director Amy Hennig told CNN around the game's 2011 release. This makes for exhilarating gameplay, like when you gun down enemies in falling buildings in 2009's Uncharted 2, but at a cost. Story here is an excuse for gameplay, rather than gameplay telling a story.

The peripheral quality of storytelling in video games also shows through in a lack of originality. Most AAA games I play feel like confluences of B-movie tropes, with Uncharted being something of a poster child here. It's a masterclass of technical creativity, but seemingly devoid of much thought when it comes to plot.

The series has the aloof protagonist, the "I'm too old for this shit" mentor and the spunky enemy-turned-friend love interest, but it's not alone. Titles like the post-apocalyptic Horizon Zero Dawn and Assassin's Creed: Origins feel equally like formulations of mix 'n' match B-movie cliches.

Granted, there's more to video games than their story. The spectacular Horizon Zero Dawn was a joy to play, and its lore, of a world in which robots have nearly extinguished humans, was fascinating. However, it was let down by empty characters and a boring main plot. Meanwhile, I played and dug Uncharted 2 and 3, though that well ran dry by Uncharted 4. That's another game I gave up on about seven hours in, perfect score be damned. In all these cases, the story felt like cement weighing down an otherwise stellar experience.

Video games have tools that help them tell stories. Final Fantasy role-playing games, for instance, use combat mechanics to reflect each character's personality or narrative role, and most action games have a skill arc that runs concurrently with character arc. But there are game-specific features that hurt storytelling.

Too many choices

My biggest pet peeve is choose-your-own-adventure storytelling, in which the plot changes depending on choices you make throughout. Many AAA games now have this, though it's most famously associated with the Mass Effect and Witcher franchises. Nice restaurants generally don't let you make substitutions because it'll mess with the taste profile, and it makes similar sense that game creators should tell a specific story, not one generated by the player, so as to not dilute theme, characters or plot.  

The antithesis to this is a game like Bioshock Infinite , a linear experience in which almost everything works in service of the story. Man, I love me some Bioshock Infinite.




Many gamers, of course, don't feel as strongly about the need for an engrossing story as I do. How do I know? Nintendo. Mario, Zelda and Pokemon games retell the same story, but are regarded highly because of ahead-of-their-time game design. The unspoken agreement: The fun is in the mechanics, not the plot. Super Mario Odyssey , released last month, sold 2 million units in just three days. Not my cup of tea, but I get it.

Are you a hardcore gamer or a casual one? I would guess the importance of game stories to you depends on your answer to that question. If you're a devoted gamer, it's easy to spend 20 hours playing something just for the fun of it, like appreciating a novel for its writing more than its story.

But if you're a casual gamer, for whom TV, movies, books and more are of equal interest, emotional investment is key. I regrettably now fall into this category. My teenage self would be ashamed. 

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