Skate 2 is a rather unique experience, especially in the current trend of gaming. This is not necessarily because of its aberrant and health-complication-causing difficulty, or even a control scheme that wears the little nubs off of 360 analog sticks worldwide. No, the thing that stands out about Skate 2 is its complete and intentional lack of a traditional narrative.
Alri- Hm. This was not what I was expecting.
This seems very odd when contrasted with every other triple-A title that has released in the last year. Every game with large enough budgets comes with the assumption that it needs some sort of story, even if the story isn’t relayed through or even marginally related to the gameplay. Gears of War, Mirror’s Edge, and Metal Gear Solid 4 all have stories that are only ancillary to the gameplay at best. One might be tempted to say, “Big deal. So the story doesn’t really matter, just ignore it and move on.” That’s all well and good from the player’s perspective, but there’s a good deal of waste on the developer’s side they could trim out of the cost of development, if only they knew.
For the unfamiliar, Skate 2 follows the same unnamed main character from Skate, fresh out of prison. The game never explains why the player was in prison, and provides only the flimsiest of excuses for rearranging the entire city by mentioning “the disaster-too-gnarly-to-be-named.” A developer steeped in the modern ways of video gaming might fret that players would balk at the lack of real explanation. Even more tragic is that a modern developer might feel that a good story about the player’s release from jail would really drive the game forward. Maybe the player tries to find the guy that put him in jail and take revenge, or seek to dethrone the evil corporation that has a stranglehold on downtown San Vanelona.
Well, as it turns out, us players just don’t care about that.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love a great story. The problem here is that cramming a story into a game without it really affecting the player’s experience is wasted effort. Games are interactive, and players remember their experiences with a game more than they remember a cutscene they passively viewed. This isn’t wasted effort in the philosophical Sisyphean sense. Publishers pay salaries to people that write story, code cutscenes, and record lines of dialogue. This is cost and time that can be better spent on other aspects of the game – ones that actually matter to the player.
Skate 2 focuses entirely on the player’s experience. The story here is not how I get out of jail and readjust to skater culture again after my years in the joint, and it’s not about how I’ll take down the evil skater who put me in the slammer just so he could be top dog; it’s about how I almost won that one event but some chode slammed in to me right before I landed my big trick. The story’s about how I spent an hour playing S.K.A.T.E. (god damnit) before I figured out how to trick the AI. The story’s about collaborating with friends online to nail a huge gap. Black Box put their efforts here, and as such, my memories and emotional attachment to the game are much stronger than if I had experienced hours of uninterruptable cutscenes during a less refined game.
Contrast Skate 2’s approach against games that opt for the alternative, and the consequences of such waste are laid bare. Metal Gear Solid 4 is the greatest offender in this regard. My experience in Metal Gear Solid 4 consists of shooting some dudes, rolling around on the ground, following a guy while wearing a trench coat, and fighting inside a giant robot. However, think about the time spent on those gameplay elements versus the time spent writing, recording, and coding the hours and hours of cutscenes. The cost is staggering, especially since none of the cutscenes stuck with me. The time spent recording the death throes of Big Boss are nigh apocalyptic, especially considering how comical amount of time it took for him to die.
Is he dead yet? No! AWWW no he’s still talking!
Mirror’s Edge provides another recent example. A good deal of effort was invested in providing a story and animating cutscenes. This is effort that, in the end, did not add a great deal of value to the experience. My memories of the game all relate to running, jumping, and of course dying. There are only a handful of times when the story actually reaches out into the game experience and impacts the player – being chased by evil free runners is one that jumps out. The rest are just cutscenes that quickly fade to memory.
The odd bit here is that most game stories today would do just fine if extracted from the medium and used as a book or movie. Well, with the exception of Metal Gear Solid 4; that story could be reproduced by giving an eight-year-old a handful of pixy stix and a stack of G.I. Joe comics. Regardless, the point here is that the lack of staying power isn’t a fault of the story; it’s a fault of integration.
Some games have done integration very well, and as a result get the full benefit of an attached story. Metal Gear Solid 3 puts a fantastic punctuation on the entire story when the player is forced to kill The Boss near the end. In a game that mostly reveals story details through static dialogue, impacting the player’s action due to the events of the story is the best way to drive the events home. Similarly, Bioshock’s big climax forced the player to admit that they had been brainwashed for the whole game in a much more poignant way than a cutscene would have done. Whenever including story in a game, developers should always ask themselves how it will affect the player’s experience instead of just assuming that more content always enhances the value of the product.