A Proper Story

A couple of months ago, I noticed that both Bastion and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim had added Steam Trading Card support. I hadn’t played either game for a bit, I liked both games well enough, and I wanted the trading cards for those games, so I spent about an hour on each game.

Then I realized something while I was playing: I wasn’t playing either game for the game itself. Sure, it’s fun to try to collect the achievements and trading cards for a game, but I could unbegrudgedly say I had finished playing both games.

What’s so interesting about my feeling satisfied with my experience with these two games? The fact that even though I spent more time playing Skyrim (~400 hours) I still respect Bastion (~20 hours) as a work as much if not more. How can this be possible in today’s world of games advertising with their hundreds of hours of gameplay? Well, that comes down to is the aesthetic of the game and how well the games delivered on that aesthetic.

Bastion

The “The Wilds” Bastion Trading Card. Also, one of my desktop wallpapers.

In Bastion, I want to play because I want to see how the story plays out. Who is this kid? What happened in the Calamity? Are their any more survivors? What happened between the Caels and Ura leading up to the Calamity? You know it’s a great story when you have a lot of questions to answer.

The story is fairly short, only a handful of hours long, but the developers were comfortable with that. Here’s a quote from the Bastion FAQ:

How long is the game?
We aimed to create a game with a “just right” length and scope – the kind of game that feels truly complete in every sense – but we know that players have very different expectations about optimal game length. Bastion is paced such that you will spend no time grinding for experience or loot, or performing the kinds of menial tasks that can pad the length of some games. Even so, in our tests the average player usually takes from 8 to 10 hours to play from start to finish the first time. The game includes a lot of optional content and offers a variety of reasons to revisit the story after you finish it the first time, so Bastion can last you a good long while if you want it to.

The developers were intentional about using the length of the game as a part of their design. They knew that the story and engagement could suffer if the story just dragged on forever (coughMMORPGscough), but at the same time they wanted enough play time to be able to have a meaty story. Another interesting note is that I’ve spent around twice the time they projected for a play-through on this game, which lines up very nicely with the fact that I’ve made multiple play-throughs of the game.

Skyrim

The “Daedric Warrior” Skyrim Trading Card.

In Skyrim, I want to play because I want to see the story of the character I make. How would Archainis, the stealthy battleaxe wielder, handle a dragon encounter? Would he join the Companions or the Mages’ College or the Thieves’ Guilde? What about Henri’ette, the existential werewolf khajiit? How would she handle the same situations? Not only do I get to see the events of the game play out, but I also get to see the different characters I’ve crafted react to and resolve the different conflicts in their own ways.

Occasionally, these differences in play ripple out into the reactions of the other characters in the game. This chain reaction of reactions is what makes the game immersive.

As such, the developers’ responsibility is to make a world in which you can adventure. How much adventure? About 300 hours worth. Instead of focusing on any single story, the focus was instead to have as many adventures available for the player as possible. Looking at my playtime, 400 hours isn’t too far off from their estimation.

Subjective Preference is Subjective

Without getting into analysis of the quality of these games, it’s possible to say that preference for the aesthetic of a game plays a large role as well. Because I personally prefer the aesthetic of narrative over exploration (not that I don’t enjoy a good exploration every now and again), it makes sense that I’d prefer Bastion over Skyrim.

So what about y’all? In a game that tells a story do you like games that are episodically defined with a beginning, middle and end? Or do you prefer to just be given a world to make your own stories?

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