The downward trend in game narrative quality

Photo courtesy of Taylor Gray, Student Publications

Consider the action game, a staple of gaming from its inception. The player defeats enemies and traverses levels, overcoming obstacles to eventually reach a predetermined goal. Even the earliest action games like “Spacewar!” (1962) have an implicit story told by the shape of the player characters: two rockets made to look like Kennedy-era spacecraft that compete to destroy each other. This interaction between story and play is often called “ludonarrative.” Challenge in action games creates two narratives: the story presented to the player by the game, and the story created by the player through the game.

What happens when a developer crafts an excellent ludonarrative action experience in one game, but fails to do the same in subsequent titles? One need look no further than the case of “Far Cry 5” (2018). The Far Cry series consists of first-person shooters which place the player character alone in an exotic locale and task them with surviving in the face of enemy humans, vicious wildlife and disease. The player graduates from mere survival to outright dominance of the world they inhabit, in many ways resembling old adventure stories like Robinson Crusoe.

“Far Cry 3” and “Far Cry 5” are superficially similar. Most mechanics are shared between them, and they retain a uniform art style. The key differences between these two titles are in how story and gameplay interact, specifically, in terms of character progression.

Many action games give the player some indication that they and the player character are increasing in strength; this may be as simple as the number of weapons held in “Doom,” or as up front as the changes to X’s costume in “Mega Man X” with each upgrade gained.

“Far Cry 3” opts for the latter, where upgrades selected by the player after gaining enough experience points not only provide new gameplay options for the player, but also appear as parts of a tattoo on the player character’s arm, visible in the first-person perspective. The player character is a wealthy Californian who is kidnapped while vacationing with his friends in the Pacific, and the formation of the tattoo on his arm, caused by the player improving their skills in the game, represents his alienation from his former life. By the end of the story, the player has mastered the world of “Far Cry 3” and defeated every challenge before them, but the player character cannot return home because of the actions perpetrated by the player. The actions of the player directly relate to the story of the player character — this is a strong ludonarrative connection.

Alternatively, “Far Cry 5” gives the player control of a sheriff’s deputy stranded in a section of rural Montana controlled by a cult. The game’s story follows the deputy helping create a resistance to the cult and eventually toppling their leadership, but the progression of the player and player character have no interaction whatsoever. Story and gameplay do not intersect. In fact, story actively impedes gameplay. The player no longer uses plants and animal skins to create ability and capacity upgrades; they are all tied to generic experience-based upgrade tokens that completely strip the survival aspect from the game and story. These upgrades also have no physical presence in the game outside of widening the character’s ability pool, but the player character is a trained law enforcement officer rather than a doughy trust fund baby, completely divorcing player and player character progression from one another.

The breakdown of ludonarrative quality between “Far Cry 3” and “Far Cry 5” represents a general downward trend in quality of AAA game narratives, one that regresses video games as a potential narrative medium and contributes to the mindlessness that the public associates with video games as an art form. “Far Cry 5” and other action games of its time are a step backward for gaming and ought to be examined as such.