My business is one of words, and seeing as I have worked in video games in such a capacity, I figured it would be interesting to go into the mechanics of storytelling in different video game titles. In most reviews, the story is relegated to a paragraph, maybe, and doesn’t get a lot of the spotlight. Really, it’s more like a synopsis than it is an analysis of the game’s story.
What I wanted to do here was give video game stories the attention they deserve. What mechanics did they use to tell the story? Did they work or did they cause more harm than good? Why did this story work or not? These are questions that I haven’t seen the answers for and are usually glazed over in most write ups.
Let’s dive into a title that is currently holding my attention- Tom Clancy’s: The Division.
Summed up : It gives the best argument to never leave the house.
The story is New York (Yes, the city where every thing happens) is hit by an outbreak of a virus spread on 20 dollar bills during Black Friday. This kills almost everyone and while the rest of the nation is dealing with this virus, the government has sent off a majority of its forces to find those responsible. With an almost barren city, filled with corpses, local gangs and militia (Not state run) have taken over the streets and overwhelmed the JTF (Joint Task Force).
You are an Agent apart of The Division, a sleeper cell that is activated during a crisis to help keep law and order going in the face of totally anarchy.
At it’s best, The Division (To be known as DV moving forward) has some moments that really make you feel for this city. The level design only reinforces the despair here, and the random logs, video, and synthetic ‘ghosts’ hit home the humanity of the situation.
At its worst, it’s a bland ‘Thanks hero for stopping the orcs! You’re a great fighter!’
It’s AYSO: Everyone is a hero, everyone gets praise
At its core, DV is an MMOish/Single Playeris campaign, and this means it’s making the player the central hero to save the world as we know it; while thousands of other players are being cast in the same role. This is wish fulfillment and while many players don’t mind it or even love the crap out of it, I really don’t.
When I play a game, in a huge open world, I tend to be a fly on the wall. I like exploring, helping when I can, moving on to secure and build up either my base or my gear. The central narrative in DV is meh to say the least, there are some great set pieces and awesome moments along the way, but overall the main story is just okay.
Mostly what kills the mood for me is when NPC soldiers say the same thing I have heard in so many games:
-Hey, glad you’re on our side!
-Man, did you see what you did? That’s awesome!
-Wow, you know what you’re doing!
It just feels contrived and frankly my eyes could never roll hard enough when I hear those lines. The JTF are just about the worst thing, I get they’re on the ropes, but the amount I have helped, a single person, in getting them back in order is ridiculous. And yes, I mean me singular, I know this game is about the squad elements, but in the narrative of the story I am the one being acknowledged for putting the city back together.
Which is just nuts to me.
The core of this game’s story is: This is our home, our city, and we are going to take it back.
That is an awesome premise to start from because who is not going to want to want to help? Problem is, you are then cast into the role of a singular savior and that small sentiment of ‘your city’ gets lost. It’s like when I was playing Fallout 4, as soon as I got a hint of being this big damn hero, I lost interest, and if it were up to me, I would just avoid the main story line in DV because it isn’t doing anything for me.
The mechanic of the central narrative is missions, which are actually really fun and cool, but the cut scenes and importance placed on me and the only other agent in the headquarters is just too much to the point of cheese.
What is doing something for me, is the world you get to explore.
The mechanics in which the game tells its story is through missions, and while the central missions have some wonderful moments, the most impactful part of the game is New York City. Exploring the streets, finding people, and giving them supplies makes me feel like I am helping. It was the experience I was looking for when I originally saw DV and the act of giving someone some water or saving them every once in a while from a thug, hits me more than the central story.
Let’s get this out of the way, I am not from New York City. I have never lived in a big city, so in order to get me to care about this place you have to get me attached. Moments are going to get player plugged in and feeling like they are a part of this world. Video games are experiences and the stories that live in them have to amplify this experience.
Seeing the trash, the sheer chaos in the streets, really gets me attached to this world and trying to help it. The use of side missions is well done, because the dialogue gives just enough flavor and information to make me want to go in and push that button. And it will be pushing buttons because that’s about all you have to do in this game, mission wise.
Do I feel that the actions in the side missions could have been changed up a bit? Oh yes, but as they stand, I’ve played worse ‘busy work’ filler content. What keeps me going here is the movement in game, the combat, and my sweet beanie.
Overall, The Division is more of an experience than a story.
Which is great for a video game, because that is the most important part. The world is well constructed, the movement smooth, the shooting fun, and that it carries me past the meh ‘I am the hero’ story. I really wish I could have just move through Brooklyn and solve problems organically rather than getting put in the center of the rescue effort. I am one of thousands of Agents in this city, how I am I that damn important? And really, I’m not, I just wish I could eke out a small effort of helping to reclaim the city from my stronghold in a subway depot.
In future expansions, there is talk of this feature showing up, and frankly I cannot wait for it. I really do think that this game could do something really interesting from a storytelling aspect. The basics are already there in the form of seeing sections of the town have more patrols and the HQ having more people that don’t look broken residing inside of it. By letting the player feel like they are doing enough to help, and reinforcing that feeling in the world around them, The Division could really make me feel like a New Yorker.
Although, I still wouldn’t be a Yankees fan.
Nick Mazmanian is a content creator and designer on Ironclad Words. He enjoys making things and drinking coffee, specifically the latter, for without it the former wouldn’t get done. He also wrote a book.