ENTERTAINMENT: Neo-Narrative

So my wife loves Overwatch. 

Developer Blizzard certainly went overboard with their inventive team-based first-person online shooter. It follows the principles and ideas of other "arena" shooters like Team Fortress 2 and Quake III Arena which abandon any storylines of their predecessors in order to focus on the multiplayer gameplay. The eighth generation of home consoles is particularly hip to optimizing video games for this style of play--exclusively multiplayer (online, mostly). Leave it up to Nintendo to promote physical community with their games and keep local multiplayer and its societal implications on the map (think the four-player controller ports for the N64 and Gamecube, and the living-room, family-motivated multiplayer experiences of the Wii and WiiU, and the television commercials of friends upon friends physically getting together to play the Switch), while Sony and Microsoft continue to eye the perfect consumer, who wants to be left alone anyway. The kind of guy that has something to prove in the cyber world or leaderboards and global rankings. As for me...I'm starting to see both sides.

It took me a pretty long time to appreciate the likes of Bungie's now-classic MMORPG-FPS Destiny, with its short single-player campaign saturated in purchase-the-rest-of-the-story gimmicky business trades, and its complete absence of local multiplayer deathmatch in favor of online-only game modes.

And don't even get me started on Halo 5.

So when my sexy wife reads into Overwatch, purchases the Origins Edition for her sexy PS4 Slim, and proceeds months down the road to show off her sexy skills with Bastion and Symmetra, you best believe I was breaking my stubbornness about the matter. I'll always prefer local over online, and will probably always find it unreasonable that multiplayer-perfect titles like FPS Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, racer-remake Need for Speed and the aforementioned Destiny are online-exclusives that support in no way local multiplayer. Love those games, and the online multiplayer modes of other games like Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 and Star Wars Battlefront.

But also consider that we are  simply beginning to live in a new era in gaming. You see, The Old Blood has a pretty particular story and spirit to it. Destiny and Halo obviously have epic tales to coincide with your purpose in those games. Some early titles in gaming history like Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong Country 2 tell their stories through the gameplay itself, while wildly ambitious bullet-hell shooter Ikaruga (whose soundtrack is among the most best, albeit unknown) seemingly has no narrative, rhyme, or reason to it, other than to hurt your brain and rack points up in a strange combo system, when in reality it has one of the most powerful, emotional plots I've ever known a game of its kind to have. This NEW era is defined, at least in part, by a lack of a plot.

For example, Street Fighter V, disappointingly enough, was released exclusively for the PS4, without a story mode...or a story. That's a big deal. Since the franchise's inception in 1987, never once did a Street Fighter title have no story to follow, and yet developer Capcom found it perfectly okay to release their latest title with next to no single-player content, a la Overwatch, in order to appeal to the tournament and online market.

We DO live in a new era, that of the neo-narrative: a mainstream generation of games that have no story.

This is not to say the days of storytelling in gaming are over, per se, and that it is time to consider the Metal Gear Solids, Final Fantasies, and Fables of yesterday as relics of the old age. I simply mean to state that neo-narrative is making huge waves, especially for online gamers, in the mainstream. Online gameplay for home consoles was once the minority in the market, sayeth the servers for Phantasy Star Online and Final Fantasy XI Online. But now, even Street Fighter has deemed its primary mode irrelevant due to its lack of online support. Only later did they "add on" a story to quench the dissatisfaction of longtime Street Fighter loyalists. Quite horrific how the tables have turned. This begs the question: is storytelling still relevant for video games anymore?

This brings me back to Overwatch. This world-revered, explosively-colorful, lightly-humored online game was built on numerous pre-launch promos to get curious gamers to see what this game might have to offer in the future. These promos consisted of individual in-game characters, usually portraying their significance as a playable character in the game in the form of a background story. Key word: STORY. Overwatch ironically had a cohesive narrative among its characters built up through its promising action-oriented animated promos. The game itself opens up with in-game character Winston giving the player a quick briefing on how desperately the titular "Overwatch" world security is in need of more heroes for an appropriate revival. All of this would mislead a player to think the game has an actual playable story. The game DOES have it's minute share of player-vs-AI training mode, but none of the main modes are available offline and without other players around the world agreeing to join the game. It's deliciously fun, but functions, again, without the confines of an actual narrative. You just shoot the other guy: unlike the promos and pre-game intro, words like "hero" and "villain" simply don't matter. This isn't Battlefront where the good guys and bad guys are eternally separated and against one another; here it's every man for himself. The game itself has no story, no true plot....a context maybe, but not really a narrative.

To be honest, I couldn't imagine an entire generation of video games being released that ignore plotlines and stories to follow in single-player campaigns. But the way some games are going--endless updates and DLC, no bosses, no narratives, and therefore no ending--it's also hard to imagine that the video game industry's next step isn't to create within their games a sense of "immortality". The NeoGeo home console likely inadvertantly prototyped this idea by utilizing advanced cartridges for their games from the early-90s all the way to the mid-2000s, long after compacts discs replaced the cartridge as the standard. Now that the industry is headed towards all-digital "invisible software" via downloads directly to a home console's hard drive, and neither cartridges nor CDs are necessarily needed, it will be interesting to see how neo-narrative video games attempt to achieve intergenerational longevity. This would also entail the end of sequels (why both with a Street Fighter VI when Capcom can update Street Fighter V all they want until the cows come home?). Some scary thoughts for the future of the industry.

Especially for an "old school" gamer like myself.