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I was showing a friend the opening of Final Fantasy XII today (having forgotten what an amazingly pretty downer that is - ten minutes in and he's dead, she's dead, he's killed him and him, and the evil empire that killed your parents has actually stamped on your flowers) and it made me realise why stories in games will always be rubbish.
It's not the old interactivity-vs-narrative problem - although I'm still convinced that they remain the opposite ends of an increasingly threadbare piece of string - it's this: game stories have to rationalise the fact that every single thing in the world revolves around you. You are the person the shops were built for, the crates stacked for, the mines laid for. You're who the girls wait for, the enemies spawn for and the NPCs patrol for. Sure, games like Oblivion work pretty hard to convince you that it all goes on even when you're not around, but at best it feels like Westworld - an eerie bonhomie that only fools you if you want it to.
Any story in which only one person can be the agent of change is always likely to feel trite. It's a fairytale pattern, whether that person is fairly fairyish (Link) or not at all (Doomguy). It's why saving the world is still the main occupation in any game where you don't have a football or an Enzo. How could anything less be possibly be expected of you if you're the person the world revolves around? It would be churlish not to. The stories in films and books uusually revolve around a powerless person scraping together enough potency to make a big dramatic change - whether it's dying gracefully, or usurping a vicious drill sergeant, or organising a really good batchelor party. And if the heroes are presidents, superheroes or single-mothers-with-unstoppable-guts-and-integrity, then the story is the recognition and defeat of their *actual* weakness, which usually turns out to be Gerald Depardieu or hydrophobia or something equally lame. But in games, even if you start with a weedy pistol, or 10HP, you're still the most powerful - often the only powerful - person in the world. And that gives you two big problems: first, it means that it's very hard for game stories not to be hyperbolic, and second, it makes it very hard for them not all to be the same. The set-dressing may change from sci-fi to fantasy to WWII (although not much further) and the telling may change from the perfunctory to the inept to the elegant, but can you name three games that tell a story which isn't about someone who saves the world by doing the same few things over and over?
Actually - I can. GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas. How about that?