Storytelling in free-to-play games: The good and the bad

While games draw acclaim for their storylines, downplaying the importance of narrative can make games more accessible

Storytelling in free-to-play games: The good and the bad

Storyline is an important aspect of gaming, but one that often feels secondary. While games such as The Last of Us, Final Fantasy VII, and Ghost of Tsushima all received significant praise for their storylines, often discussion is dominated by how a game looks and, most importantly, how it plays.

This is especially true of mobile platforms. While there are games with great storylines on mobile devices, the platform is dominated by free-to-play titles such as Candy Crush and Angry Birds. These games rely on eye-catching graphics and addictive gameplay, with the story usually coming as an afterthought.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. There are multiple games such as Episodes, Choices, or Fictif which focus on interactive storytelling, letting players make choices and uncover a self-contained story. Others, such as Adventure Escape, follow this model, with a selection of individual adventures grouped together under the same umbrella.

So why do so many games rely on simplicity?

Part of this is due to the fact that some of the biggest free to play games on the mobile market are live service titles, which puts them at odds with traditional narrative. A story doesn’t just need to be good, a story needs to end. There’s no satisfaction in seeing characters going through the motions if there’s no hope that they’ll eventually come out on top. It’s important to identify the natural conclusion to the story, happy or not, and end it. Doing otherwise risks so-called ending fatigue, where fans lose interest and become disengaged.

As such, the lack of focus on storytelling in so many live-service and free-to-play games becomes understandable. Many such games focus on consistent updates, only releasing sequels when the developer has significant upgrades and features to offer. Despite its significant success, Angry Birds didn’t receive a sequel until 2015, six years following the release of the original, while Angry Birds 2 is now entering its eighth year of life.

These games are designed for anyone to pick up and play and, while they may toy with deeper storytelling through events or spin-offs, this is often unnecessary. In many games, the story on level one is largely the same as it is on level 500, so players don’t need to worry about keeping track of a developing storyline when picking up a game for the first time, or struggle to remember events from hundreds of levels ago.

Gaming is a hobby for everyone, and one that continues to become more accessible as technology progresses. Billions of players around the world can pick up and play games and, while for many a deep storyline can be a boon, that isn’t the case universally. Casual titles which eschew storyline in exchange for a deeper focus on core gameplay mechanics can attract a wide audience of enthusiasts and casual players alike, much as those that focus on telling smaller, self-contained stories can attract fans of their own.

Moreover, games with less of a focus on storyline occasionally lend themselves well to adaptations than more story-focused games. While there are several notable exceptions, and Hollywood is hoping to buck the trend with upcoming releases based on games such as The Last of Us, Ghost of Tsushima, and Silent Hill 2, among others, historically attempts at translating a game into another medium have been met with more failures than successes.

While adaptations of games are often criticised for deviating from the established storyline, free-to-play games often leave room for expansion and deeper exploration, giving more personality to established characters. Perhaps uniquely, we’ve also seen free-to-play titles adapted into game shows, something games such as The Last of Us will likely never see.

Is the lack of story in free-to-play titles a bad thing? For some, perhaps, but for others it can make these games more appealing.

Staff Writer

Lewis Rees is a journalist, author, and escape room enthusiast based in South Wales. He got his degree in Film and Video from the University of Glamorgan. He's been a gamer all his life.