Gamers love to claim that video games are high art. Sometimes, they’re right; we’ll never forget exploring the surreal world of Journey or scaling the first massive boss in Shadow of the Colossus.
But most games fall short of “art” status for a simple reason: They’re designed to be games first. Their plots are restricted by the requirements of the video game medium itself. In other words, if you’re going to build a fun game with satisfying feedback loops, you’re probably going to sacrifice some storytelling.
That’s not just true of AAA duds like Duke Nukem Forever. Some of the most popular games of all time actually have serious plot problems that greatly affect the experience. Hopefully, you were having too much fun to notice them—but regardless, we’re going to nitpick. Spoilers ahead.
1. Heavy Rain was lauded for its impressive plot, but its biggest twist was pretty dumb.
In action-adventure game Heavy Rain, a man named Ethan tries to track down his son’s kidnapper while experiencing regular blackouts that seem to coincide with his adversary’s crimes. The obvious answer to the mystery is that Ethan is the criminal, but toward the end of the game, we learn that the actual crook is the game’s deuteragonist, private investigator Scott Shelby.
It’s a huge reveal and a stunning moment—so, naturally, gamers found a bug that completely ruins it. When you first stumble upon your son, the game tells you to press a button to scream his name. You can hit a few extra buttons, and…well, this happens.
That’s certainly a problem, but our bigger issue with Heavy Rain is more fundamental. Ethan’s blackouts were originally far more supernatural, the result of a psychic connection to the real criminal. This connection ending up getting cut out of the game for, well, not making sense in the game’s otherwise real world. The problem is that the removal of this story point means that there’s no narrative/in-game explanation for the blackouts So the blackouts that seem to coincide with the villain’s movements turn into pure coincidence. Another word for pure coincidence: bad writing.
That’s not to say that Heavy Rain wasn’t a landmark moment for gaming as a storytelling medium. As a piece of art, though, it’s at about the level of a B-level thriller.
A game that did it better: Horror game Until Dawn has a bunch of twists, depending on how the player plays, but none of them feel cheap or unearned.
Granted, the game’s last act is a little on the silly side, and it doesn’t try for the big artistic flourishes of Heavy Rain, but by settling for a simpler approach, it’s much more successful. Plus, it has Hayden Panettiere and Rami Malek in it.
2. God of War tries, in vain, to make one of its characters interesting.
Considered by many gamers to be the best game of 2018, God of War—the eighth installment of the series of the same name, which also has the same name as the first game because Sony loves confusing people—holds a Metacritic score of 94 out of 100. In other words, it’s nearly perfect…unless you spend a couple of minutes thinking about it.
The plot follows Kratos, a Spartan who’s hanging up his hack-and-slash tools to raise a son in the lands of the Norse gods. He carries an awful secret: In Rome, he killed thousands of people and a handful of gods, including the aforementioned God of War, which made Kratos the new God of War, because otherwise, the title of the game wouldn’t make sense (and because Sony loves confusing people). By the second game, he had declared war on the entirety of the Greek pantheon. All in all, it’s a pretty big secret to carry.
Anyway, Kratos’ wife passes away, so he takes his son, Atreus, on a quest to scatter her ashes on the highest mountain. This turns out to be ridiculously complicated, and a bunch of Norse gods get involved. Kratos is visibly tortured by his past, which he hides from Atreus. The story hammers on that point repeatedly; at one point, you start carrying around the decapitated head of a god, which won’t let Kratos forget that he’s making a huge mistake by hiding his past from his son.
Various other characters give Kratos the same advice. Even the antagonists chime in occasionally to say, “Hey, bro, maybe stop lying to your son and show a little vulnerability once in a while. You’re the God of War, but you’re clearly not the god of your own feelings.”
Then, just before the game’s last few sequences, Atreus becomes deathly ill. The reason: Kratos won’t tell him that he’s a god. For some reason, that makes him sick—he’s “too powerful” for his own mind. Kratos completes a few more fetch quests to cure his son, at which point he tells him the truth.
And at that point—the point we’ve been dreading throughout the game—nothing really happens. Atreus is totally fine with being a god. He acts like a spoiled brat for a short sequence, but then Kratos tells him to shut up, and the game pretty much proceeds normally. Players don’t really have a reason to care about Atreus at all, and when the game reveals its big twist (spoiler alert: Atreus is the Norse god Loki), it’s not entirely clear why we should care. It just seems like a setup for a sequel or an expansion pack, and that’s sort of cheap.
Don’t get us wrong, God of War is fun (at least, when you’re not solving annoying puzzles, which seem thrown into the game as packing peanuts for the razor-thin plot), but its plot is as simple and predictable as a Sylvester Stallone movie. This is basically the gaming equivalent of Over the Top, but with monsters and gods instead of an arm wrestling competition.
Seriously, watch this scene and pretend that Sylvester Stallone is Kratos and all of the other characters are Norse gods. The tone is exactly the same.
A game that did it better: The Last of Us, another PlayStation exclusive, also required the player to walk around with a little kid. However, it reversed the dynamic: the game’s main characters start off as begrudged allies, only gradually learning to appreciate one another.
There’s a similar revelatory moment towards the end of the game, but in The Last of Us, it leaves the player shaken to their core—not yelling “that’s it?” while throwing the controller in frustration. The characters are nuanced, they have clear motivations, and none of the gameplay feels like an empty excuse to pad out the game’s runtime.
3. Skyrim wasn’t a perfect game, but it was pretty close.
Rarely has a game lived up to enormous hype as well as Skyrim. The fifth game in The Elder Scrolls series, it takes place in a fantastic open world filled with dragons, mammoths, and giants who can do this:
We spent hundreds of hours crawling through Skyrim’s dungeons, reading its many books, and carrying out various quests—most of which basically boil down to, “Go to this place, get that thing, bring it back here, and I’ll give you another thing.” Hey, it’s a fantasy action RPG; what do you expect?
It’s easy to get lost in the Elder Scrolls lore and marvel at Skyrim’s groundbreaking graphics. We hate to say anything bad about it, but the name of this article isn’t “Great Games That Are Perfectly Great All The Way Through.”
Here’s our problem: No matter what you do, nobody interacts with you differently. Nobody really recognizes you, despite the fact that you’ve single-handedly slain dragons, saved the realm, and changed the course of the civil war that’s affecting every single individual in Skyrim.
They might shout out, “Dragonborn!” or something, but their dialogue remains mostly the same, and they’ll treat you with contempt as if you didn’t just save their lives in five different ways. You’ll even get threatened by bandits, who are somehow unaware of the fact that you’re holding an axe that has taken down demons, vampires, and freaking dragons with a single swing.
Couple that with a pretty basic main storyline, and you’ve got a game with a wonderful world that eventually starts to feel sort of empty. As Skyrim winds down, you slowly realize that nothing you do really matters or changes anything, and at that point, it’s difficult to find the will to keep playing. Of course, if you’ve already invested hundreds of hours, that’s not such a big deal, but it’s something that should really be addressed in future Elder Scrolls games.
A game that did it better: In our opinion, Skyrim is the greatest open-world game ever created, and if you somehow haven’t played it, the remastered version is well worth your time.
With that said, plenty of other games have addressed Skyrim’s most glaring issues. In Fable II, if you perform evil actions regularly, the townsfolk learn to be afraid of you. Nothing feels quite as cool as seeing people scramble out of your way while you waltz through an idyllic medieval village.
The main story is also more satisfying, although the world of Fable certainly pales in comparison to Skyrim in terms of depth and detail.
4. Mario doesn’t really seem to have a plot until you read the manual.
Nintendo games are just brightly colored, addictive toys—plot typically isn’t an important consideration. However, we’ve got one problem with the Mario series, and it’s big enough to make you rethink your decades of pleasant journeys through the Mushroom Kingdom.
Even if you’ve never played a Mario game, you probably know the basic plot beats: King Koopa, an evil spiky turtle guy, steals Princess Peach. Mario, a plumber, rescues her by using his extensive knowledge of plumbing and his inhuman ability to jump four times his own height. It’s not exactly rocket surgery.
But if you had the original Super Maro Bros., you could read a few more details in the manual—and that’s where the story turns into an absolute horror show.
“One day, the kingdom of peaceful mushroom people was invaded by the Koopa, a tribe of turtles famous for their black magic,” the manual reads. “The quiet, peace-loving Mushroom People were turned into mere stones, bricks, and even field horsehair plants, and the Mushroom Kingdom fell into ruin.”
“Mario, the hero of the story (maybe) hears about the Mushroom People’s plight and sets out on a quest to free the Mushroom Princess from the evil Koopa and restore the fallen kingdom of the Mushroom People. You are Mario! It’s up to you to save the Mushroom People from the black magic of the Koopa!”
Hold on a minute. The Mushroom People were turned into bricks—and one of the first things you do in the game is eat a mushroom and smash a bunch of bricks. That means that Mario is destroying hundreds of Mushroom People lives haphazardly while fighting “black magic.”
A game that did it better: Kirby’s Dream Land was a worse game than Super Mario Bros., but at least Kirby was upfront about his psychopathic impulses.
We know that the little pink dude swallows his enemies in order to take their powers—it happens right on screen. At least we’re never tricked into smashing hundreds of villagers for the sake of a few coins.
5. Gears of War 2 tries really hard to be a serious game.
The Gears of War series is weird. It’s full of the type of hypermasculine stuff you’d seen in games like Doom, but it also tries to sell more emotional moments. Heck, the first game launched with a dramatic trailer featuring Gary Jules’ haunting rendition of “Mad World,” which gave the impression that it was some sort of a high-art game that also happened to have giant spider creatures.
The series probably peaked with Gears of War 2, which blended amazing run-and-gun gameplay with a fairly respectable (if ridiculous) story. Oh, and also, the aliens were sinking cities with a giant worm, which led to this incredible dialogue.
We suppose it’s supposed to be a big revelation: There’s a giant worm, it’s sinking cities, and that’s scary, or whatever. It really just seems like an example of ridiculous excess in a game full of big, meaty dudes who run around with chainsaws. As players, we don’t care about the cities—we just want to fight that giant worm.
Still, we could forgive stuff like that if Gears of War 2 didn’t take itself so seriously all of the time. One side plot is particularly egregious: Throughout the first half of the game, the main character (Marcus Fenix) talks with his always-present buddy (Dom) about life back on Earth in between bouts of alien shredding. Dom starts bringing up his wife, Maria, remarking on how much he loves her, and how he’s hoping to rescue her from the aliens.
If you’ve seen any action movie, you know where this is going. Dom eventually finds Maria, but she’s in a near catatonic state. Dom decides to put her out of her apparent misery—a moment that would carry incredible emotional weight if it wasn’t so incredibly stupid. For starters, Maria was just introduced in this game, and she barely has any screen time; she’s not so much a character as a plot device. Also, the dialogue is absolutely ridiculous.
“No, no, no!” Dom shouts. “What did they do to you?”
“It’s okay,” Marcus says, walking away as if he’s uninterested in the whole situation.
One of the YouTube comments (the video’s here, and it contains some NSFW language) on the scene sums it up nicely: “One of the funniest scenes in gaming.” That’s great and all, but it wasn’t supposed to be.
A game that did it better: Look, Gears of War 2 was never going to be art, but if it hadn’t tried so hard, gamers wouldn’t have to roll their eyes at the melodramatic moments.
Bethesda’s Doom is a great example of a dumb shooter that realizes that it’s a dumb shooter. The player fights through demonic hordes on a quest to…well, fight through demonic hordes. There’s an interesting story with some interesting sci-fi concepts, but you can ignore all of that if you’d like. More importantly, you never have to sit through a melodramatic cutscene.
6. Pokémon’s Professor Oak is hiding something.
Okay, criticizing the plot of Pokémon is taking the low-hanging fruit; this is a kids’ game based on cockfighting, and it’s purposely pretty simplistic. Its messages are questionable, at best—if it were a great idea to capture wild animals and force them to fight, we wouldn’t have been kicked out of the bird sanctuary.
But the various versions of Pokémon still require immersion, and if you don’t believe that you’re really walking through the world of Pikachu and Butterfree, you’re probably not going to find it too engaging.
There’s another significant issue, and it hits you right when you start the game. The game starts with Professor Oak, a longtime family friend of your character and grandfather of your childhood best friend/current bully and rival, welcoming you to the world of Pokémon. Oak eventually gives you a Pokémon of your own, but first, he asks your name and gender. Okay, that’s fair, maybe he doesn’t remember you from years earlier, but immediately after, he asks you for his grandson’s name.
That’s right: He forgot his own grandson’s name. In the game, this is explained as a moment of forgetfulness, but that’s a pretty big senior moment for a guy whose job requires (we assume) an encyclopedic knowledge of hundreds of species.
A game that did it better: Well, pretty much every other game that requires players to create their own character starts that process independent of a character that’s supposed to know your character. Nintendo decided to make character creation a cute little part of the story, which is totally fine—it’s just a disturbing idea if you think about it for more than a few seconds.
Yes, we know, we have no life. Anyway, play Monster Hunter World instead.
It’s nothing like Pokémon, but it’s just as addictive, and it has one of the most in-depth character creation features we’ve seen in a long time.
7. Fallout 3 has a shocking conclusion…unless you think about it.
If you like open-world games but you’re not a big fan of dragons, the Fallout series is right up your (dystopian and bomb-ravaged) alley. In Fallout 3, you play a character emerging from a fallout shelter, and over the courses of the game, you travel the wastelands of Washington D.C., searching for answers while you blow up a bunch of stuff.
Fallout 3 has great lore, and it’s almost on par with Skyrim in depth. The main plot is pretty compelling, and at the end of the game, you’re tasked with a choice that has real consequences: You decide the fate of the Washington D.C. water supply. Either the player or one of their companions needs to activate an experimental water purifier, but its control room is full of radiation—whoever enters will not return. When you’ve made your choice, the player character (or whichever companion is with you) sacrifices their life for the greater good. It’s a touching moment, but it’s also wholly unnecessary.
One of Fallout 3’s best companions is Fawkes, an intelligent super mutant who’s completely immune to radiation. If Fawkes carries out the mission, everyone lives—but Fawkes straight-up refuses.
“I’m sorry, my companion, but no,” he says. “We all have our own destinies, and yours culminates here. I would not rob you of that.” When the job’s complete, Fawkes simply watches from behind safety glass as the radiation liquifies the player.
In other words, Fawkes is too lazy to help save the city and, by extension, you. Some companion he turned out to be. That being said, two other possible companions include another radiation-resistant humanoid and a sentient robot. Like the kind of robot that doesn’t get affected by radiation.
We should note that this plot hole was only present in the original version of the game; later, an update allowed Fawkes (and the other radiation-immune companions) to start the water purifier, but he criticizes the player for being a coward anyway. That’s a pretty sloppy way to handle a plot hole.
A game that did it better: Fallout 4 and Fallout: New Vegas both have similar pivotal moments, but instead of sending a companion off to die, the player must carry out the final tasks. Of the two, Fallout: New Vegas is the better game, although the newer Fallout 4 has nicer graphics.