Exploring the wreckage of a more interesting age: when game backstories overshadow the actual game

In Bioshock, the high quality of the game's backstory can make it feel like you've missed out on all the good stuff.

Have you ever played a game whose backstory was more interesting than the game’s actual current setting and plot?

Over the last year, I played through Bioshock and its sequel, the appropriately-named Bioshock 2. Both are very good games. In both, you assume the roll of an “outsider” exploring the wreckage of a failed underwater utopia called Rapture; as you progress through the ruins, you learn about the politics, intrigue, and violence that “wrecked” Rapture and paved the way for your arrival on the scene.

The backstories of both games are filled with warring political factions, double agents, megalomaniacal villains (on all sides), betrayal, mass murder, twisted science, and sordid affairs. Or so is implied by the bits and pieces of history you pick up as you roam through the game.

By contrast, the plots that you, the player, experience are interesting, but rather tame by comparison. It is not inaccurate to say that in both games, you’re merely playing out the epilogue of a grander, more intriguing story that has already taken place.

I feel a bit ridiculous critiquing the Bioshocks on these grounds, because as it happens, both feature excellent plots and memorable characters. But both games teeter on the brink of an age-old danger in game design: making the game background so interesting and involved that it threatens to overshadow the players and their stories.

Exalted is the rare game that attempts to make its lost golden age a playable setting.

Related to this problem is the fantasy genre staple of the “lost golden age”—an era in the distant past in which everything was simply more awesome in every respect than the current age. Think Middle-Earth’s First Age; Exalted’s (uh) First Age, 4th edition D&D’s fallen empire of Nerath, all post-apocalyptic games, many sci-fi games, etc. (Exalted does get bonus points for actually publishing a sourcebook on its lost golden age.)

I know there are some excellent reasons that “golden ages” don’t make great adventuring settings—but surely I’m not the only person who, upon reading about the greatness of what came before, occasionally wonders why I’m not adventuring in that setting, instead of picking my way through its wreckage.

What about you? Ever played a computer or tabletop game and been more interested in its backstory than its current setting?

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3 Comments

  1. Charlie says:

    Andy,

    I feel that way about Eberron sometimes. Playing in an age of war and having a chance to stop things like the Mournland from coming to pass sounds interesting.

    Rogue Trader has a past golden age but with a twist. All those tech goodies nearly destroyed mankind. So the golden age wasn’t so great after all. The current age is harder to define; no one is trying to rebuild the Age of Dark Technology. That makes it interesting to me, as man has to make different choices this time around and he can’t predict how things will turn out (or if they’ll turn out).

    Maybe games that feature a golden age that has passed but are all about trying to get back to that same type of age seem somewhat frustrating because you are trying to recreate and build on what other legendary heroes have done instead of blazing a trail yourself. The twist RT gives this new age seems to overcome that problem.

    Charlie

  2. Andy says:

    Charlie, I agree that Rogue Trader avoids these pitfalls–for one thing, there’s just so much potentially interesting stuff that your character can do in the game’s present era! I’m sure there’s plenty of interesting history to the Warhammer 40K universe, but they do a good job of making the challenges and opportunities of the present era more compelling.

    I don’t know much about Eberron, but I do have a weird confession: anytime a game setting describes some epic, world-changing event (like the Mournland’s creation), a little voice in my head always wonders if I’m actually reading an after-action report from the game designers’ own game group. I especially wonder this whenever I read of an event in a game’s history that involves a single hero or band of adventurers doing something epic. And that sort of thing makes me think, “Wouldn’t it be even more awesome if it were MY PC had done that epic task, instead of just living in the aftermath of somebody else’s heroism?”

    Of course, the beauty of paper and pencil RPGs is that if you want, you CAN go back and have your PCs be the heroes who changed the world. It might just take a little extra work 🙂

  3. Jones says:

    I agree I feel the backstory is the best part of both games. Its moe a story than a game really, your just playing through it. It would make an amazing book if you ask me.

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