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?