I’ve been playing more of the Shadowrun: Hong Kong Extended Edition content– the post-game storyline that ties up some loose ends that the main story resolves but doesn’t quite clean up. It’s really satisfying, because (avoiding spoilers) some characters at the end of the main storyline don’t get the comeuppance I’d like to have had the chance to deliver, and while that’s a very Shadowrun-feeling thing, it’s nice to be able to go after them in the epilogue.
The Shadowrun games are, mechanically, a lot like many other games out there. XCOM is a superior tactical shooter in many ways, Satellite Reign does some more creative stuff with real-time stealth and cover, and most turn-based isometric tactical games offer a lot more functional customization than Shadowrun does. I still keep coming back to it over those other games, and it’s based on one key feature that beats out its competition: writing.
A manager of mine used to half-jokingly tease our team’s (excellent) writer when asked about some narrative plan or plot twist. Do what you like, he’d say, “as long as it’s well-written”. Different game, different set of people, but that sentiment really resonates. I keep coming back to Shadowrun because I adore the writing. It’s nothing fancy, no voiceovers, lots of text in boxes, very old-school in that regard, but it consistently sets the mood, fills in details without getting bogged down in them, and makes me laugh, seethe, and sigh at various times. It introduced me to a slew of characters that, on paper, I liked none of, and by the end of the game I was completely attached to.
More than anything, it inspires me to write my own stuff, and gives me ideas. It provides little hooks, various options, and lots of choices throughout the game. It sets up no-win situations that are still satisfying in the end, and I’ve rarely if ever felt like I’ve been forced down a choice that I didn’t want. There’s lot of side content, lots of little extra details filling out the world and suggesting that it *is* a world, just one that I’m seeing only a small part of, and other bits in glimpses. In and among all of this, it manages to surprise me in ways I don’t expect. It’s not just that there are plot twists, because I see those coming, it’s that the twists still happen in ways that I didn’t expect, that still make sense.
I place a lot of value on writing that can surprise me; I’ve read a lot and have seen the same tropes unfold in lots of different ways, so seeing something I’m familiar with flipped a slightly different way, or seeing something I didn’t expect at all tends to stick with me. Good narrative sells me really quickly on an experience, and I’m willing to trade fidelity in a lot of other things to get it. I’m reminded of Warframe here, and how a good game became enthralling when the storytelling suddenly improved dramatically. I like almost nothing about the gameplay presentation of Persona 3 Portable, especially after having played the more refined Persona 4, but the story was compelling enough to hook me.
In the meantime, there are plenty of truly excellent games where the narrative (or lack thereof) leaves me wanting. I love Elite: Dangerous’ gameplay, but the lack of any compelling storytelling keeps me from bothering to log in. Star Wars: Battlefront’s lack of a campaign left me ultimately unsatisfied with the game, despite it being incredibly fun in other ways– I even loved CoD: Modern Warfare because of its excellent single-player campaign. I started playing Dex, and while the game’s setup and art was really interesting, the writing turned me off.
I’ve been listening to Bel — Mr. “I don’t care about story just give me something to fight” himself — talk about the Division, and what I hear from him is how enthused he is about the setting and the story they’ve set up. The very first thing he linked me was a youtuber deep-diving into the game’s story, piecing together scraps to see how much he could uncover. Story matters, and having context makes a huge difference.
As it turns out, I’ll play pretty much any game… as long as it’s well-written.