Story modes are, and always should be, one of the focus points of any game. While gunning down rival players or team-playing quests may be awesome, it’ll never have the same emotional impact as a well-written tale. For proof of this, play Battlefield 1’s campaign story called Friends In High Places, where you’ll learn the tale of Clyde Blackburn.
I’ve just spent the last five hours on the streets of Los Santos in GTA V’s online mode. During that time, I took part in an extreme sports skydiving tournament, did some street racing, took on a deathmatch challenge and then, just for the sheer thrill of it, I took part in an extended game of cat-and-mouse against another player which caused chaos in the streets. It was an adrenaline-filled experience. It was also a pretty damn pointless waste of five hours.
With so many games being online, some players question why games even bother including story modes anymore. After all, isn’t the rush of online gaming enough? GTA V offered the best of both worlds by giving both a self-contained story and a mayhem-fuelled online mode. But there are still many players who enjoy playing by themselves, who demand and deserve great story campaigns. Sometimes it isn’t about the quick fix and, without a great story, you’ve only got half a real game.
Battlefield 1 dumped players in the midst of World War One, and it’s an emotionally exhausting game which pulls no punches in showing the grim reality of war. When the intro level has players taking control of soldiers who get slaughtered every few seconds, you know you’re in for a nightmarish ride which cuts close to the bone. From trench warfare and driving a tank in France to guerrilla missions in the Arabian Peninsula, Battlefield 1 has many strengths, with a variety of global campaigns and stunning graphics amongst them.
It has an online mode too, but the writing of Friends In High Places really is the best. Players take control of the main protagonist Clyde Blackburn. When we first meet this American pilot, we find him cheating at cards, stealing a plane and lying about his identity… so players interpret him as a bit of a lovable rogue. That makes sense, right? Because why wouldn’t your player be the good guy?
Clyde and his gunner, Wilson, are ambushed by German planes and a dogfight breaks out. Still, they manage to recon a munitions base and are soon leading a bombing raid on the enemy base. So far, so standard. Except Clyde told Wilson that all of this would lead to medals and glory, and promised that he would make sure Wilson would return home safely. And, well, we know Clyde’s a habitual liar and we know that probably isn’t going to happen.
When Clyde comes across Wilson, trapped in the wreckage of the plane, he’s left with a difficult choice: live up to his promises and save the man, doing the honourable thing even though trying to carry him back home is a suicide mission… or kill his friend in cold blood to silence him, and get back safely by himself. It’s a defining moment when Clyde saves him. With the player staggering back to the safety of British lines, weighed down by Wilson and unable to hold a weapon to defend yourself, it’s a harrowing journey.
Once they’re back in friendly territory, Clyde faces a court-martial and is handcuffed to the railing of a boat on the River Thames. However, a German air-raid kills the officer who arrested him and forces Clyde and Wilson to return to the action. They fly off to protect London in an action-packed sequence. Having saved the day, Clyde and Wilson leap from a German zeppelin into the river. We don’t see Wilson again, but Clyde drags himself out the water and lives to tell the tale… and this is the tale he’s telling, the one he’s sticking to. It’s also one of the greatest moments in gaming; not the gameplay of the level, which pulls you in instantly with action, adventure and nail-biting experiences, but Clyde’s story.
Because it’s a lie.
Clyde’s final narrative statements, along with flashbacks, will have any player’s jaw dropping and their mind reeling as the truth sinks in. Clyde says that his tale, as fantastical as it all may sound, is completely true… although there are other versions of his story out there, ones which conflict with the ones the player has been through. He chalks it up to the confusion of the war. After all, he tells us with a sly smile, he wouldn’t lie to us… would he?
That slippery bastard. Of course, he would lie to us, because he’s lied to everybody else. He lied and the great gameplay suckered us in, making us believe it. Yet the minute you see the flashbacks, you realise you’ve been conned.
Clyde killed Wilson when they were trapped behind enemy lines because he had the chance to save his own skin. That’s why you can’t see him when you’re making your escape run. Clyde killed him and came home by himself. He never stopped the air-raid either. If he’d jumped from the zeppelin like he said, he’d probably have died from the impact. Instead, he was probably still on the boat when his arresting officer got killed and escaped when it sank which is why he’s seen climbing out of the water.
He isn’t a lovable rogue, and he isn’t a hero. He’s a liar, a cheat, a murderer… and a survivor.
History is written by the victors. The fact that Clyde survives, in a war which claimed the lives of over 18 million people, makes him one of those victors. He can tell the story however he damn well pleases, to the point that he can even admit to being purposefully ambiguous to the player. He may only be a fictional character in a game set during real-life events, but at that moment he seems real. You don’t know whether you should love him or hate him.
A story did that. A story as good as anything in books or movies, if not better, because you’re playing it and living it. There’s no online play which can compete with that or toy with your emotions like that, no matter how many other gamers join you in an FPS or team up with you on an MMORPG quest. They won’t always be the best, but when they’re done right they’re amazing.
So sure, grab your Doritos and your Mountain Dew and beast-mode your matches. That’s a good thing. But don’t ever count out the story campaigns. They can offer moments and twists which will never be surpassed.