Gotcha Force and Storytelling

I usually don’t care about stories in video games. I play games for the gameplay, and a laughably bad story can sometimes be as entertaining as a good one. That’s not to say that I don’t recognize game writing as an art-form, but it’s not the thing that draws me to games. However, a few months ago I came across a unique story moment that was surprisingly impactful, and it came from a very unlikely source: Gotcha Force, a GameCube game about children fighting with toy robots.

To understand what made this story beat meaningful, you’ll need some context, so let’s start with the game’s premise. Gotcha Force is a fast-paced action game about tiny robots from space. They come to Earth, the good robots befriend children, and together they fight the evil robots. This is a game meant for children, and all the story’s conflicts are solved with lasers and friendship. But it’s a very fun game; the combat is surprising deep, and there are over 200 robots to collect, each of which plays differently.

One repeating story and gameplay element is recruiting friends to fight by your side. When you start, it’s just the main character, Koh, on his own. But after a few fights, you start meeting other children who have befriended robots of their own. These children will join you after you’ve done a mission with them, such as rescuing them or fighting alongside them against the evil bots. Some of the kids take longer to recruit or act as antagonists for a little while, but you’re guaranteed to eventually win over all but two of them. One is being controlled by the evil power from space that’s controlling the evil bots (and you can recruit her on a second playthrough), and the other is Sho.

Sho is the cool kid. He has a cool haircut, a bad attitude, and the best bots. (He’s the kid on the left in the image above.) At a few points in the story, you’re given the option to fight him. And did I mention he has the best bots? Because these are all very difficult fights, and the game is up front about your low odds of winning. I knew Sho was recruitable, and I knew it involved winning these fights. But I didn’t remember how many fights there were or if any were missable. So I scoured the game to find every fight, and I used every exploit I could think of to beat him. When I won the first time and he walked away, I accepted that there were more fights in store. When he didn’t join after the second fight, I assured myself that the game wasn’t even half over yet, so there was still plenty of time. After beating him a third time and still not winning him over, I started to worry that I had done something wrong.

Now, the reason you want to befriend all these children is that at the start of each fight, you’re either assigned one of the kids or get to choose one, and they fight beside you, each of you fielding one robot at a time against your enemies (who can have between two to five bots out at once). The game is mostly easy, so it rarely matters who you’re partnered up with, but there’s some fun to be found in seeing what the other kids can do and trying to match up their strengths to the enemies’ weaknesses. Occasionally, though, you’ll face a fight on your own. This is pretty rare, but it had happened enough that when one of these solo fights showed up near the end of the game, I didn’t think anything of it. I just loaded up my favorite bots and got to blasting. But then the fight started to wear me down. The enemy was fielding some pretty tough bots, and more of them just kept coming. You can tell how far along you are in any given fight, and I knew I was running out of steam while the enemy still had half their strength left. As I mentioned earlier, the game is mostly easy, so a difficult fight like this caught me off guard. I was a little annoyed at the sudden difficulty spike and began considering strategies for getting through the gantlet. Just as I was accepting that I was going to need to give up and try again, the magic happened: Sho turned up.

It’s hard to express why this was so meaningful, since it was a moment delivered almost entirely through gameplay, but I’ll try my best. First, I was relieved to have an ally come to my rescue when I needed him most. This had never happened before (and it never happens again after), so it was special just for that. Second, seeing Sho’s very cool robots start tearing into the enemies that had worn me down was exciting, even though I was mostly hanging back and playing it safe. Third, being suddenly rewarded like this for putting in the hard work in the previous fights against Sho felt great. I knew that after this fight I had a new, powerful ally, and one that I had earned, unlike all the other kids, who join as part of the story. That mixture of feelings was really surprising; the game had been fun but very light up to that point, so the sudden impact of all of that at once magnified everything.

I want to stress again that all of this was delivered by gameplay, not writing. The characters would exchange a few lines of dialogue before and after the three fights against Sho, but they’re nothing special and could be dropped to almost no negative effect. Just from what you see in combat, you know that Sho will be a great ally. He’s easily stronger than any other kid who joins you, so you’ll want him more than all the others. And the game holds him back until this ideal moment, making the payoff that much better.

I don’t think I can really get across why this was so special to me. But I wanted to share it, because I think the kinds of stories that are told with games, the kinds of stories we’ve come to expect, aren’t by any stretch the limit of what games can do. This is a medium that has untold potential, and we can still learn lessons about that potential from silly games like Gotcha Force.

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