"I do wish I was in the room when the committee decided that the best way to rescue the president was to find two civilian punks. Did the secretary of defense stand up and say, 'We can't spare the military personnel to rescue our president. So we'll just inspire a couple of street dudes to do it by questioning their badness. Easy.'" — Seanbabyhands out a "Best Game Intro" Award to Bad Dudes.
Most media have some kind of setting. A world, a time, some characters, maybe some backstory... but not in a large number of Video Games and some traditional games. No frill, no fluff, just an entire experience carried by the gameplay, maybe the sound and visuals in a supporting role. Story will likely get in the way of these games, at worst annoying the player with the interruption; given the chance to skip story, they will. Expect Rule of Fun to be invoked, and often.
In the days of Retro Gaming, limited processing power limited the amount of storytelling a game designer could employ so many games of the era were either this or an Excuse Plot by necessity. Today, much of the big money in video game production is aimed at big blockbuster-style story experiences so this is more likely to be the aim of smaller productions.
Since this is used so often in video gaming, let's not list every single example, just genres, notable exceptions, or inversions. Or specific references to this in other media.
Not to be confused with No Plot? No Problem!, a handbook guide to the very popular (Inter)National Novel Writing Month contest.
Compare Excuse Plot, Porn Without Plot, High Concept, and Play the Game, Skip the Story.
Prevalent in early pinball machines, due to the technical limitations of electromechanical designs. The pinball's theme would often have little to no bearing on the gameplay itself. The advent of solid-state computers eventually made this a Dead Horse Trope, as pinball designers were able to implement more complex rules and modes in their games.
The Atarians is notable for featuring a man and a woman in a futuristic landscape fighting various aliens, and absolutely no indication of who they are or what's going on.
The various Playboy pinballs eschew any pretense of a plot and go straight for the Fanservice. Doubly so with Stern's game, which supports fully nude Playmates as an operator option.
Averted with Doctor Who, which has a very detailed (relative to most pinball games) plot involving The Master and Davros teaming up to use a "Time Expander" to destroy all incarnations of The Doctor. Unfortunately, much of it was All There in the Manual, which made it very difficult for some players to learn the game.
There isn't even any attempt to explain what's going on in AC/DC. When a game begins, the player is simply asked to pick a song, then shoot for certain things on the playfield. It doesn't even have a premise like with Metallica where the band members are characters—the only audio in the game are the music, sound effects pertaining to what's been shot, and a few quick and sparse voice clips of some unknown character unrelated to anything.
4X: These games sometimes let you slip into a historical or fantastic scenario with a little scene-setting to kick things off, but for the most part, it's "Here's your starting units and basic knowledge, now go make something happen."
Aerobiz: The goal is to start and expand an airline.
All Points Bulletin (APB Reloaded): This game by the developers of Crackdown also looks like this at first. Being a game about cops and robbers in punkish outfits. However the backstory e-mails and the long carefully detailed backstories of your contacts show that the developers actually tried to make the gameworld have a story.
Antichamber: Has no narrative. Just a minimalist series of hallways full of puzzles, wry observations on the current situation and how it relates to life written on the walls, and Alien Geometries.
In Binary Boy, there is no plot. There is just the Boy who can only walk on one path, but can do so upside down, and five levels he needs to be guided through past obstacles and enemies, with a records table at the end.
Carmageddon played with this, mostly as it was conceived as a Death Race 2000 game but didn't actually get the license. Thus they kept the general idea, but changed the plot to "Plot? Want a plot? Buy a book!" while leaving only vague hints of the "world" in the racemaps description.
Abandons all plot so that players can pick one of several heroes of the franchise. Some of which are centuries apart in the Castlevania timeline.
The menu is the pages of a book, and there are equipment hotspots that are books. There is a very light excuse plot that Dracula is taking over the book and the other Castlevania heroes, including Dracula himself have to stop him...but it's an arcade style game, and Word of God states there is no plot.
The many, many ports of Centipede usually tried to give it a plot. They had a variety of backstories, but the most commonly used were:
Crackdown doesn't have a plot. It has a premise. You are a super-soldier cop, you are thrown into a city full of gangs, and your mission is to kill as many of them and their leaders as you can, evolving into a stronger, faster, higher-jumping cop as you go.
Devil World: The intro scene shows nothing more than the game's characters and the message, "Attack the Devil's world!" No actual plot exists beyond this.
Dustforce doesn't have anything resembling to plot. Only cleaners and locations needing to be cleaned.
Dwarf Fortress: You could pick up on enough procedurally generated history to assume your own plot and come up with a purpose for your fortress or adventurer, but it isn't necessary for most and doesn't change gameplay itself.
While the manuals may contain some backstory for the characters, frequently, gameplay itself generally consists of nothing more than beating the other player up. Many go for the Excuse Plot of a fighting tournament note although no tournament format known to man requires a participant to match up with every other participant and requires a perfect record to advance or win; otherwise, it can be tough to make excuses for why every good guy wants to fight every other good guy, and the game winds up here.
The first Chaos Faction game had no plot whatsoever other than, 'just beat the crap out of your opponents.' Chaos Faction 2 had a miniscule subplot revolving around the Big Bad, Vortigon, returning, but it too focused much more on the actual combat, other than the stage-specific scenarios.
Once in a while, some franchises also have plotless installments, also called Dream Match Games. This allows them to return fan-favorites who for some reason can't return in canon games.
Multiplayer maps are usually nothing more than arenas for players to kill each other. Single player campaigns have varying levels of plot.
Team Fortress 2 is notable for its success without any single-player component at all for years, until the introduction of a single-player training mode in 2010. An ever-expanding story that went from the Excuse Plot of "Two corporations run the world and employ mercenary teams when they need to apply force" has expanded on the TF2 website to forge personal links between the characters and create an Alternate History that includes bitter dispute among the powerful family behind those corporations and Australia becoming a world power through mastery of Unobtainium and gravel. None of all this has any bearing on the game itself - other than introducing new guns - which pretty much remains plotless.
Until the introduction of Mann Vs Machine mode, which dialed things up to the unprecedented new world of Excuse Plot! (Mr. Grey wants Mr. Hale's stockpile of radioactive gold; defend a factory from Grey's Money Spider robots)
This franchise's multiplayer maps avert this. They are canon.
Halo 4's multiplayer averts it further: it's justified as combat exercises carried out in the advanced starship Infinity. The maps are even used in the story-oriented "Spartan Ops"; some maps made specifically for Forge are even said to be real locations picked for the potential Infinity's mapmakers could use in them.
Helter Skelter: There isn't any explanation for why all the monsters are running around, nor is there any description of what world the abstract level designs are supposed to represent.
Infinity Blade: Played with. The first game consists of a Warrior and his descendants trying to slay the God-King. There is little explanation given for this, although if you break into the God-King's lab, you'll get hints that this is a story behind all this. The second game has even more of a plot and explains some more.
Krakout: This horizontally-oriented Breakout game for the Commodore 64 has some Lampshade Hanging about this on the title screen: "Sorry there is no scrolly message but we decided to give you an amazing game instead."
Mario Paint: Just paint anything or compose music. It also has a mini-game where the player swats insects for no reason.
Mass Effect 3: Averted Trope by multiplayer missions, which take place in locations Shepard visits in-game (before the expansions, at least) and involve parties of side characters helping with the war effort.
The basic plot is "Wake up on a island. Punch trees, mine, build, kill monsters." Notch has however said that he wishes to include some type of plot in the game later.
Make whatever you wish from the NPC villages, strongholds and abandoned mineshafts.
Now there's a general structure to the game with a long sequence of tasks necessary to "finish" the game. First you learn to make wooden tools, then stone tools, then iron tools, then diamond tools. Then you use the diamond tools to build a portal to another dimension called The Nether. Then you find a Nether fortress and kill a bunch of blazes for their powder. Then you combine the blaze powder with Ender Pearls dropped by Endermen, and use the resulting item to locate a stronghold and activate a portal to another dimension called The End. Then you slay the Ender Dragon. Technically, all this is just an optional side quest, and the real objective of the game is to have fun, whatever that means to you.
Qwak is fast-paced and simple enough that most players probably won't notice the absence of a plot. "Games this good rarely need a story" is how the manual of the Amiga version put it.
Rayman Origins. Other than a brief mention that the world is in danger, you joyfully go jumping around musical instruments buried on a desert, glaciers floating in strawberry juice and a giant Mexican kitchen.
The first two Scribblenauts have no real plot to speak of, although the prequel Scibblenauts Unlimited and DC Crossover Unmasked do.
Everyday Shooter, although that might also be a Rhythm Game.
Phoenix gives no explanation for the premise in the arcade version. The manual for the Atari 2600 port, does create a reason for why the phoenix birds are hostile (something they clearly were not in Greek Mythology) and why there are so many of them (traditional mythololgy is consistent on there being only one phoenix at any time). Radioactive fallout fell on the phoenix's nest causing them to mutate and multiply.
In the case of SimCity, creator Will Wright came up with the term "software toy" for his Sim creations: since you can do anything you like and the "game" doesn't really tell you whether you've "won" or "lost", it's more like a toy (a LEGO set comes to mind) than a game. To be sure, you can be doing "better" or "worse," but then, toys have that function too (e.g., when your LEGO construction falls apart or breaks or just doesn't look right to you).
For Crush, Crumble, and Chomp!, the whole point of the game is for the player to smash everything in sight. The closest thing to a plot are the cities, which only have a passing resemblance to their Real Life counterparts.
The Wide Open Sandbox of the X-Universe series easily outshines the games' plots as the main attraction. The developers even included a gamestart where the plots are disabled (though the Custom Start is intended more for testing mods than actual play).
Kerbal Space Program has no real story or backstory to the game aside from player fanon. There's just you, your space program, a ton of rocket parts, a solar system filled with planets and moons, and an endless supply of eager would-be rocket jockeys.
Snake: You are a snake. You eat things. Try not to crash into yourself or a wall.
Sonic Dash. You run, jump, duck, kill enemies, collect rings, and occasionally fight a boss.
Doesn't have a story in the main game when you take your creature from the five game modes, and there will be no conflict that can build up as a plot (well, things do happen in the creature stage and you can fight with animals, tribes, cities and empires but it still doesn't add anything to it).
Some users actually thought outside of the Core Spore aspects and gave their races a backstory and their creatures do things that weren't possible in the main game.
This trope somewhat counts in Galactic Adventure because some user-made adventures have an arcade feel to them and only focuses on gameplay, while most of them do have a plot.
Star Ruler: The goal is this: Conquer the galaxy. With no hint of plot, just set up a game and take over the galaxy.
Tony Hawk's Underground: Averted, with one of the most developed plots that had so far ever been seen in a sports-oriented game, about two friends slowly growing to hate each other as each follows a different path to stardom. Many later games in the series have taken to including a solid story.
Trigger Knight: It is anyone's guess why the knight is running through a field, beating up monsters, with a limited amount of time before she fades away.
Worms are trying to kill each other with nasty weapons. Why? Who knows? More to the point, who cares?
Amusingly enough, if one sits on the menu screen for long enough in almost any of the games, the background music reveals itself to be an incredibly long intro to a voiced ballad. Sung by Bjorn Lynne, both versions (Wormsong and Wormsong 2003) detail a single event of mortal combat in the near-eternal cycles of wormy war. Still no real plot for the actual game, though.
Wrecking Crew: This game is about two Palette Swapped brothers walking around demolishing walls while a foreman and some monsters try to get in their way. Not even the manual tries to explain why.
There's no story given in The Floor is Jelly, not even on its official website or development blog. Just you jumping around in a very bouncy world.
Sean Malstrom's argument is that most video game plots suck (stating that many game writers wouldn't make it as movie writers), so video games should pretty much just use them as Excuse Plots, stating that stories are why we play games, not what we play games to achieve.
Tetris Worlds gave it a shot by turning the Minos (the blocks that make up the iconic Tetriminos) into Animate Inanimate Objects, came up with the idea to have the Matrix (the Tetris game area) take place within "Tetrions", devices which serve as gateways to other planets that can be opened by playing Tetris, and made the plot out to be the Minos using the Tetrions as a means of exodus from their soon-to-be-doomed home planet called Hadar 4.
Breakout was originally seen by players as a variation on pong. With the sequel Super Breakout, the box illustration depicted a man in a spacesuit deflecting a sort of energy ball at forcefield bricks. Even at the time, players had a hard time being convinced that a game like Breakout could represent a hazardous outer space adventure. But then along came Arkanoid which was basically an evolved version of Breakout where your paddle really is a spaceship and you can blast bricks with lasers via a powerup.
Non-video game examples:
Russian Ark is basically a 96-minute tour of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Faceless narrator and his companion wander from room to room, traveling back and forth through time, observing 300 years of Russian history. There's lots and lots of Costume Porn, Scenery Porn, and talk about art. There's also no story and no plot.
1929 film Man with a Movie Camera is a visual collage of urban life in the Soviet Union. The opening titles proclaim that the film was assembled "without help of a story", and in fact there is no plot, only a record of regular people about their daily life.
Baraka is, quite simply, the incarnation of this trope, in its most highly distilled form. In his review Roger Ebert said it should be the presentation on the "golden record" of the next spacecraft to go outside the solar system, as it is essentially a wordless montage of Earth's greatest sights and sounds. That Ebert included it in his list of the greatest movies ever made is proof-positive that it succeeded with aplomb.
Bad Lip Reading is Word Salad made from re-recording the audio for music videos, so 99% of videos have no distinguishable plot.