Story in video games is a funny thing. It’s something people often say is less important and should come second to gameplay. While I don’t entirely disagree, I think they are downplaying an important aspect of games.
Story enhances the game immensely and critical to immersing the player into a different world. Story in games has evolved significantly in 20 years. Not that narrative in games wasn’t already complex, just look at any Final Fantasy game. However, storytelling has come a long way, thrusting video games into a recognized artistic medium.
Story is Doomed
Let’s take a trip back to 1981. The Raiders of the Lost Ark was in a theater near you, Ronald Reagan had recently been shot, and The Smurfs was just about ready to grace our small screen. A little game called Donkey Kong hit arcades in July of that year and was an instant classic.
Now, Donkey Kong was far from the first game to utilize story, but it was one of the first games I had the pleasure of playing (I had it on original Game Boy!). The story is simple: ape steals girl, man has to save girl. The story is never stated, or spelled out. We just know that’s how it goes. By nature of the setup, it doesn’t need further elaboration. It’s a simple damsel in distress tale. It works perfectly with the type of game Donkey Kong is, and it gives us the most basic context we need.
Now, let’s fast forward 12 years to 1993. Another extremely popular game, Doom, had just been released. The concept of Doom is almost as simplistic as Donkey Kong. You play as a space marine, who must shoot his way from one end of the map to the other, in order to save earth (and the rest of the universe) from a demonic invasion.
Donkey Kong’s story is more of a concept rather than an actual narrative. Doom had a full paragraph in the manual to explain the predicament you are in. It’s actually a pretty funny read and I recommend looking it up. That little paragraph provided enough context to understand the narrative of the game. It even had a few text screens after you beat a landmark boss to further the story.
Now, did Doom or Donkey Kong need a story to be enjoyable? No. There is something about both games that is inherently fun. They can be played with no context at all and still be entertaining. That’s a true testament to the people who designed them, but I use them as an example to illustrate how even a simplistic story can help to immerse the player. In short, the story helps to invest the player in the game, and because of the story we, as players, don’t just have to watch or read it, we can help it unfold.
The Final Frontier
Let’s now take a look at a more recent game, the Mass Effect trilogy. These are three games with an extensive narrative and fleshed out characters. When I first played Mass Effect, story wise, it was like nothing I had ever played before. At the time, they were the pinnacle of interactive storytelling. It had branching conversation paths that could drastically change the narrative, as well as optional side missions that could also change the story if certain ones weren’t completed. Bottom line though, if you were anything like me, you were emotionally invested in the characters and wanted to stay with the story until the very end, and then you would drink to try and forget the terrible ending of Mass Effect 3. I still have a hangover from that one.
Story in video games has come a long way and continues to make new and clever strides to keep players invested. While compelling stories are nothing new, they are being turned out more frequently and I’m always anxious to see what the future of game narrative holds.