In the beginning, there wasn’t much need. They were simpler times, and what could be done already was mind-blowing to most. A flick of a stick, press of a single button, and you were off into fascinating worlds of adventure.
Stories in video games have evolved more rapidly than in any other medium, though the going has been quite rough over most of its brief history. In some cases, a more careful look at games’ instruction manuals can even leave one wondering just how games could roll forward like they did. For example, consider the ‘Object of the Game’ from the Super Mario Brothers booklet:
“One day the Kingdom of the peaceful Mushroom People was invaded by the Koopa, a tribe of turtles famous for their black magic. The quiet, peace-loving Mushroom People were turned into stones, bricks and even field horse-hair plants. Th eonly one who can undo the spell is Princess Toadstool, daughter of the Mushroom King. She is, however, in the hands of the great Koopa turtle King. Mario, the hero of the story (maybe) [note: yes, the instruction manual is actually ambiguous in its original text regarding this point] hears about the Mushroom People’s plight and sets out on a quest to free the Princess from the evil Koopa. You are Mario! It’s up to you to save the Mushroom People from the black magic of the Koopa!”
Ignoring the careless homicides that Mario would thus be responsible for (how many bricks does the average player smash apart on a single play-through?) we’ve been served an exceedingly simple and trope-fueled, traditional fantasy story. ‘Kingdom of peace imperiled by evil magic outsiders, a hero steps in to save the girl and save the world. Plucky and outnumbered, he uses unique skills to win the day. The end.’
The 8-bit and pre-8-bit era didn’t require a lot of narrative to hook players, much like board games didn’t before the introduction of video games. The mechanics varied, but the ultimate goal remained the same for most: use whatever maneuvers seemed best to counter the opponents, and win. This was the essence of competition, of games, at their very core.
The first Dragon Quest title for the Nintendo Entertainment System (released in the U.S. as Dragon Warrior) has its lone hero dispatched into the world to track down and defeat a dark figure who has unleashed monsters upon the world, so that peace can return to the land. It’s a story not too different than Mario’s, if you think about it. ‘Magic-wielding outsider invades peaceful land, plucky young knight must save the world.’ The main difference here is that Dragon Quest’s nameless protagonist is beseeched by his liege-lord, and there’s no major emphasis put on saving a helpless princess or damsel-in-distress to do it.
Yet as gameplay mechanics and ivsuals became more complex and dynamic, with greater, more vivid worlds available, developers seemed to natively recognize the players might benefit from a little more narrative motivation to guide their controlled avatars through their particular challenges. The most in-depth, story-driven games, which relied more on strategy and thinking, and gave characters dialogue and context, were often compared to pen-and-paper games like Dungeons and Dragons, games referred to as role-playing games.
Thus, RPGs, and thank the gods for them, I say.
If we flash forward to today, we can see just how much more important narrative has become in the realm of video games. The TellTale games are effectively interactive visual novels, and they are massively popular nowadays, a trend I’m encouraged by. Ask any modern average gamer who enjoys the Halo series what it’s about, and they can flood you with a deluge of lore. A lot of that lore isn’t even in the games; it stems from licensed books, official blogs, and even fanfiction.
Yes, fanfiction. But that’s a topic that could encompass an entire set of essays all its own, so let’s not get sidetracked, yes?
Game review publications like Gamepro, Nintendo Power, and EGM used to for years utilize a kind of 4-category metric to judge games by: Graphics, Sound, Playability/Mechanics, and Challenge/Replay Value. Since the days of the mid-Playstation 1 era, however, and online game review sites and forums, another metric has come into prominence: story/characters.
After all, if you ask any Final Fantasy 7 veteran what they remember most about that title when they played it the first time or two, 8 out of 10 will reference a scene, plot point, or specific character. One will mention the flexibility of the materia system (not even in and of itself unique or new at the time; Revelations-Persona and its tarot/Persona assignment system had already done something similar). The last one will mention the hidden Weapon bosses, Ruby, Emerald and Ultimate.
So, how precisely have we seen stories grow in video games? In some areas, growth has been extraordinary, while in others, it has been an absolute mess. Part of the mess can be laid squarely on the shoulders of gamers themselves, those who don’t particularly care if the narrative is consistent or told well, so long as the overall experience is ‘fun’, or otherwise satisfying. Another part of the mess stems from titles with superb tales whose mechanics are sloppy, uncooperative, or extremely limiting or boring.
The most important thing for developers to bear in mind going forward, if they want their titles to succeed in the ‘story’ department, is this- the video game itself is the vehicle for the story. It can only be successful if the vehicle itself functions well (mechanics), appeals to the driver (graphics and sound), and the cargo itself is well-made (the story). Otherwise, they may as well create a new 3D chess with an advanced AI for gamers. Why? Because without a solid narrative, aren’t we right back to an exercise of just trying to win?