Narrative and good storytelling are integral aspects for creating an engaging, high-quality game. There are games where the story is less important, Minecraft for example, but a large number of games rely on writing and story to drive the game. This emphasis on narrative directly involves the player and immerses them further into the world the developers are trying to form. You can interact passively and experience a more linear story like Alan Wake or create your own story out of the choices you have made.
Story is the first thing I look for in a game; graphics, game mechanics, and multiplayer are all secondary. It was the intriguing stories of Assassin’s Creed and Dragon Age that drove me to discover more games and made gaming become a hobby of mine.
However, to some, story is not as important as other aspects of a game, with many believing that stories should be left to films and books if one wants a deep and emotional experience. Ultimately, though, video games are there to tell a story, and even Call of Duty has to have some coherence in its plot to drive the game forward. But violence and other factors take away from the depth of the story, some argue. However, these are minor bumps that can be overcome by truly great games or even made to further the narrative immersion. Not all game stories are created equally, but the stories that remain in our hearts are worthy of being recognized.
Not Just for Point and Clicks
Some believe that the very nature of action video games mean they can’t carry a storyline as well as other mediums. The argument goes that powerful narratives should be reserved for point-and-click games or text based games. Far Cry 2‘s creative director, Clint Hocking, says “that there is a market for narrative games that spontaneously generate stories according to the way they’re being played.” Hocking is not alone in this belief, as Guy Gadney, the creator of The Suspect, an interactive thriller, hopes “we are entering a stage, now, where writing shifts from being a monologue to a dialogue.”
We are already seeing this shift, with more and more games implementing choices for players to make that directly affect the story. This is most prominent in the success of TellTale’s The Walking Dead.This sort of immersion provides us with something that films and books can’t by putting us directly in the middle of the action. Despite opinions to the contrary, this mechanic is not reserved just for point-and-clicks like The Walking Dead.
Nine months after Gadney’s and Hockings’s statements, Dragon Age: Inquisition was released. Although far from the procedural generation of Hockings’s world, Dragon Age implements multiple choices and different possible endings for the game. To a certain extent, you could experience the story your way and make it entirely your own. Almost a year later, this was further improved on by The Witcher 3. It was a game praised for just about everything, but most importantly, it was praised for meaningful side quests that actually added something to the overall story.
Immersion is important with these games if they are going to succeed, as you are meant to experience the journey with the characters. For example The Walking Dead, wouldn’t have been able to make grown men cry if they weren’t invested in the story. It’s important for developers to try and immerse players, since they are working with fictional worlds. You have to believe the world to enjoy the game, and to do that, you have to feel you are a part of it.
Should We Leave Stories to Books and Films?
As befits one of the most important and enduring storytelling mediums, novels deal with deep issues and explore every side of humanity. One infamous opinion from Gamespot’s forums declared that “novels deal with humanity in all its wonder, flaws and the problems that arise from human relations” but argues video games don’t have that depth. Yet that’s not entirely accurate, as Dragon Age and The Witcher show.
Two of the issues raised in Dragon Age are class and race, important issues that continue to affect the real world. The segregation of the mages and the treatment of the elves is a continuous theme throughout. These are fantasy species and classes, obviously, but they warn us of the issues in our own world. By removing ourselves from the natural prejudices and stereotypes we cast on people in reality, we can begin to see clearly how these attitudes cause great harm, and it does tell us something about the problems within our own relationships to others. After all, when you have no preconceptions of elves, then all you see is the horrific nature of their treatment rather than some attribute or other perceived as a problem.
One reviewer believed that “the ways in which the dialogue and gameplay decisions allow you to express your own views of faith make Inquisition the most personal game in the series.” When a game allows you to project yourself that way in the story, it creates an incredibly deep experience. Even the original Dragon Age was praised for it’s decision mechanic and its fantastic writing. Kotaku, reviewing the game back at it’s release in 2009, expressed this idea nicely by saying “kingdoms rose and fell and important people lived or died based solely on my whims,” and this continues to bring players back to replay the game again and again.
There are Dragon Age books, yes, but the books were created after the game and add to the world that was already created. Our ideas of how this world should be and what makes it special come solely from the video game, with all the features that make a good piece of prose work.
The entire Witcher franchise is based on a series of books by Andrzej Sapkowski. Yet most people I have spoken to don’t know the books even exist, and the games convincingly deal with the central problems of power and the soul-consuming search for it. You constantly see kings, sorceresses or sorcerers, knights, and essentially everyone all vying for power, one way or the other. You witness the horror of war that accompanies that search and the devastation it causes for the people. True, the books give you extensive background knowledge of the major players in the story. But those key components that tell–and teach–us something fundamental about human nature translate perfectly into game form, bringing those messages to a wider audience than the books could.
The Witcher was a smash hit, not just with gamers, but developers too. Hajime Tabata revealed that “one of the games my development team played a lot last year was The Witcher 3,” stating that they had gotten to know the game really well. Everyone wanted a piece of the series’ success, even to incorporate it into their own games, and the story elements were a major part of that. Even reviewers believe that The Witcher captured the essence of the stories. Oli Welsh with Eurogamer said
Sapkowski’s universe is built on basic fantasy foundations – dragons, elves and magic in an alternate medieval Europe – but has a distinctive flavour. You’ll find the politicking and grim brutality of Game of Thrones here, but also the lusty derring-do of Conan and the creepy allegories of the Brothers Grimm.
In short, the game is a synthesis of all the very human elements that have continued to capture people’s imaginations for centuries.
When Games Get It Wrong
When a game’s story just doesn’t cut it, we all notice–something that couldn’t be said if narrative in games wasn’t important. Think back to games like Remember Me that held such promise with it’s intriguing storyline. Ultimately the game had fantastic concepts, but it’s execution was incredibly flat. IGN reviewer, Daniel Krupa believed that:
‘Remember Me is brimming with promise. It desperately wants to play up some big ideas…sadly its best ideas don’t really find their way into the gameplay itself,’
Remember Me is incredibly forgettable, as it couldn’t create a cohesive plot that ran through the entirety of the game, even though it had some solid story devices that could have made is great. The frailty of memory and how people’s minds can be used for corporate greed are startling and interesting ideas to present in a video game. People are manipulated by the powers above, just as we are today, only it’s slightly more subtle in the game. Remember Me could–and should–have pulled from our world more and actually focused on that provocative narrative, integrating it into the action sequences. But it doesn’t, and that’s what keeps it from being a truly amazing game.
Even though I loved Infamous: Second Son, the story falls flat and doesn’t pack the punch it should . Delsin is likeable, in a roguish sort of way, but the other main protagonists, Fetch and Eugene, are boring stereotypes. I also just couldn’t engage with Fetch, probably as a result of her being such a static character; she was infinitely irritating, and I hated the missions with her. There were some scenes that should have been more powerful than they were, too. Reggie’s death, for example, happens too fast, and you never have time to think about it. It always seems like Infamous tries to pack a punch with it’s story, but it just doesn’t know how to get there.
Films Vs. Games
So where does that leave us? Could we still say, as The Atlantic‘s Ian Bogost does, that “the best interactive stories are still worse than even middling books and films?” In short, no.
National Treasure got a 44% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it a good candidate for a “middling” film, and I wouldn’t put the narrative’s quality anywhere near something like The Last of Us or Banner Saga in terms of engagement, value, or insight into human nature. Games are their story. Otherwise, games like Witcher and Dragon Age wouldn’t get game of the year awards. There are examples where a game’s story doesn’t hold the same power, but this is the same for any art medium.
Violence Doesn’t Solve Anything
One opinion often expressed about how story isn’t important in games is that the violence detracts from the story being told. For example, BioShock Infinite has an incredibly deep and well-thought out storyline, but is interrupted by Booker DeWitt running around shooting ravens at multitudes of enemies. Grant Howitt argued that “BioShock: Infinite’s sumptuous world, fascinating plot and metaplot – and its series of nonsensical gunfights augmented by mad-science superpowers” conflict with each other, with the action sequences throughout the game undermining the strong story.
Basically, the argument goes, the fact that you have to interact with the story is sometimes what stops you from experiencing it. Whether it’s your AI partner running into a wall or a part of the map you can’t get to, these incidents take away from the story.
But if the violence and action scenes take away from the power of the narrative, then it should be true for films as well. For example, one could easily say the exceedingly long runway in Fast and Furious 6 detracts from any presence the story has, though others would say it’s part of the story.
It all depends on how the story is carried out. For example, the original Jason Bourne trilogy merged the action scenes with story fantastically because the action and violence make sense within that world. The Last of Us has gut-punching emotional segments in the narrative, where the danger of enemies was imminent, and any violence or suggestion of it made sense within the universe. Carried out well, the interactive action scenes, should, and do, advance the story, rather than hinder it.
As far as the argument that action scenes and violence mean you don’t get the same flowing experience as you would with a film–that’s the beauty of video games. You don’t passively sit and absorb the story; you are part of the story. Even with a less story driven game, such as The Sims, people take joy from creating their own story in the game. You are directly moving the character through the story and in some games making their choices. You’re still experiencing the artists’ vision while making the story your own.
A lot of gamers want strong story elements in their games, and the power of the narrative cannot be overstated. Games tell a story that will never leave you, just as a favorite book or film won’t. The important difference, though, is you’re in the action–you live the story and learn even more from it as a result.
Do you think the story in a video game is important? What’s your favorite narrative-centered video game? Leave a comment below and let us know!