The debate over whether a good story matters in video games has gone on for quite a long time. In this first of two articles, we take a look at some video games whose success is partially due to their well presented storylines.
While video games have always focused on the relationship between a player and what is occurring on screen, it didn’t take long for games to be used as a vehicle for stories that couldn’t be explored in other mediums. Something like Watchmen is well suited for comics, while The Matrix makes perfect sense as a film. Likewise, Dragon Age is an experience that could only work as a video game. You can, of course, write stories that take place in the same universe, but the experience of observation vs interaction is very different.
Let’s take a deeper look at Dragon Age. Here, you have a basic “evil is taking over the world and it’s up to a few heroes to stop it” type of deal; on the surface, dull and boring. But, when you include all of the side quests and nuances of the story (combined with whether you choose a male or female character and their origin), no one has the same experience playing through this game. What Dragon Age means to me is entirely different than what it means to you. Even if you played through as a Female Dwarf born into an aristocratic family like I did, our choices result in a completely different experience. While the developers could have easily created a standard hack n slash game with a throwaway tale, part of what makes a game like Dragon Age so amazing is how there is no such thing as the Dragon Age storyline; the player constructs the story, based entirely on their decisions and deeds.
A more recent example is Red Dead Redemption. Does Red Dead Redemption weave a story about a battle-hardened killer, terrorizing the countryside? Or does it tell the tale of a man just trying to do the honorable thing by making the west a safer place to live? Yes, there is a script and a set number of sequences that construct the story, how the pieces fit together is up to you. Whether you decide to go on a rampage and drag every man and woman through town on the back of your horse, or if you decide to shoot the people who do the dragging, this isn’t just a story that you experience; it is a story that you have helped construct. Something about having a direct impact on what happens and where the story goes changes a game from a hobby to an emotional investment. That woman’s horse may get stolen, leaving her stranded in the desert…or, it may be returned to her, allowing her to live her life. The choice is yours, and you have to deal with the emotional consequences of your actions.
I would be remiss if I talked about constructing a storyline without mentioning Sleep is Death, a game whose entire purpose is to enable you to construct storylines in real time with another person. I won’t post a screenshot or say anything about it other than buy and play it as soon as you can…it’s an absolutely amazing experience.
Even games which leave how the story unfolds out of your control wouldn’t be nearly as amazing as they are without their high-quality narratives. This primarily applies to older games, like Seiken Densetsu 2 and Final Fantasy VI. They rely heavily on their stories to deliver their legendary experiences. Without those strong stories holding everything together, these games wouldn’t be nearly as important as they are. Fun? Sure. But not important. In Seiken Densetsu 2, knowing that the world is in pain and seeing it get ripped asunder by the very thing that allows life to exist is a very emotional concept. Kefka and his vileness are part of what made Final Fantasy VI such an amazing experience…knowing that he had to be stopped no matter what the cost, and then finding out just what that cost was, provided a deep and compelling narrative.
Games with a minimalistic storyline can also be driven by their narrative. Braid is a perfect example of this: despite having a paper-thin plot that could be described in a single paragraph, the way Braid’s world is slowly revealed to the player makes it a wonderfully mysterious game. You will feel compelled to discover the answers to questions which simply don’t have answers, which just makes you want to know the truth even more. Without this simple yet thought-provoking story, Braid would nothing more than a collection of pointless challenges.
Of course, some would argue that the challenge is the whole point; a “we climb mountains because they are there” sort of mentality is applied to many highly regarded games. In our next entry in this series, we will look at some great games that had little or no story at all.