How important is storytelling in video games?
Updated: Jul 7, 2020
There are three main types of video games. One that is designed to tell a great story, one that is designed to have great gameplay and one that is mainly to be enjoyed playing with friends either in the same room or online. Of course many of these can crossover and one game can have all of these attributes and do it well. Sometimes, if a game does just one of these really well, it can be considered a huge success.
From such a young age, video games have been my major pastime, my major release whether it was playing alone, with my brother or with friends. My first console was the original PlayStation with Crash Bandicoot being the most memorable game I had right near the very start of my gaming journey. Crash Bandicoot had a story, a simple one, of Crash making his way to take on the villain Neo Cortex fighting his buddies along the way- standard hero/villain stuff. Much like the Castlevania series, the story is simple but the gameplay is what makes these games stand out. They are not games for you to get invested in the characters although they are part of gaming franchises that stood the test of time.
That brings me onto another game I had for the PS1, Resident Evil. If you’ve played the first Resident Evil recently, you might find some of it hasn’t aged well, mainly the much maligned ‘tank’ controls but that was something which added to its charm. At the time, I was interested in it as you are in a mansion shooting zombies never really realising there was a much bigger plot at work where the further you got in the game, the more you’d learn about where the zombies come from. I didn’t know it at the time but that was probably the first game I played that put a lot of thought into the story whereas I thought it was simply a case of you are the hero, zombies are the villains.
Move onto the Nintendo 64 and beyond, games began to develop a story or a more detailed story. The Legend of Zelda on NES was a big game with a lot of secrets but ultimately it was still a hero/villain game. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time came about and kept the same concept but added so much more to the games with the characters having more of a backstory and the lore of the game was given some depth; something which would follow into other Zelda games. The storytelling is particularly relevant when you see the towns full of life and speaking to minor characters only to see that seven years later, areas are in disarray, characters you knew had disappeared making you feel something. It almost seemed like the danger became more real where it is not a case of just stopping the villain because they’re evil but stopping the villain because you want to reverse the effects you’ve seen in the game; it almost makes it a more personal battle with the game’s villain.
Which brings me onto a common question for gamers; ‘what is the point of playing video games?’ To which I usually respond, ‘what’s the point of anything?’ If you spend a lot of time watching television instead of playing video games, that too is a pointless activity as most things actually are. The point is to be entertained, to feel something, to pass the time, there doesn’t have to be a life-changing point to it. In particular, multiplayer games like FIFA and fighting games like Mortal Kombat or Super Smash Bros, even though they have a single player mode, most are played with friends and works as a bonding exercise but also a competitive side, much like if you were playing sports in real life and it is solely played to have fun and pass the time. Playing games with friends is definitely a bonding experience in the same way that outdoor activities or other ‘real life’ activities with friends can.
Games with a good story are the easiest comparison to television and movies to ‘justify’ playing them to non-gamers. Games with a story can feel like you’re playing through a movie but you have the added stimulation of being in control and moving the character and story forward. A movie will play forward regardless but a video game requires you to progress through the story by overcoming battles, puzzles, obstacles, etc and makes you work for the complete story. Some games are easier than others but even so, many top games have a difficulty option which is designed for people to ease through the game for the purpose of them being able to progress through and complete the story. Sometimes, like movies, the story doesn’t get the payoff you’d like or expect or perhaps the character you control just isn’t that interesting which is where gameplay is important. A game can be forgiven for a lacklustre or anti-climactic story if it is an enjoyable game to play.
That’s why there is a lot of pressure on games that describe themselves as story games, perhaps even a cinematic game. These are games which will often not have combat, platforming or require quick reactions in general. These games are usually confined to puzzle games but also games where the main story is based on the choices you make whether that is for your own character or the conversation choices you make with other characters.
The first type of game I played like this was Until Dawn, a horror game where your decisions could have an impact on which of the characters live and die. I personally enjoyed the game but at the same time I wouldn’t have wanted to pay the standard full price for video games for a game that was done in that style. (I had borrowed the game off a friend.) The Telltale series of game such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are cheaper and are essentially games where your conversations with people and the decisions you make affect the story but they never require you to do more than move your character with the controller and interact with characters or objects. The fact that you have an impact draws you in to the story and makes you want to play more even if you are not being made to work for your progress.
Nowadays, there are many games that try to balance a good story with good game play and there are a lot of success stories with that. The most recent God of War, The Last of Us, Batman Arkham series and many more have been praised for being engaging with its story while also being praised for being a fun game to play. There are some games that initially had good stories which become convoluted as the sequels come out, another similarity with movies. Assassin’s Creed immediately comes to mind and an interesting premise, the game play seemed good at the time until Assassin’s Creed 2 showed what the first game was lacking. This franchise has kept the game-play fairly similar from game to game since then so it can feel like you are playing the exact same game just in a different setting which would be okay if the story didn’t become incredibly complex. I often found myself enjoying the games but having no real idea what was going on which eventually meant I lost interest in them.
Ultimately, I feel that if a game is fun to play then I am not too bothered about the story. Mario and The Legend of Zelda (although they have put more and more detail into their games as time has gone on) still maintain the hero/villain, save the princess style of story and they are still massive franchises decades on from when their first games were released. The games are more interested with innovating its gameplay rather than reinventing the wheel when it comes to the overall story. Games that are fun to play stay with me just as well as the games that have a story which grip me and leave me guessing what would happen next and make me want to see certain characters succeed or fail. Personally, I have never played a game where the gameplay was terrible but I was enticed to keep going by the story and I don’t think I would even if a game was lauded for its story. A story should only carry the game if the game is designed to be relaxed (in terms of player control) and played as an interactive story rather than using it to paper over the cracks of shoddy combat or platforming controls.