The plot of a game has always been something that separates it from everything else and what helps sell the product. It is one of the holy trinity that comes together to create coherent games. besides gameplay, and graphics. Games can be great even if it doesn’t have a story, or gameplay or graphics as long as the other two pick up the slack.
I’ve always believed that story is the driving force of a game in modern times. Back in the past, during the early days of gaming. A story wasn’t necessarily needed to create a great game. Did Pong have a story? Did Pac-Man? No, and they didn’t need one. They were made in a time where games were fresh and new and were just a way to get kids to pump quarter after quarter into the machine. As time went on, our tastes evolved and the companies needed to add stories to keep the audience interested in their product.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of an early story-driven game, I think of the text based adventure that started text based adventures, Zork. Zork didn’t need graphics, it didn’t require gameplay because what it gave the player was choice!
- So many useless things to be typed
Choice-based storytelling which I guess was popularized by the choose-your-own-adventure books of the 80’s is a story that’s not restricted to a set path but has multiple paths that lead to multiple adventures and endings with the aspect of no path the same. These choices usually have pros and cons, some of them abrupt and noticeable , others more subtle in how they effect the overall story. There will always be a finite number of paths and those paths will share a lot of choices.
This kind of storytelling has since been utilized by many well established games and series, such as Fallout, Elder Scrolls, The Telltale games, Mass Effect, Life is Strange and so on. These games have been critically acclaimed because of not just the gameplay or how they look but because these games offered choices. The freedom to mold the story to your liking and giving more control to the gamer allows them to express themselves more than if they were restricted to a linear, limited story. The consequences of the actions and path you chose is also what makes this kind of storytelling all the more exciting, especially if spread across the multiple games.
- Best choice based game at the present
Now we go from the freedom style to the more linear, restricted style of storytelling. This is the style that sticks you into a situation where the story simply reveals itself as your play through the game. Although these games don’t offer the same kind of freedom as the previous style of storytelling, they make up for having simply great compelling stories that keep you playing from beginning to end. These stories usually have lots of twists and surprises in order to keep the player interested in the story.
This form of storytelling has since been used in multitudes of games Some of the more well established games and series include Final Fantasy, Persona, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and more recently, The Fall. These games have, for the most part, always had a great story to tell. The player has little choice in how the story unfolds, but that’s fine since the gameplay incorporates the story more than a choice-based game would. You play the story as it is written for the most part. You go from A to B to C to D. This differs the more choice-based style where you could go A-D-B-C and that’s absolutely fine. That’s not saying this kind of story style doesn’t have choice. These choices however, are not too overly important to the story as a whole.
- Great game, play it if you have not!
Those styles of storytelling are simply how you, the gamer, are given the story as you play through the game. There is still a ton of storytelling that’s told through the wonderful narrative style known as exposition. Exposition is the background information relevant to the setting, backstories and previous events that have taken place before the present time. You don’t see this narrative style much outside role-playing games as they usually have a more richer lore and a deeper story than other genres. Outside the rpg genre, exposition is usually given by cinematics and dialogue throughout the game itself. Exposition is also used to incorporate some gameplay features such as puzzle-solving, directions and general information.
Exposition, is not found often outside the rpg genre, to be more specific, the western rpg genre. Game series like Fallout and Elder Scrolls have so much exposition. A lot of it is very interesting to read and actually has relevance to the current story. It usually adds way more context to the events that are transpiring and why certain characters are the way they are in the game. Although not an rpg, the latest Tomb Raider game used exposition greatly to help understand the story further than what the game unfolds itself. Tomb Raider uses the exposition to tell the “Why and how?” instead of the “what?”. The gameplay itself gives a good explanation of the “what?”
excerpt from Tomb Raider (2013) document - Wartime Intelligence/
Soon after we discovered the tomb, they came, the Oni, First the lights went out. Then… then the screaming started. Was it us or them? That horrible sound, it still rings in my head. They wore the armor of my ancestors… they, they cut us down with ancient blades.
Gunfire, shouting, blood. We couldn’t stop them. Everything turned to chaos. And then silence. They were gone.
Why did they leave? Why didn’t they kill us all? Captain Osaka is in command now. We… we are leaving the base, but not the island. We’re heading inland, to the Monastery. There is no other way. We must follow the Oni, all of us, If we can’t control the star, we must destroy it.
But I know… we… we’re all going to die.
There is one game that comes to mind that is strictly exposition-based. There is no story if you don’t look for it, and that is, Gone Home. Gone Home is a magnificent game as those who have played it can understand. The entire story is told through letters, notes, books, photos and etc. It’s because of this that the game encourages exploration. You should click on everything, cause everything has a story to tell.
There will always be a story to tell in electronic form. Will it incorporate choice? Will it stick to a strict line from beginning to end? Will background information play an important role in how events will transpire? That’s up to the writers and developers. We simply interpret the story as it is fed to us. Sometimes we get a choice in the matter, other times we don’t.
So next time you play a game without choices, think to yourself, “how would the game be different if choices were involved” or the opposite, a game with choices not giving you a choice. What would be different? How would the game change? The next time you see a readable book in a game, actually give it good read. It’s these kind of storytelling elements that make up modern gaming and give us food for thought.