A Brief History of Storytelling in Video Games
Video games started as a simple collection of pixels on the screen that you could move about with a controller, but in the short time they’ve been around, they’ve grown into a powerful vehicle for storytelling. Much like film, gaming has taken huge strides in storytelling as its technology and audience matured. Unlike film, however, interactivity with the player adds a new layer of storytelling depth. After the break, we’ll talk about a few games from the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s that I feel show great steps in video game storytelling, and highlight what makes the story connect with us.
In the early days of video games, there wasn’t much attempt to tell a story. Sometimes there was a clear protagonist and antagonist, such as Pac-Man and his ghosts. Sometimes they had an obvious story objective; in Space Invaders it’s pretty clear that we must stop the invasion or the planet we’re defending will be overrun. Some games even had both, in Donkey Kong it’s clear that Jump Man must save the girl from a giant ape. There was very little effort to create a narrative that drove the game forward, however, and any progression was limited to a score or level number.
In the mid-to-late 1980’s, as home consoles became more powerful and widespread, we saw some growth in storytelling techniques. Jump Man was renamed Mario, and now he ventured through a surreal world of pipes and talking mushrooms to rescue that same girl, this time kidnapped by a giant spiky turtle. We followed him through happy, whimsical hills and dark, foreboding caves, felt his highs as he grabbed that flagpole and his lows when his princess was invariably in another castle. We knew that King Koopa was the elusive bad guy who controlled legions of turtle creatures, malicious stone blocks, even ghosts and the undead. We felt catharsis when he did finally face and ultimately defeat him. It was a simple narrative story, but it was there.
Around the same time (indeed, a bit before Mario, actually), another vein of storytelling in video games was developing, this one more embracing the interactivity of the medium. These games set out to tell a story or build a believable world. Rather than using story to dress up the gameplay, they created the gameplay to enhance the player’s experience. Interactive fiction games, such as Zork, used descriptive language to create atmosphere. They encouraged the player to think creatively about how to solve the problems presented in the game, and allowed the player to explore the game world in a non-linear fashion. Where Mario could only go forward, players in Zork can explore the game’s locations in any order they’d like, and even backtrack to old places.
Zork in particular has a famous creature, the grue, which highlights both the game’s reliance on imagination with its vague description:
- > what is a grue?
- The grue is a sinister, lurking presence in the dark places of the earth. Its favorite diet is adventurers, but its insatiable appetite is tempered by its fear of light. No grue has ever been seen by the light of day, and few have survived its fearsome jaws to tell the tale.
as well as an artistic way to motivate the players to perform tasks, such as finding a light source:
- It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.
This concept of using a story element to motivate the player to progress in the appropriate way without directly telling them what to do is a staple of video game storytelling, and allows for greater immersion.
In the 90’s, game technology advanced, and the storytelling grew with it. With fewer technological limitations and gaming slowly moving into the mainstream, the industry started to see more adult themes, more thought into the medium as an art form, and more experimentation.
Myst, I think, marked a shift in thinking for video game design, and stands as an example of great innovation in the medium. Here was a game with no bad guys, no timer or high score or much of a user interface at all. There was no action, no shooting, you couldn’t even die. The game plopped you down in a complex, beautiful world, and all you could do was explore. The more you explored, the more you learned about the world around you, and the story of two brothers and their murdered father. The exploration of the world and the drive to know what really happened, and whom to trust, are the motivators that keep the player engaged. Myst gave you bits and pieces of the story, and let you try to figure it out. The inherent need to know what happened, and the wonder of discovering a living, breathing world, made Myst engaging. The puzzles were intriguing, sure, but they were secondary.
For most of my gaming youth, I abhorred first-person shooters. The twitch mechanics and utter lack of depth in things like Doom or Quake had never really interested me. When Half-Life came out, and all my friends were telling me how amazing it was, I rather reluctantly picked it up. Boy, was I in for a surprise. Half-Life’s opening sequence was so rich in story and so shocking. The use of scripted sequences, rather than cut scenes, allowed the player to feel involved in the events unfolding around him. Dr. Gordon Freeman was a silent protagonist, sure, and kind of a flat character, but you got to experience the world through his eyes, and you became him. The game often built that connection by leaving you in control, but placing you in situations the were out of your control. When someone is brutally murdered behind a pane of glass, you personally feel the defeat when you see your colleague ripped apart as you run up to the glass, unable to save him. This is so much more powerful than watching it happen in a cut scene. Gordon didn’t fail to save that person, you did.
In the last decade or so, home consoles and PC’s have become so powerful that games can contain huge amounts of information. Massive worlds can be created, and filled with a population that goes about its daily business. Grand Theft Auto III really introduced us to the open world concept in gaming. Liberty City was immense! It was an incredible backdrop for GTA3’s (in my opinion, I’m sure others will disagree) rather bland narrative. I’d venture to say that at least half, if not most of the collective hours played by all gamers in GTA3 were spent just driving or walking around, maybe running from the cops, looking for interesting cars, hunting Easter eggs, or just listening to the radio. GTA3’s environments were completely believable and added a depth to the game beyond the story. It was easy to imagine that each person you saw wandering the streets had their own story, their own life. In lots of games I’ve found myself thinking about NPCs and their pathing, or the fact that they keep saying the same things over and over, and this breaks immersion. I never felt that way about Liberty City’s citizens. They seemed just like I would expect people to be in a big city; they kept to themselves when you walked by, flipped you the bird when you cut them off, and ran screaming when you started shooting people in the street.
While I might not call GTA3 a work of art, I would definitely apply that moniker to BioShock. From the instant the game starts, it’s forcing you to think and adapt to its world. You’ve crash-landed in Rapture, both literally and metaphorically, and you’ll have to figure out not only how to survive, but to find out how you got here and where “here” is. Like Half-Life, you’re put into the body of a silent protagonist and allowed (forced?) to see the events unfold through his eyes. Unlike Half-Life, though, BioShock keeps the details about your avatar secret, not even revealing his name until late in the game, and who you are becomes part of the mystery.
BioShock has a very linear gameplay style (go here, then do this, then that, etc.), but in contrast sports a brilliantly non-linear approach to storytelling. There are, in my opinion, three stories being told simultaneously; each of these stories are gracefully intertwined, and without elements of one, the others don’t completely make sense: The rise and fall of the underwater utopian project, Rapture; a man’s struggle to survive and escape a dystopian nightmare; and a discussion on the reality or illusion of free will. This last part is important, because BioShock highlights something most linear games try to hide: you never had a choice to begin with. You were being manipulated from the beginning. The creators take a limitation of the medium and turn it on it’s head, making it into the game’s greatest strength. This format of layering history, narrative, and greater meaning is extremely powerful, as well. You’ve got the most basic layer, the narrative, that’s told directly to the player through their progression in the game. If they invest the time and are observant, they can uncover the second layer, which is the history of the world they inhabit. The third layer, meaning, is never directly discussed, but is formed in the mind of the player, and is open to discussion and debate, with no absolute right answer. This ability to come away from the experience with something personally meaningful is what I believe constitutes art.
I’d love to hear from the readers which games they feel are great achievements in storytelling. What games have conveyed powerful stories to you? Why were they particularly effective? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.