Stories are an integral part of the human experience. They are all around us every day. They are in our social interactions and even in just about every cultural output our species has. Our religions are based around allegories. Even when watching plots play out on television they are broken up by small condensed stories known as commercials. Everyone loves a good story. Whether it’s a funny story about what their friend did one time or the intergalactic melodrama of the new Star Wars movie, humans are inherently drawn towards stories at every turn.
And there are dozens of fantastic stories to be found in the medium of videogames. In fact, much of the most popular and personally beloved memories from videogames come in the form of momentous plot points from some of the world’s biggest games. Aerith’s sudden and unceremonious demise. John Marston’s final stand. Niko Bellic’s crime spree. Psycho Mantis being, well, Psycho Mantis. Standing against the reapers. The great narratives that have become part of the zeitgeist of gaming culture are imperative to the experience of being part of the community and how it is shaped. Even if you haven’t played all of the beats referenced yourself, I for one haven’t, chances are you know what they’re referencing. If not, then, spoiler alert.
The Evolution of Videogame Narratives
Before we look at the different forms videogame stories can take and start really digging into why we appreciate them, it is important to take a look at the history of how we got here. While many think of Pong as the first videogame, this all actually began years earlier in 1950 when Josef Kates created the game Bertie the Brain, an arcade version of tic-tac-toe for that year’s Canadian National Exhibition. From there, videogames started primarily as instructional programs, demonstrations, and as research into artificial intelligence, due to how prohibitively expensive computers still were at the time.
It wasn’t until 1971 when the first videogame with any form of a narrative was released (other than text-based adventures, but those are an entire beast within themselves). That game was The Oregon Trail. Tasking players with gathering supplies and proceeding through a series of decisions to get their family safely across the colonial United States to their new homestead. The narrative is sparse, serving as little more than a set up while allowing for emergent story-telling(we’ll get to that in a bit) through its pretty real difficulty and high stakes. It was not until the next decade game narratives really began to take shape. It was then the likes of Double Dragon, Final Fantasy, The Bard’s Tale, and King’s Quest released and started really forming what would become the templates for videogame narratives for years.
For years, videogame stories stayed relatively dichotomous. Games like Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda offered an introductory blurb of the story to set the stage before pushing players out into the world to play through a series of challenges to reach the conclusion. The Final Fantasy franchise and Ultima delivered sprawling open narratives that built worlds around them and took hours upon hours to play through that were delivered primarily through thick blocks of scrolling text. With the succeeding console generations, these two forms of narrative evolved, eventually adding cinematic cutscenes, dropping bits of the story between levels, and codexes of world lore to their repertoire.
It was with the arrival of Ultima Online in 1997 a new potential for videogames as a story delivering platform was explored. Ultima Online was not the first MMORPG released, but it was the first that did not charge players by the hour, and that introduced what really matters to us here: expansions. The inception of expansions was revolutionary for videogame narratives. Now if a player loved the created world, characters, and story of a game, it could continue to grow and evolve with time. Each expansion would bring with it entirely new options for playing, but also new regions, stories, and narrative experiences that built on and evolved what the player had already experienced. This has since become a staple for the genre, from the likes of World of Warcraft to live-service games that slowly deal out their story like Destiny 2.
Now that the history of videogame narratives has been laid out, we can get to the juicy bits. I’ve broken up modern videogame narratives into five categories I am going to go through in no particular order. For each style, we’ll take a look at some examples that do it exceptionally well and look a bit deeper at how they manage to do so. So, let’s get started.
Linear narratives are perhaps the most conventional in videogames. Many may have branching storylines based on your decisions, but the defining characteristic for games such as these is the conventional relationship between the game as a story-teller and the player as the recipient of the story. Much of it is delivered through cutscenes or dialogue sequences that play out during gameplay. There are three examples of linear narratives I want to look at that all approach it in slightly different forms.
The first of these, and perhaps the most traditional of the traditional, is DOOM Eternal. DOOM Eternal doubled down on everything that made its predecessor such a surprise hit when it rebooted the series in 2016. One of these aspects was the story. Fleshing out the lore of the Doom Slayer as the player travels around a demon-infested Earth, Mars, and Hell, DOOM Eternal delivered the top layer of its story through cutscenes at the start and end of its missions with deeper information available through in-game collectibles. It is as effective as it is straightforward, delivering a story that is absurd without going too far or being incomprehensible and is endlessly creative and epic.
Then, there is the Uncharted series. Uncharted is one of the most successful of a movement of videogames that seek to merge games with cinematic storytelling and language. The games can be broken up into two distinct parts: cutscenes and gameplay. The games oscillate between the two, with both of them occupying the screen for long stretches of time when their turn comes. The cutscenes do their best to emulate the look and appeal of the film industry by co-opting its visual language and general approach. Its gameplay has bits of story delivered through dialogue sequences while the player progresses, and while there is some ludonarrative dissonance between the two forms, it proves to be extremely effective due to the quality of characters and the fun stories they tell.
The third subsection of linear narratives is the most cinematic and narrative-focused yet. These games often put the majority of their focus on narrative, often letting gameplay fall to the wayside. Two great examples of this are The Walking Dead Season One and The Death of Edith Finch. Both of these games, one a Telltale Studios comic-inspired adventure game and the latter a walking simulator, focus on the depth of their characters and the quality of their narratives. This subsect of games will often have long stretches that have little to no gameplay at all, but the stories they offer are gripping and intricate enough to keep the player engaged and entertained.
Open-world RPGs have exploded in popularity over the course of the past handful of years. From first-party blockbusters like Horizon Zero Dawn to smaller projects like Mad Max, open-world games have forged a comfortably large niche for themselves in the industry, and offer a unique style of narrative that is only possible in this medium. Open-world games have the advantage of being able to offer players nearly absolute immersion. Having an entire world to explore that is fleshed out with countless hours of side quests and different environments gives open worlds the opportunity to craft deep worlds and open a door to players to become ever more familiar with them.
One approach to open worlds is best epitomized by Bethesda’s massively popular The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Players are dropped into the continent of Skyrim as a prisoner narrowly escaping the executioner’s ax by a fortuitously timed dragon attack. From there players are free to explore the continent, navigating its cities and learning about its various factions and peoples. Skyrim excels in giving the player absolute freedom in the world. Players are able to travel across the entire continent at any time and often make their own smaller stories and narratives through the interactions and wide range of side quests available, all in their custom character they create and define.
Another, more structured, approach to open-world narrative comes in the form of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Wild Hunt focuses on giving players a large, living world to explore, but it utilizes the world as a platform to deliver countlessly structured, extremely well-written narratives while also providing the large scale plot in the form of the main questline. Perhaps Wild Hunt’s biggest departure from games like Skyrim comes in the form of the player character. Rather than players creating and determining every aspect of their own characters, Wild Hunt gives gamers control of Geralt of Rivia, a stoic mutant monster hunter whose personality is defined not only by the two previous games but also through the eight novels that predate them. This difference does not sit well with everyone, especially as the game restricts the player’s playstyle to playing like a witcher as well, but it does allow the game to deliver a much more intricately crafted and fine-tuned narrative than many of its peers.
While not entirely the same as traditional videogame narratives, emergent stories that arise through gameplay can be just as integral to the experience of the games that fall under this category. Emergent stories have many benefits over their traditional counterparts. Not only are they far more organic by nature, but they also have a personal quality to them that gives them the opportunity to be much more endeared and fondly remembered than traditional narratives. This is because emergent stories are ones players create themselves through gameplay. Rather than sniping an enemy from an incredible distance in a carefully constructed set piece in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, these stories focus on a player getting a ridiculous sniper shot from the other side of the map in Battlefield 4 while accounting for bullet drop and the fact the other player was driving a jeep and had just taken it off a jump.
I used Battlefield 4 in that example because the series’ multiplayer is a fantastic platform for the creation of emergent stories. Multiplayer matches drop up to 64 players on one massive map with a spattering of objectives spread across it with a wide range of environments in every map and various vehicles to spice things up. These large maps and high player count do wonders in making players feel like part of a larger conflict while also keeping the stakes of the match low. Each player can only have a small effect on the overall progress of the match when there are so many other players, so winning and losing takes a backseat to the player’s experiences throughout. This effect is further boosted by the sheer variety in every map, and the mechanics of the game giving plenty of opportunities for great moments to arise. Anyone who has sniped a pilot out of a jet or held off an onslaught of enemies, barricaded in a building, will be more than happy to tell you so.
Another example of emergent storytelling done well, although in a slightly more structured way, is Left 4 Dead 2. Left 4 Dead 2 gives players multiple campaigns to play through that are the same light story and procession of levels together every time, but randomizes certain segments so it is not always the same. This, as well as stellar AI that keeps encounters changing every time, leading to memorable runs that stack the odds ever more against players through sheer bad luck. And this factor is only increased through familiarity. A group of friends familiar with a campaign will remember excitedly the time they ran it and had to contend with more witches than usual, or the particularly brutal group of special infected that decimated their life pools during that one horde standoff.
The meteoric rise of the internet and the ability to consistently update games to keep the player base engaged over an inordinately long period of time gave birth to another method of narrative unique to videogames. This is the “living world” narrative or a game that has new updates, and new chunks of the narrative added to it over the course of years after launch. This type of narrative is incredible for those who are devoted enough to dedicate enough time because there is a lot of excitement in a world and story you are invested in continuing to grow and bring new information to light. These games breed die-hard fans more than any other through their ability to keep players invested and are much longer than most games.
A great example of a living world narrative can be found in the Destiny games. When the first title launched, one of the primary critiques many critics and players had was the story was extremely sparse. There were hardly any memorable characters or moments, few plot points that stood out, and a general disinterest due to how little meat was on the story’s bones. Jump ahead years into the future to now, and if a player was to start the series with Destiny 2 they would find a game universe that is saturated with interesting lore, storylines, characters that have been fleshed out with their own arcs, and multiple suitable quest lines to play through. Over the years, Destiny has carved out an identity for itself that is wholly unique and interesting in its own right, while most traditional games would have been dropped and forgotten without being given the chance to grow and expand to what it is now.
I also would be remiss if I did not bring up the exceptionally unique story of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. When the MMO first launched it was, to put it lightly, a near-complete disaster. It found few fans, and Square Enix decided to reboot the game and try again, giving the project over to Naoki Yoshida to try and salvage the project. And Yoshida did just that. However, in a genius narrative decision, Yoshida worked the reboot into the narrative of the game, working the story and game around the in-game universe being reset countless years before. It led to a narrative that is unlike anything else, while also only being possible in the form of a videogame. It also is another prime example of a game that has built an intricate, fascinating story over a long period of time from very humble beginnings.
The final category of narrative, the implied story, is a short one because only one developer, in my experience, does it effectively. That developer is From Software. From’s “Soulsborne” games deliver stories that require an incredible amount of leg work and effort on the part of the player. This is a consequence of the games delivering most of their stories through unconventional means with most of the information being gleaned from item descriptions, cryptic character interactions, and introductory cutscenes that offer very little in the form of explanations.
This approach works incredibly well for a game like Dark Souls. With its emphasis on slowly exploring a naturally laid out world and slow, methodical gameplay, having to piece in together the narrative and piece the story of the world around you as you play fits snugly into the player experience. It also makes for a very rewarding adventure in a way conventional narratives simply cannot offer. It is easy to play through the games without experiencing, or at the very least understanding, any of the story at all, which makes putting the work in to slowly uncover and discover it all that much more rewarding.
Regardless of the approach, narratives can add a lot to the experience of a game when they are implemented well, and there are a lot of different perspectives that all offer varying strengths. While every game does not necessitate a narrative, it is intrinsically linked to the medium, as every game needs to build a world for the players in which to exist. A narrative is a great way to do that. The sheer variety of possibilities, both in how they are executed as well as the content itself, make narratives an extremely interesting part of videogames to explore and think about. Most reward the effort with more depth and interesting tidbits to only sweeten the deal.