I game in my free time – PlayStation. I haven’t upgraded to the “5” series yet because I refuse to pay above retail price out of sheer principal; there’s a scalping ecosystem that’s taken over the market for the time being, and it’s gross (although I think it’s lessening as time goes on), but that’s not what I’m writing about.
A good story can come in many forms: books, movies, television, and many other mediums. A more active and immersive approach to storytelling through games has become more prolific in recent years. Donkey Kong from 1981 was considered the first game to have a story attached to it. This was communicated to the player via short cutscenes, animations, and on-screen text for dialogue.
Tangentially, looking that up reminded me of the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, in which competitive Donkey Kong players duke it out for the world’s highest score in the arcade world. I recommend it as it’s a really fun watch—the filmmakers turned the documentary into a fascinating story. I am sometimes wary when a documentary has been put together to tell (sell?) a story—as entertaining as they may be—because hundreds or thousands of hours of video footage can be spliced together or edited any which-way to lay out a narrative intended to lead the viewer to draw conclusions that may not necessarily be wholly truthful. Producing a bias, essentially. I digress.
Thinking back, my first remembrance of playing a story-driven game was the old Space Quest series on PC… this was early ’90s. My dad had a computer and would play Space Quest 3 (I think subtitled St. Elmo’s Ire?). He enjoyed it, but I think he eventually felt a level of guilt over putting time into games as a parent—that’s when opportunity struck for me. I took over. Of all the games that could get a kid into gaming for fun, this was the one got me, weirdly enough. A game where most of the comedy went over my head and was very challenging for a kid. Just drawing from memory, you play a character named Roger Wilco who travels from planet to planet attempting to accomplish some mission. I remember a hot-volcano planet where you needed to equip an item called “thermoweave underwear” before you could explore the location. (There was some goofy line that I still remember to this day, and I probably don’t remember it completely accurately: “It’s 350 degrees but you don’t care, you’re beatin’ the heat with your thermoweave underwear!”). You would have to type in command prompts correctly too, so “put on thermoweave underwear” is what you would input to avoid immediate disintegration into a pile of ash upon exiting your ship. There were so many absurd ways to die in that game, and then a text box would appear informing you that you’ve died and further chastise you over how stupidly you must have acted to die in such a manner. Unfortunately, it was so long ago, I don’t remember it well enough to summarize Space Quest 3’s plot. I think it had to do with saving two game developers (they inserted themselves into the story) from some place or person. I could look it up, but I don’t wanna. I’ll save the nostalgia deep-dive for another time.
All the games I played on old PCs and Macs, Nintendo64, Nintendo Gamecube, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 had stories. There had to be a story for every game; to what extent the story mattered relative to the gameplay was always a dynamic interaction. In those early years, I was either too young to care, or the story wasn’t shown in a way that left any impression. X-Wing by LucasArts was one of my favorites, but it kinda just rehashed Star Wars tropes in place of story (you’re in the Rebel Alliance and the Imperials are doing blah blah blah). But the gameplay was FUN.
Blizzard’s StarCraft had a story in the campaign mode, and I remember that one fondly. They showed it through cutscenes, in-game/in-mission, through main character interaction and events. There were some fun sci-fi concepts and three distinct factions the player could control: The Terrans (the humans), the Zerg (nasty critter-like aliens with a hivemind), and the Protoss (advanced aliens with superior technology). It was neat to navigate the campaign and watch this war unfold from each race’s unique perspective. StarCraft isn’t known for its amazing storytelling (nor should it be); it turned into an extremely competitive Esport. I can’t speak to StarCraft 2, as I had moved onto consoles by then.
I fondly recall the first time I played Fallout 3. I was blown away by the open-world concept around a time where exploratory environments were first trending—I vividly recall the feeling I had when the player character exits “the vault” for the first time, and your (character’s) eyes adjust to the outside light, and then you see this seemingly limitless, vast world just waiting to be explored. That was next-level shit for me at that time. I was like, holy shit this is what games are like now? Awesome.
Fallout 3’s primary storyline wasn’t anything to write home about in my opinion, but the setting and world the developers had created (note: I have not played the first two Fallouts) was really cool. The game’s backdrop was post-apocalyptic and had the player exploring a post-nuclear war Washington DC (two-hundred years after the bombs dropped), and I count that as part of the setting which contributed to my immersion into the story. That part was done well. The side quests, the random events when I was exploring, the NPCs; they’re all telling me more about this world and how it works. I’ll find myself imagining/wondering if the in-game world or setting could exist in a vacuum without the player character or protagonist—are the people, places, and creatures developed enough to operate as an ecosystem or universe without me being there. If the answer to that is yes, then I think that really adds to the experience, so props to dev teams who put in enough effort to accomplish that feeling.
What’s neat about the gaming medium is interaction. One can participate in the story on different levels, depending on the game. Fallout 3 gave the player options, and you could directly influence the game’s story and world. Fallout New Vegas did this even better: the game allowed you to decide which of the several warring post-apocalyptic factions you would ally with. And none of them were clearly the good guys or bad guys (well, one had a slave trade, which is objectively terrible; but you could still ally with the Legion if you so wished). You could play an evil character if wanted to. It was a sandbox; do whatever you like, and your actions influenced the world and setting.
I enjoyed the blank-slate/be-whoever-you-want template for characters, and I still do, but I can really appreciate when a game’s story is driven by a well-designed protagonist.
Red Dead Redemption 2 comes to mind for me, and probably many others. Here, the player takes on the role of Arthur Morgan, an outlaw and gang enforcer. You still have a degree of control over Arthur’s choices (and face the consequences), but the main story doesn’t diverge or deviate heavily from its central narrative based on player choices made as Arthur. There’s an “honor” system, which to my knowledge, has been around as a game trend for decades—there was one in Fallout 3, New Vegas, and many others I’ve played. Red Dead 2 is character-driven, with the player taking on the role of the antihero. Arthur’s done bad things throughout his career as an outlaw (story cannon, separate from player decisions), and it’s catching up with him and his cohorts. Shit hits the fan when the gang’s leader starts losing control. Of everything. I’m not going to explore the whole plot here, but the story and main characters were widely regarded as really F’ing good. The interactive and participatory aspects of RDR2 as a game rather than a movie or TV show create for the player a connection to the characters and setting that couldn’t be achieved in any other way. It’s a fantastic illustration of how a great story can be beautifully executed in the gaming medium.
I also love the Dark Souls series and Bloodborne, but I’d rather talk about them in a separate post. Entirely different mode of storytelling with blank-slate style characters.
Storytelling in gaming has been written about before, but I just wanted to share some of my personal experience with it. Thanks for reading!