Storytelling in Games: How Much is Too Much?

Any modern gamer knows that story has become an important element in video games.  A good story enriches the experience of playing a game by adding more emotional investment and context to the world.  Similar to the way we are invested in the characters of a television show or novel, we get attached to video game characters.  We want to know more about who they are, where they came from, and what their purpose is.  We want to see them battle and triumph.  Emotional investment in video games makes the experience more enjoyable, more memorable, and is overall another factor that propels us to continue playing.  Great storytelling is more and more common in video games and it truly is an experience like no other.  Ask anybody who has played Chrono Trigger, Metal Gear Solid III: Snake Eater or The Last of Us.  Not only are these great gameplay experiences, but their stories are unique and powerful.  In fact, stories like these have so much depth that they have set a new standard.  

ellie hunt

Storytelling is now a more significant factor when determining a game’s value and stands tall alongside gameplay, graphics, mechanics, etc.  The Last of Us in particular was so highly praised mainly because of its storytelling and the depth of its characters.  In fact, we heard more about the story than we ever did the gameplay (which was solid, but not nearly as strong as its story).  For a video game to have such an emotional impact on so many people (and become recognized for it) is astounding.  It really speaks for how far the medium has come as an art form.  Fans, critics, and developers are recognizing this across the board.  Story is a huge factor in games.  At its launch, one of the big criticisms of Destiny (there were quite a few) was its lack of any real story.  This even hurt its overall score in various reviews.

                                lee and clementine

Storytelling takes many different forms and has become increasingly more common in video games, with indie games taking the lead in experimental story-enriched interaction.  In some cases, gameplay even becomes a secondary element.  The most obvious example is Telltale Games, who have become an indie juggernaut of episodic storytelling.  While the “Telltale formula” can get exhausting after its repetition with so many different franchises, no one can touch the sheer immersiveness and emotion that they produce with their games.  Never have my decisions had so much weight in a video game than in Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season 1.  This is an experience that can only be found in a video game.  I do not get this feeling of anxiety and unease by watching a film or reading a book.  The marriage of emotional storytelling and simple point-and-click gameplay has worked so well to add weight to the narrative and the decisions that are made in-game.  On the other hand, one could argue that this game is not actually “fun to play”.  The reason that you play it is to see the story progress.  Without this story, there would hardly be a reason to play; there wouldn’t be a game.  This is something new in games.  

Let’s take a look at the past.  I don’t need to know what is going on in Donkey Kong Country, Grand Theft Auto or Metroid to have an enjoyable game experience;  I am playing a fun game and that could simply be all there is to it.  Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One is an example of a game that absolutely requires a story in order to be considered significant, which is pretty strange considering what a videogame “is”.  Another example is the cinematic horror Until Dawn, which utilizes the butterfly effect to make you think about your choices in the long term and question every step of the journey.  That being said, the stories in these games are very unique experiences that could not work on any other medium.  

everybodys gone to the rapture

While these games are constructed around dialogue trees and in-depth characters, the relatively new FPEG (first person exploration game) genre takes a different approach, allowing the player to finish a story at his/her own pace.  By simply being placed in an open-world rich with things to discover, the player has the freedom to explore all of the details of the environment and piece together the story in a unique way.  In one example, Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture places you in a town where everybody has seemingly disappeared.  By exploring, it becomes clear that there was some sort of scientific revelation or virus that occurred.  The details become more apparent as you look through the town and listen to the former inhabitants’ past conversations and monologues.  The game features no character models.  There are only objects, buildings, voiceovers, and abstract ghosts to clue you in on what is going on.  It is a surreal experience, with no real gameplay other than moving the analog stick in the direction that you want to go and tilting the controller to trigger a dialogue.  

The upcoming Firewatch is another in the FPEG genre which puts the player in control of a volunteer fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness.  During a routine patrol, something goes wrong and through exploration he must piece together the cause for concern.  The only communication he has is with his supervisor, who is on the other end of a walkie talkie.  There will not likely be much gameplay other than walking around exploring and discovering things in the environment.  The same is true for The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home, which involves the exploration of a house in order to find out more about its inhabitants.  

Since so many of these games are based in story more so than gameplay, how long until there is little to no gameplay left?  Video games could potentially become nothing more than interactive movies.  We may need to dig deep into the definition of “video game” in order to categorize these kinds of experiences.  What is the limit?  These unique takes on storytelling in video games have revitalized the medium, and reinforced a strong argument for its merit as an art form.  Players and critics are going nuts for video game storytelling with good reason.  The experience is unique.  It is amazing to have such a wide range of video game stories available, all with different moods and tones.  It will be interesting to see how far developers and writers take it and where players’ threshold is.  There is no telling if and when players will become frustrated and fatigued with the overuse of story.  

Published by Ben Eberle - Senior Editor

I'm a freelance writer and musician based out of Providence, RI. I started playing videogames at a young age and I have since developed a love for JRPGs, indie games, shooters, and all things Star Wars. When I am not gaming, I am reading science fiction novels or performing music. Follow me on Twitter @_northernfrost