A History of the Videogame Narrative

A History of the Videogame Narrative

I scoured the Internet for fresh games in preparation to write a game review for this week’s issue of The Student. Even with my computer’s dated hardware I figured I would find a new(ish) title that would pique my interest and be worth sharing with the Amherst community. Several titles caught my eye, yet before I reached for my wallet, I took a look at games I had played and reviewed so far. Few of them place significant emphasis on narrative in a fulfilling way. Instead, the story often serves as an exposition to justify gameplay. Of course, this fact has often been the source of criticism and dismissal of video games as an art form or even as a reasonable adult hobby. That is not to say that there haven’t been video games that feature a compelling story, but those are few and far in between. Furthermore, such games often tout having a compelling story as a feature, implying that such narrative is truly a deviation from the norm.

Video games began as novelties, not unlike the first motion pictures. Among the earliest examples of a video game was a “Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device,” patented in 1948, which allowed players to move a dot of light on a screen. The word “amusement” in the name makes the purpose of the device clear. Motion pictures had a similar start as an exciting novelty; the public lined up to pay a nickel to watch Edison’s kinetoscope record of a man sneezing. It would take a couple more decades before video games became a consumer item in the early 1970s, first as arcade machines and then as home consoles. These ancestral staples of home entertainment didn’t worry about justifying themselves. Pong was virtual tennis for two-players. Space Invaders consisted of a tank firing at slowly descending rows of ships. Perhaps the novelty of controlling something on the screen allowed one to overlook the existential crisis lurking in these games. Even at this time though, games that had yet to enter the public sphere toyed with narratives. Engineering and computer science students toyed around with text-based adventure games such as Adventure (ADVENT) that were entirely focused on playing with narrative, as well as early role playing games based on tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons. In a time when graphics wouldn’t allow for realistic or even recognizable depictions of settings and characters, narrative could shape one’s imagination when playing a game. Even then, stories were often simple and direct, with most of the tension coming from challenges in gameplay rather than compelling plot developments. This trend would continue for many games throughout video game history, including major franchises such as Super Mario and Castlevania.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, attitudes began to change. Narrative became an increasingly important aspect of game design. For example, Japanese role playing games, such as Final Fantasy, placed a stronger emphasis on the story, which not only justified the gameplay, but also featured unique settings and characters that would develop as the game continued. In the case of Final Fantasy, its many sequels would each tell different stories while employing similar gameplay, indicating a preference towards narrative first and gameplay as a way of maintaining excitement. Developers were expressing greater interest in video games as a story-telling medium.

Not all games would follow this trend of increasing narrative complexity, such as the genre-defining but sparsely exposited Wolfenstein 3D. In general, early first person shooters placed little to no emphasis on plot; Doom, Hexen, Quake and the like all provided a setting, a few lines of exposition and then sent you on your way. With time, first person shooters began to really explore the use of complex stories and narrative elements, and began to pose challenging, even philosophical, questions to players who were willing to ponder them. Classics such as Deus Ex and System Shock asked what it meant to be human, or what you would do if the fate of millions were in your hands. Furthermore, they used first person shooter gameplay not only to increase tension, but also to create diverging narrative paths, where a player’s decisions actually affected the outcome of the story.

Nowadays, the video game industry is a massive, multilayered ecosystem of AAA developers, smaller companies, indie developers and so on. By extension, there are games of all types that employ use of narrative elements to varying degrees. There are throwbacks to classic games where story takes a backseat to jumping and shooting. The vast majority of games, including those I most often play and review, have some kind of story that typically provides an interesting, flavorful setting and perhaps some lip-service to dramatic plot development. Even expansive games such as Skyrim encourage the player to craft their own personal narrative with a near infinite supply of relatively shallow adventures. Finally, there are the interesting cases of games that tout narrative as a gameplay feature. Recent examples include noir-like Heavy Rain, a critically acclaimed adventure game wherein you interact with different scenes and every decision affects the outcome of the overall narrative, and Alan Wake, a third-person horror game written by a novelist about a novelist experiencing his own horror novel. Critics have drawn comparisons between the two for their attempts to marry narrative and gameplay in an intimate and inseparable fashion. I admittedly haven’t played these titles myself, but I hope to one day. While I don’t need a compelling story to enjoy a good game, sometimes the best gameplay can lose steam without the push of dramatic tension to keep it going. A small part of me is tired of having fun and not knowing why.