The purpose of this article is to give a basic overview of how storytelling in video games as a medium has evolved over generations. This is by no means intended to be exhaustive or particularly in-depth, it’s just a basic observation about what I feel is an undervalued aspect of gaming in the mainstream. This isn’t about the plots themselves, but rather about how the methods and machinery of storytelling has changed as the medium has advanced.
There was a time when story-lines in video games were very basic and rudimentary. When I was a lad, in the days of the NES, most of a game’s plot was related to you in either the instruction manual or a few in-game blurbs. Most in-game storytelling was done visually, and in some examples was executed to wonderful effect. The original Double Dragon managed to tell a simple story of a young man or, depending on the version, two young men punching their way through the city to get back their mutual girlfriend. The game opened with a small animated sequence of the girl in question getting punched and carried off, and then showed the heroes journey mostly through the screen moving rather than a sudden scene change between levels: the second level kicked off right where the first level ended, and so on, at least for a while.
As the technology for video games has improved, so has the storytelling. The leap in narrative quality for video games between the NES and SNES was massive, and it was probably around this time that video games started developing their characters over the course of the game rather than just having a static character progress through a story. Final Fantasy 6 (released as Final Fantasy 3 in the U.S.) has several characters all of whom have arcs through which they grow. Before the Super Nintendo, this level of complexity was uncommon in video games and would only show up in the occasional PC game.
When the next generation of consoles rolled around, a lot of things changed. The standard number of dimensions for games went up by one and characters started looking “super realistic,” which of course meant they looked like angular, vaguely humanoid box people but boy were we impressed. Like with the leap from NES to SNES, the leap from SNES to PSOne and N64 (a moment of silence for the unfortunate SEGA Saturn) showed a massive jump in gameplay and graphics that blew our young minds. Narratives in games changed as well. While plenty of the games on the PSOne had little to no actual plot, there were also games like Metal Gear Solid, which is an excellent example of how new technology could be used to blend gameplay and storytelling. The game blended visual storytelling during gameplay with scripted cinematics to immerse the player. When the sequels were released, players not only watched the story of each game progress but also the long-term development of an arcing plot and the growth of several characters over the course of their lives.
Room for Growth
Video games currently cover a much wider spectrum than they once did. During most generations of gaming a video game was expected to try its best to keep up with the technical standards of the time, but there has been a recent surge in the popularity of independently developed and experimental games. This has also led to a lot of interesting and experimental methods of storytelling. For example, the recent horror game Five Nights at Freddy’s has very simple gameplay and very little dialogue. The story is, at first, very simple: watch the cameras and don’t let animatronics kill you (it makes sense in context, I promise). However, over the course of the game the players get more information into what’s going on in the storyline and why the animatronics are trying to kill them in small pieces.
The future of storytelling in video games looks bright. The importance of a narrative has been brought into the public eye by games like Gone Home and Spec Ops: The Line. Video games as an art form is also an idea that has recently gained more and more support. Hopefully in the future, video gaming will be viewed not only as a medium for burning time or competing with others (both of which are wonderful uses of the medium, by the way!) but also for deep and complex storytelling that cannot be delivered in non-interactive media.