Stories, fables, tales, legends, myths. Throughout humankind, we’ve had a fascination with telling stories. As a social experience, as an educational endeavour or just to entertain ourselves. The world is made up of little stories both real and fictional. There’s a story in the blockbuster you watched with your significant other, but there’s also a story in the clerk that served you your popcorn. Where they have been, what they have seen, what they have learned as they journeyed through life. The world is made up of stories and it seems we can’t get enough of it.
From cave paintings in the primal era, to the debut of Robinson Crusoe in 1719 that popularised the adventure novel, us humans have found more and more interesting ways of delivering stories. We always had plays, performances or just old people sitting around a fire telling a story, but books were the first medium to really bring narratives to the forefront and thanks to the printing press, it was widely accessible to the general, if not slightly affluent, public. Then came movies, which presented a way to deliver a story visually in a different way. The first iterations were pretty rudimentary, with them being silent and sort of low brow, but as time went on, the craft was diversified and perfected. Books and movies mostly dominated the narrative field and since the widespread adoption of television, visual entertainment has become the defacto method of delivering a narrative.
But a new challenger has entered the field and that, of course, is video games. Like movies, video games had humble beginnings. Games only had rudimentary representations of reality and the focus was more commercial than trying to further an art. How can this game get kids to dump more coins into the arcade machine and so on. It was a brand new medium and its genesis was surprisingly not that long ago. Pong, one of the earliest commercially successful video games, debuted in 1972. It’s insane to think that some of your parents were teenagers when the very first video games were coming into the world, and they just had about 10 pixels to work with.
But as time went on, and technology grew, games were becoming much more impressive. More movement was possible, the graphics improved and everything was on an upwards curve. And with these various advances, games grew a lot more ambitious. They decided to toy around with this new method of entertainment and see if they cannot develop their own stories. We saw the apex of this experimentation come when point-and-click adventure games such as Monkey Island entered the fold. The focus wasn’t to shoot spaceships or get you to dump your month’s allowance in a machine; it was to tell a story.
The earliest narratives in games were mostly to try and entertain. They weren’t altogether serious and delving into real-world themes and trying to make a statement was a rare sight to be had. However, as time went on and the technology advanced even more, we were seeing more and more games that tried to do something different. And for my money, the best of it has happened within the last decade and a half or so.
Games have the advantage of not having a time limit to tell a story, but they also have the advantage of having a player be in control. That means that world-building, character interaction and environmental storytelling can receive a much bigger focus. What sets gaming apart from the normal methods of storytelling is the interactivity that it has inherent. You can’t jump into The Catcher in the Rye and punch Holden Caulfield in the face or jump into Interstellar and ask Matthew McConaughey what the hell just happened.
Gaming narratives are tough to explain correctly since there is such a significant variation in how a story within a game can be told. The easiest one to explain is the linear narrative where you’re just strung along a one-way path broken up with gameplay and delivered a singular story which the designers wanted you to experience. This one is more in tune with traditional media in the sense that you’re being told a singular story and you can’t really deviate from it. Games such as The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite are excellent examples of what can be achieved with a linear narrative. They were so masterfully written and paced that I strongly believe that they can be comparable to some of the biggest heavyweights in other mediums.
Then you get open narratives. These are games that allow you to make choices and those choices influence the story or changes things within that story. Here you can find games like Mass Effect and The Witcher 3. Depending on how you play the game, your outcomes will differ vastly. Maybe not entirely from the overarching story, but certain decisions will yield vastly different results. This makes a narrative fluid and subject to change, which is also something unique to gaming. There’s also the aspect of having freedom such as in games like Skyrim and Fallout. You are given free reign over your character’s personality and you can choose to affiliate yourself with factions or experience stories unique to a certain path. However, there’s always an overarching narrative that ties everything together when it comes to these games.
There’s also another form of a narrative that is entirely unconventional and that’s the emerging narrative. You can find this in games such as Minecraft, DayZ, No Man’s Sky and the myriad survival games out there. You are given a world and what you do within that world becomes your narrative. For example, you can stumble across a cave rich with resources, but as soon as you exit, a giant storm breaks out and you get attacked by a bear. What follows is a frantic fight against nature and beast and once you emerge victorious, you have a story that you can tell. Not many people would think that this can be a form of narrative, but some of the most personal stories can emerge from these open-ended games.
So gaming has a lot going for it in terms of types of narratives it can employ, but recently the quality of these narratives have reached astounding heights. Games such as The Witcher 3 push the boundaries when it comes to real-world themes and each one of its little stories carries a significant weight. Not to mention the overarching narrative being one of the best RPG experiences you can find. The sheer amount of world-building and environmental storytelling also puts other offerings to absolute shame.
Games such as The Last of Us play out like some Emmy-nominated television series, delivering a narrative that is personal, gripping and tense. Mass Effect delivers an expansive space epic with its own worlds, cultures, character motivations and personal relationships. Compare these games to something like Pong which was at the genesis of gaming, you’d see just how far we have come. And it’s only going up from here. Developers are using the narrative medium of gaming in more interesting ways and there is a definite improvement in narrative when it comes to the more “popular” titles that release.
Gaming had humble beginnings, but those beginnings caused that games weren’t being taken seriously as a narrative artform. The broad public perception is that games are still about shooting various things and whacking trolls with swords and not something comparable to other narrative powerhouses such as movies, television or novels. However, I firmly believe that gaming is the next big vessel for humankind’s stories. There are so many amazing tales to experience in games already and it’s not going to stop any time soon.