Of the many elements of our favorite games, a highly critical component that transcends time is the story. The graphics get better and more realistic, gameplay is more creative and FUNctional, and the sounds make it seem like you are in the middle of the action. But the stories remain. The stories have the same basic elements that they have always had, no matter the medium, it is always the stories that make or break it. You always hear about amazing stories that come from books, movies, orally, and when music does it, it wows people. So what about video games?
Early in the development of gaming we had the likes of Mega Man, Samus Aran, Mario, Adventure and Pong. Were there stories? Yes there were, they gave it to us through instruction manuals, and if lucky some text boxes at the start of the game like in Star Wars-esque opening. But since there was a limitation of memory, they had to focus on game play, sounds, and graphics. Stories took the backseat, or did they? Maybe unintentional or a genius created evolution, the early developers would separate their medium and create stories like never before in the history of humankind. Let’s take a step back to look at what a story is. To qualify as a story, it must be comprised of a couple different elements: setting, characters, plot, conflict, resolutions and they always have an audience and writer.
What’s Dangerous? Why am I, a young boy, alone? Why are you in a cave?
What differs of a story told using video games is that the audience is in complete control, whereas in all other mediums the stories are controlled by the writer. The writers can create the elements of the story but they have no idea how the audience will act upon the story. There are some elements that go unchanged in early video games; settings, characters and some elements of the plot. All those expositional elements are fundamentally unchanged no matter the audience; but the action is in the player’s control. We control how the characters interact with the story. We directly control where they go and how conflicts are resolved. Sure there are scripted events and ending that the developers have written. Fundamentally though, as gamers, we are changing the essential elements of stories every time we play, creating something brand new and unique to us.
In those early days, we created the elements of the story because of the lack of technology. Sure there was an exposition, go save the princess when you’re the plumber. Have Fun! After that we decided when to run, and when to use a fire flower or not. If not for those decisions and actions the whole story would change. At the end when you defeat Bowser, you have created a unique story because no one jumps, runs, or warps like you did. Maybe you did a mercy run and tried to kill the least amount of goombas or you went on a killing spree. But the conflict resolves differently because you could potentially not finish the game. Unlike any medium, video games interact back with you. Modern games do this by the enemy A.I. reading and analyzing your movements while reacting appropriately. Those older games had a skill cap. From all the control we have as players, we are essentially just as important to the story telling as the writers and developers.
Dark Souls and Spluncky embrace the unique aspect of storytelling of the earlier video games. They don’t really provide much of a story but rather create an excellent exposition and environment in which you develop your own story. The developers could have never known that you would tackle Zen’s Fortress with the whip and then switch to a bow for the rest of your adventure. There are just too many options for the players. It has created a new kind of story teller that resembles that of an oral story teller in indigenous cultures. What differs is that everyone starts with the same elements and is free to create whatever they wish within a carefully developed framework. Games like Minecraft are propelling the medium even further with social, randomly generated, creative sandbox to allow anyone to create their own story or adventure. As gamers we are extremely blessed with the greatest form of entertainment and most interactive in all of history. There are a lot of gamers out there that take the story for granted and try to get through it as fast as possible. Some stories are bad but just remember that they are written for you to create your own story. No matter the game, you create your own story with your every action. It is essentially a half-written book and without you, the player, it will never be finished.