Strength in storytelling: a history of narrative in video games - part one

Distilling the history of storytelling in video games into one or even multiple articles is an enormous task. Video games have evolved as a valid art form that stands alongside film and TV in their cultural influence on the 21st century. This, in part, is down to the strength of storytelling that games are now capable of conveying.

They’ve evolved from simple interactive experiences to ones that heavily rely on nuanced narrative to weave their magical worlds. In this first part of a two-part series, we’ll be talking about the evolution of storytelling in video games and the necessity to convey this in making your first impression.

 

A marriage made in heaven

Long before the advances in graphics and cinematic storytelling, story took the form of text adventure games. 1976’s Colossal Cave Adventure was amongst the first of its kind. Games like this offered a completely different experience to their precursors, such as Pong or Asteroids. There, the gaming experience was limited to the novelty of being able to control a few pixels around a TV screen, with only the slightest of back-story. In the absence of any visuals, more was left to the player’s imagination. It laid the groundwork for interactive entertainment in which previously unexplored fantasy worlds could be woven with complex narratives.

Inevitably, advances in graphical capabilities led to more visual games that attempted to build on these narrative-driven experiences. These included the point-and-click genre, which would go on to host many LucasArts classics, such as ‘The Secret of Monkey Island’ in 1990, or Sierra Entertainment’s more risque Leisure Suit Larry series.

The arrival of the SNES, and its 16-bit graphics, meant that storytelling could slowly ramp up. 1991’s Final Fantasy IV was the most narrative-driven entry yet, with set characters that had their own names, character arcs, and conclusions. All of these successfully melded gameplay and storytelling.

 

Into the mainstream

Today, storytelling within gameplay has reached the masses. Games have the ability to stir emotion and draw the player into their multi-threaded narrative. Much like the Hollywood ‘tentpole’ blockbuster movie, a strong narrative is just as important as the visuals.

For a while in Hollywood, strong storylines often played second fiddle to the advances in CG, resulting in movies that, while visually compelling, lacked emotional engagement. Games, on the other hand, have always had to work much harder with their storylines in order to make up for the comparatively poor visual experience. However, things have changed and come a long way since the advent of Pong and subsequent text-based adventures. Games perfectly marry compelling storylines with state-of-the-art visuals.

Which is why game developers should always be contemplating the ways in which a game can successfully be distilled into a trailer without giving too much away.

A successful ‘announcement’ or ‘launch’ trailer is one that can convey the complexity and depth of a game’s storyline without spoiling anything. The trailer is a perfect means to tease the viewer – particularly effective if your game is the latest in an ongoing series in which players are already invested in.

What you should end up with is a succinct, pre-rendered trailer that encapsulates the essence of the game. Having a successful trailer – one that encapsulates the storyline with compelling visuals – is a craft in itself and not one that should be left to chance.

But the storytelling doesn’t end there. In the next part, we’ll be talking more about storytelling in video games and the advances in in-engine cinematics.

At RealtimeUK, we know how important story is, not just to the game, but to its trailers. When we work on a new project, we believe the story is what people will remember. If you would like to discuss working on your next project, please contact me at dave@realtimeuk.com.