Storytelling In Video-Games – Is It A Necessity?

When I was a kid, I loved reading a good story. There was something transformative about a good book. They have the power to take you away to another world, to capture your imagination and transport you to places that only your dreams would usually take you. That’s the power of a good narrative; it can transform us, inspire us, guide us, and move us to tears of sadness or joy. When video-games first grew in popularity, they never really had a ‘story’ to them. In fact, most games left you (the gamer) to create the story yourself. Often people would play Pong and imagine that they were in the grand final of Wimbledon, or play Asteroid or Space Invaders and imagine that they were saving the world from impending space related doom. Nowadays, though, the majority of games are incredibly guided – there’s little room for the player to create the story, because the story is already there in front of them. You don’t have to imagine that you’re saving the world in Mass Effect, for instance, because you’re told every five seconds that your mission is to do just that. That’s not a bad thing, by the way. I’ve never opened a good book to find that there are hundreds of blank pages with the front page reading “you’re a young wizard in a big magical school and all kinds of shit keeps happening… now fill in the gaps”. Still, unlike a book, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a video-game needs a story to be good.

Recently we’ve seen the rise of games that have been heavily reliant on a narrative or a story; I’m looking at you, Telltale Games. These types of games, like Telltale’s The Walking Dead episodic game series, are founded on story. In fact, they’re more story than game. Even with games like Dragon Age: Inquisition, (which have a lot of traditional gameplay), you’ll still find that all of the gameplay is cemented in a story. You can’t do anything in that game without it contributing towards the narrative in some shape or description. Before I go any further, I want to say that I love most of these sorts of games, so I’m in no way suggesting that it’s a bad thing for a game to have a story. In fact, Dragon Age: Inquisition is steadily becoming one of my favourite games of all time. But, what I want to highlight is that a game doesn’t need a story to be a good game… or at least for it to be enjoyable.

On the other end of the spectrum we have games like Hexic, Peggle, Candy Crush, Dumb Ways to Die, Temple Run, and the list goes on. These games are simple, if a little mindless, and require minimal engagement and input from the user. They’re still fun though, but we enjoy them in a very different way. These are, no doubt, good games, as I’m sure most people would have played and enjoyed one of these (or a game like it) at some point in their life. These games do not need a story to be good. If anything, if you start trying to weave a story into it, it could seem a little stupid. Do we need to know why we’re bouncing a metal ball around a load of pegs? Or why we’re lining up lines of the same coloured sweet? Or why we’re running away from the monster? No, because it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change the game, knowing or not knowing. I wouldn’t sit and think to myself “sure, I’ve lined up these pieces of candy pretty well, but what sort of impact will my actions in this level have on the rest of the game?”. That’s not what these sorts of games are about.

So, whilst I love video-games with a good story, I have come to the conclusion that a story isn’t entirely necessary for me to have a good time. Obviously, it goes without saying that some games need a story. Dragon Age: Inquisition without a story, for instance, would be complete nonsense – it wouldn’t make sense. Though the same can be said for Candy Crush, but the other way around. I don’t think that a game should be judged by how good the story is, how it makes us feel or the implications it has for how we view ourselves or the world around us. Sure, if a game can make me reconsider how I treat others, or if it can give me an epiphany over how I’ve lived my life thus far – that’s just great. But if a game can give me a few hours of enjoyment, when I’m looking for something to help me wind down at the end of a stressful day, or play with my friends over a cold beer and a slice of pizza, that’s great too. We shouldn’t get caught up with this need for substance and meaning – not every video-game needs to be a piece of art. It needs to be fun, and if it accomplishes that much, anything else is just a welcomed bonus.

  • Liam

    I remember the first time I played DMC4, I skipped every cut scene and the only negative was slight confusion when a character I’d seen die in the one cut scene I had watched reveal himself as the final boss. But DMC4, as far as I’m concerned, was (is) a fantastic game. So I agree with you in that you don’t need a story, in fact I treat most games as a challenge set by the developers for me to beat. Also of note, possibly the biggest game in recent years, Minecraft has zero story and is just a massive playground for the player.

    This being said, for me, a good story is the thing that puts games Like Half-Life 2 and Bioshock above the rest.

    • I think good story telling is what sets an amazing game apart from a good game, or even a great game. I can still have an enjoyable time playing a game without a story, but I think it would be far more enjoyable with a nice narrative woven in. It gives the game a bit more meaning and helps you to connect with characters, which takes it to that next level.

      I can’t believe that I forgot to mention Minecraft in the article – possibly the greatest non-story driven game of all time.

  • Liam

    I remember the first time I played DMC4, I skipped every cut scene and the only negative was slight confusion when a character I’d seen die in the one cut scene I had watched reveal himself as the final boss. But DMC4, as far as I’m concerned, was (is) a fantastic game. So I agree with you in that you don’t need a story, in fact I treat most games as a challenge set by the developers for me to beat. Also of note, possibly the biggest game in recent years, Minecraft has zero story and is just a massive playground for the player.

    This being said, for me, a good story is the thing that puts games Like Half-Life 2 and Bioshock above the rest.

    • I think good story telling is what sets an amazing game apart from a good game, or even a great game. I can still have an enjoyable time playing a game without a story, but I think it would be far more enjoyable with a nice narrative woven in. It gives the game a bit more meaning and helps you to connect with characters, which takes it to that next level.

      I can’t believe that I forgot to mention Minecraft in the article – possibly the greatest non-story driven game of all time.