A Brief History of Story Telling in Video Games

Here at Live Gamer, our staff works really hard on a daily basis interfacing with publishers and developers in the social gaming arena, making sure that we can always surpass their expectations and provide them with the latest and greatest e-commerce and payment features. However, we also love to have fun with the games themselves, and we are lucky enough to have some in-house top talent when it comes to recommending new games. One of them is Richard Rodriguez, who recently delivered a stunning presentation on the evolution of story telling throughout gaming history at our NYC headquarters. As a start, Richard highlighted how game story telling can be categorized in four different categories: basic, complex, refined and DIY (do it yourself). This closely tracks the history of video game development in the past 25 years, as most games can be labeled using one of these four categories. A great example of basic story telling is the classic Super Mario Bros. The story here is pretty simple: to rescue the princess is the game main's goal, and the rest follows. Despite being quite a long game and having many levels (players were quite concerned about this at the time), the game itself was the main focus, and the story development was kept to a minimum.

Final Fantasy IV (originally released in 1991 for Super Nintendo with no voice acting, only text) is instead a great example of complex story telling. In fact, it is very hard for anyone who plays the game for the first time to get interested in the story of the game, as it does not look particularly entertaining nor makes a lot of sense. In Richard's own words: "This is a classic example of why older generations tend to look down on gaming: the first time you look at it, you ask yourself, what is this? Only my kids could ever play anything like this". That is why, in Richard's opinion, video games started off badly in terms of story telling: good, renowned writers and game developers were not working together yet, with the former always busy writing books and movie plots. Fast forward 16 years, and we have Bioshock, released in 2007 for PlayStation, and a great example of refined story telling. The game itself has a quite linear plot: the main goal is to stop the underwater city of Rapture's founder and dictator Andrew Ryan, and the choices that a player can make to do so are somehow limited. However, this is not a casual choice but a sophisticated one from the game's creator, Ken Levine, and his development team: aware of the linearity of most games, they decided to use Ayn Rand's objectivism (or rational self-interest) principles as an explanation of why the game is linear. Indeed, in Bioshock the player is forced to follow a linear path since his mind is being controlled in the controlled, artificial reality of Rapture (with the phrase "Would you kindly" representing the dystopian view of objectivism - here is a short clip). This is quite remarkable, and it is something that movie and books cannot render as well, if not at all. This also implies that it takes much more than simply taking a great Hollywood director and making him write a game to ensure that the game is successful, i.e. games and movies are two very different animals, with games being much more dynamic than a static, forced sequence of images stacked together. As refined story telling elements have become more sophisticated, along with game graphics (with lots of money poured into development), characters have started to resemble more and more real world animations, although there is a caveat: the Uncanny Valley Hypothesis.

In a nutshell, the closer we get to make something look human-like, the less we believe it is actually human, as small differences make a big impact on the final result and our reaction to it. As an example, Mass Effect 2 (released in 2010 for Windows and Xbox 360) is a game with a very advanced and detailed graphical engine and fantastic animations, but unfortunately, showing a very small range in facial expressions: the characters emotions are not portrayed well, causing a negative reaction in the players. So sometimes, advanced graphics does not enhance the game story's experience, creating the opposite effect instead. This brings us to Do-It-Yourself story telling, a great example of which is represented by Passage, created by Jason Rohrer in 2007. A uber-minimalistic PC game (5 minutes total, around 1MB in size, minimal input controls, i.e. the arrow keys), the game theme is the passage of time and the character's own mortality, including the costs and benefits of marriage. Without the need of a lot of graphics, "Passage" offers a lot of story telling per unit of time, and gives users a lot of freedom to decide by themselves what is the meaning of the story and what to make of it. Lastly, as an example of a modern game offering a very rich story despite its appearance, here is Flower, released in 2009 for PlayStation 3. The game received awards for outstanding visual and audio design, and without trying to attempt realism, it succeeds to entertain players with its rich visuals and interactive music (each flower that blooms makes a distinctive sound). One final recommendation from Richard: do not expect, at least in the short term, story-rich mobile games, as the playing dynamics is still different from desktop and consoles, i.e. users tend to play in 5-10 minutes intervals, and generally do not expect a very complex story plot. However, things could change in the future, and we're all looking forward to original mobile games with engrossing stories.

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