If there is one aspect of video games that I love more than gameplay, it’s the story a game can tell. Video games can take you to new worlds and let you experience a story in a way that no other medium really can. You can take the role of a story’s hero, and control the way the game’s plot unfolds. Unlike books or movies, YOU are ultimately responsible for the fate of the universe, kingdom, world, or whatever you may be striving to save this week. You don’t just sit back and watch the action take place in front of you; you ARE the action. A great setting, story, or character can really make or break a gamers experience with a game. I’ve played games with questionable gameplay, just to see the plot through to the end. I’ve played games with great gameplay, but their terrible stories made it harder to trek through the game.
Video games have been around since at least the 1960’s, and in some instances earlier, if you are able to stretch your imagination of what a video game really is. These games were played on the gigantic computers of the time and were limited to very simplistic gameplay features. If you had access to these games, you probably were within the very small minority of people with access to college campus or military defense computers. By the time our modern conception of video games came to light in the 1970’s, stories in video games were as simple as the games themselves. You were a space pilot defending the earth against aliens, or asteroids, or bugs. You could also be a race car driver trying to win a big race. These stories were mostly developed within the player’s mind or in the instruction manual rather than on screen.
The Early Years (1970s)
In the late 1970’s, video games started to incorporate more intricate settings, but plot structure was still very limited. Games like Adventureland, Temple of Apshai, The Datestones of Ryn, and Starfleet Orion were some of the first to incorporate story and setting elements. Adventureland was a text based game, so no real graphical representation of your character or the other characters or enemies you encountered were present. Everything was described in great detail through text. Temple of Apshai and Datestones of Ryn actually had some graphical exploration elements, and even a named hero, Brian Hammerhand, but again, this was still pretty primitive. Starfleet Orion had the story incorporated into its “Battle Manual”, which was actually the physical instruction manual for the game. The elements of a story that this era really focused on were lore and setting rather than plot. The story elements consisted of text descriptions of the areas you were travelling through. In some cases the instruction manual was used as a precursor to the games actual story, especially in more graphics based games. This way the game designers could fill the player in on events up to the point of entry without wasting precious resources in game.
Early RPGs and Japanese Video Game Consoles (1980s)
When the early 1980’s came around, they brought some of the first RPGs with them. In a traditional tabletop RPG, you take the role of one character and act out that character’s actions to help further develop the story yourself. In these early video games, you took the role of a character and acted out the character’s actions, but onscreen. Sure, you weren’t able to shout things like “Die vile demon!” to your friend, the DM, who is playing said vile demon, but you could shout it at your computer screen, I guess. Alakabeth: World of Doom (aka Ultima 0), which was released in 1980, is often credited with being one of the very first computer RPGs. This was a dungeon crawling game set in a fantasy world, but the story was again mostly limited to the instruction manual, as we will see a lot over the course of the next decade and a half. The backstory is told completely in the manual, detailing the action leading up to the action of the game, and the game itself had very little in the way of plot. Alakabeth was the predecessor to another very famous RPG, Ultima I. Ultima I included quests from different kings, and an ultimate goal of destroying the Gem of Immortality to defeat the wizard Mondain. Things are getting interesting! We now have several characters, an ultimate goal, and an antagonist. 1984 saw the release of King’s Quest, a graphical adventure game that was the natural successor to previous text based adventure games. You have conversations with several characters within the game, such as King Edward, a troll, and a dragon.
In 1986, Yuji Hori’s Dragonquest was released to Japan. Hori wanted to create a game influenced by western computer RPGs, but with a more compelling and emotional story than had been seen so far. This game was a massive success in Japan, and lead to a series of sequels that each had more intricate plots. In 1987, Final Fantasy was released to Japan, and started a series that would be world renowned for it’s video game storytelling. Another lesser celebrated title was released in 1987 by Sega, Phantasy Star for the Master System, which had a named central protagonist that was compelled by more than just saving a kingdom. Alis, one of the first notable female protagonists in an RPG, is motivated by seeking revenge for the murder of her brother, Nero. Her quest for revenge turns into a quest to save the people from an evil empire. The story of Phantasy Star is one of the first notable games to really start the trend of a character driven narrative in video games. You actually see cutscenes where dialogue is shared between characters and party members to help further the story along. Another notable game was Final Fantasy II, released in 1988 for the Famicom, it also featured a cast of characters that had their own motivations and struggles.
The aforementioned Japanese RPG titles didn’t really make a huge impact on the western game market right away. Although that didn’t mean that non-RPGs released on consoles in North America didn’t have their share of popular stories. Games such as Ninja Gaiden, released in 1989, had impressive graphical cutscenes that told stories and even gave characters personalities. There were also the Mega Man games, which didn’t necessarily have deep stories, but did include cut scenes where dialogue was shared between characters. Having dialogue shared between characters helps establish character traits, and outlines the importance of the action happening in a story, and in these cases, a video game. Another example is Clash At Demonhead, which had cutscenes as well as dialogue between the hero, Bang, and boss characters. Then there was Crystalis, which was an action adventure game along the lines of Legend of Zelda with a robust and interesting story for it’s time filled with a lot of drama and a little bit of romance. Needless to say, stories with dialogue that gave characters personality were becoming more and more popular by the late 1980s.
The SNES and Genesis Era (Early to Mid 1990s)
When the SNES and Genesis were released, they brought with them greater processing power and memory, meaning much larger and more immersive gaming experiences. Sure, you still had plenty of games with limited to no story, but even those at least had some sort of in game explanation of a back story, such as the fantastic opening to Super Metroid, or the in game cutscenes in Mega Man X. Flashback: The Quest for Identity was an amazing cinematic platformer that looked like a cartoon. (*Editors Note* Let’s not forget Out of this World also!) While Flashback may not have been immensely popular, it was one of several similar games that showed video games could become cinematic type experiences.
Final Fantasy IV was released as Final Fantasy II in North America, and this was really THE game that shifted my view of video games for years to come. These were the most developed characters I had ever seen in a video game. They had emotions and complex personalities. Characters fell in love with each other. There were feelings of jealousy and joy. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before, and I was hooked. Ever since playing Final Fantasy IV, I was driven to find more video games with compelling and entertaining stories. Squaresoft released more story driven games, such as Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, which I immediately fell in love with. Enix released Illusion of Gaia, which, at the time, had a good story that I really liked, even if it’s pretty shoddy by today’s standards. I was more interested in games that had great stories than games that only had a bit of story implanted into great gameplay. Sure, I still played games like Mega Man X and Yoshi’s Island, but I built those simplistic stories up in my head and even sometimes narrated games as I played them. Video games weren’t just about playing a game for me anymore, they were about experiencing a great story and immersing myself in the world they created.
While I was keenly aware of the world of Nintendo and the video games released on their systems, the Genesis also had some amazing titles with fantastic stories. The Phantasy Star series continued with II, III, and IV on the Genesis, and is regarded very highly. The Shining Force games got their start on the Genesis and are also considered great games in terms of both gameplay and story. I wish I were more familiar with games released on Sega platforms, but unfortunately, I didn’t grow up with them.
The PC gamer continued to see excellent titles that contained compelling narratives and immersive worlds during the 90s. Adventure games like King’s Quest V not only had interesting stories, but also started to include voice acting. Blizzard started making games in their Warcraft and Diablo series, and included very good voice acting as well. Additions such as this really helped immerse the player in a developed fantasy world unlike ever before. Games developed for the PC were beginning to be released on a newer medium, the Compact Disk. This meant more room for more video, audio, and gameplay content that games on cartridge based consoles weren’t able to handle. Sega released the Sega CD and put out some excellent titles with deep plots and interesting characters such as Lunar: The Silver Star and Popful Mail. Both of these games included animated cutscenes and helped start a new trend in gaming.
The Game Changers (1997-?)
The Sony Playstation was released in 1994, but it wasn’t until a certain release in 1997 that really sold the console to the West. Final Fantasy VII was aggressively marketed in the United States. The campaign included commercials that showcased the game’s cinematic computer generated cut scenes with a voice over stating that it will “never come to a theater near you”. Squaresoft was marketing this game as a MOVIE more than they were marketing it as a game. They deliberately focused on the storytelling elements rather than the actual gameplay. This game sold a ton of copies, not to mention the Playstation itself. Newcomers to video games were drawn in by the graphics and the promise of a cinematic experience. Developers, including Squaresoft themselves, rushed to copy the formula and mimic the success of Final Fantasy VII.
By the time Metal Gear Solid was released in 1998, voice acting in video games had become almost commonplace. The difference though was that the voice acting in Metal Gear Solid was incredible by comparison to most other games of the time. This was a game where the characters and plot were straight out of an action movie. The plot was almost completely ripped from the “Escape From…” franchise starring Kurt Russell (more on that in a later article). I was always drawn to dramatic games with great stories, but this is the first time voice actors really sold the entire experience to me. After seeing the game played, I rushed out to get a copy of my own. All of a sudden, dramatic and good voice acting was not only commonplace, but essential.
By the time the PS2 and Dreamcast came out, just about every game that was released had some sort of story with defined characters and plot. Games were no longer just limited to story in the instruction manuals or in the players minds. Even Armored Core 2, which was one of the first games that I purchased for the system, had voice acting, characters, and a plot. Games like Metal Gear Solid 2 and Final Fantasy X further cemented a cinematic experience in gaming forever. Metal Gear Solid 2 is often criticized for being TOO much like a movie rather than a game. The argument against having this much story in a game is that it can kill the pacing of gameplay. Having said that, Metal Gear Solid 2 sold so extraordinarily well that developers continued to try and emulate, refine, and perfect the formula.
I could go on and on about the multitudes of titles that have since been released that have further expanded on storytelling in video games, but then this article would turn into more of a dissertation than an entertainment piece. Stories have long been a part of video games, and have developed exponentially over the years. Games that are being released for the current generation are coming closer and closer to movies and TV shows than ever before, but they still retain their own identity as playable, interactive media. All the Mass Effects, Grand Theft Autos, and Uncharteds of the world have these predecessors to thank them for their success. Long live the story driven video game.