What’s your story?: Exploring game narrative

September 27, 2009

I have to wonder, how much does a game story play into how fun the game actually is? I’m pretty strong when it comes to my beliefs about the most important elements in games, which is the actual gameplay, but what about a game’s story? Video games are becoming more and more story driven, and although a lot of games fall flat on their face when trying to tell a compelling story, some manage to make the game’s story so good, it makes us overlook any gameplay faults just because of us wanting to get to the next cutscene.

I’ll use Metal Gear Solid 4 as an example, as it is the latest in a series of games well known for a complex, but amazing story and very lengthy cutscenes. People often joke about it being a “movie,” but it’s such a cinematic experience, I think Kojima should accept it more as a complement than an insult. With the game, he and his team were truly able to blend cinematics and truly gripping game design together perfectly to create what I consider one of the best gaming experiences in a long time. 

Many games focus on cutscenes to tell their story, but what about games that don’t? You can have a game like Half-Life 2 or BioShock, with both having practically no cinematics, and rather having the story told around the player. You can listen to audio diaries in BioShock, but you are never forced to. You can stand around and listen as the people around you talk to you and your other NPCs, but again, you can walk away and wait for the next chance to get back into the action. In cases like these, I think it’s mostly true, where you can perfectly blend a compelling story into the game, and keep the players compelled.

I guarantee a good chunk of gamers don’t care much at all about stories. They may skip most, or maybe all, of the cutscenes, and just keep playing the game. With an approach like the one in BioShock, the game generally isn’t forcing you to pay attention, with the exception of a couple of scenes placed here and there in the game. Of course, giving the player the choice is the ultimate way for them to care. Most players who feel like they are totally immersed in this world will care about the story, instead of being brought out of gameplay completely by a non-interactive cutscene.

So, this goes back to my original point. Does the story make the game more fun? More compelling? Help you overlook the negatives of the gameplay? It could possibly happen like that. A lot more people remember Portal more for GLaDOS and her often hilarious dialog than the puzzles themselves. I guarantee most people who played the game can’t accurately describe a single puzzle in the game off the top of their head. But what can they describe? Some of the funny things said by GLaDOS. This is by no means a bad thing, but it makes the game more enjoyable, even for those who are not puzzle game fans. You want to progress just to continue the simplistic, but very enjoyable story and dialog.

This could be the case for a game with cutscenes, yes, but I guarantee it’s more true when the story happens around the player. When you feel like you’re truly apart of the story, you will most likely pay more attention to it, and there is a greater chance of enjoying the game overall. For me, a story in a video game doesn’t make any difference to me, but if it’s a good and compelling story, it will encompass the gameplay and make the game more fun to play and a more rewarding experience.