In Defense of Storytelling in Video Games, Past Present and Future: Part One

Updated: Feb 23

Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines
Jeanette Voerman - a complex character with a great deal of hidden depth

Film buffs, theatre luvvies and bookworms are wont to pour scorn on us gamers, dismissing games as a lesser medium, or even deriding them as ‘kids' stuff’. As a gamer, film buff, bookworm and author, I often found myself having to defend my love of gaming from my purely film buff, author, or bookworm friends. As such, I feel I am well placed to champion video games as a legitimate storytelling medium. In this two-part article mini-series, I will attempt to do just that by making the following arguments;

1) That storytelling in games has already matched that found in other mediums.

2) That it first did so a long time ago.

3) That the potential for storytelling in games will only get better as time goes on and the technology improves.

The Past – 1980s: What the public saw...

Since I was born in the late seventies, I grew up with gaming from a young age. My first ever gaming experiences were the Atari 2600 and the coin-op video arcade games of the era.

Coin-op arcade games were often lacking when it came to plot. Why were the Space Invaders invading? What was Pacman’s motivation for eating dots in a ghost-filled maze? (The image below may shed some light on it #childhoodruined)

See, Pac Man was the baddie all along

This lack of depth is largely due to the coin-op arcade’s business model;

1: Entice players to pump in coins to play the games.

2: Make the games challenging but addictive so players ‘die’ frequently.

3: Tempt players to pump in more coins to get ‘continues’ and thus keep playing.

4: Profit.

A plot would only have gotten in the way of this money-making loop. Most early home computer and console games were either ports of these arcade games or were heavily inspired by them. Therefore, they were rather ‘light’ on the lore and storytelling fronts too.

By the time of the 3rd generation of consoles, i.e. the NES and the Sega Master System, games were becoming longer and less tied to what was happening in the arcades. Ports of popular arcade games were joined by ‘console native games’, i.e. those designed for the home console market from the start. Super Mario Bros and Alex Kidd in Miracle World are good examples. Although the gameplay and graphics of these games far surpassed those of the previous console generation, their lore, dialogue, characterisation and storytelling were still simplistic at best.

Those whose experience of videogames was limited to the arcades and consoles of that era could be forgiven for thinking that video games were an inherently shallow experience. It is understandable if they saw video games as devoid of any deeper meaning than “shoot the baddies, save the girl. Some may have opined that the technology of the era was simply incapable of delivering anything deeper than Mario or Contra.

The Past – 1980s: ...Was not all that was on offer

However, those who were also familiar with the early pre-IBM compatible home computers, such as the BBC Micro, ZX Spectrum and Commodore C64, would be aware of a whole genre of narrative-heavy games, the Text Adventure. These games, such as Zork, were entirely text-based. In many ways, they were more of an interactive novel than what most people would consider a video game. Their gameplay consisted of typing in commands, such as ‘hit orc’ or ‘open door’. Since there were no graphics to speak off, you built a mental image in your head based on the descriptive text alone.

Slightly later games, such as the award-winning Lords of Midnight, would combine the text of text adventure games with simple static imagery and strategy war game gameplay. It is worth noting that the campaign of Lords of Midnight was turned into a novel in 2018, which is a clear validation of the quality of the game’s storytelling.

The Lords of Midnight by Mike Singleton 1951-2012

Text adventures were aimed at an older audience than most arcade and console games of the day, and as such, they had far richer plots and deeper worldbuilding. Therefore, we can see that games with storytelling as rich as a film, play or novel date back to the early days of gaming. However, the rather niche nature of such games kept most of the public in ignorance of them.

The Past - 1990s

Let’s fast forward to the early-to-mid 1990s. Games in the arcades and on the 16-bit home consoles, (most notably the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis and the SNES) looked, sounded and arguably played better than their 8-bit ancestors.

However, when it came to expansive world-building, deep, nuanced plotlines and well written, believable and relatable characters, most console games were no more developed than those of the previous generation. Consoles were still seen by many as ‘kid’s stuff’, and they were marketed to a youthful, mostly teenage audience.

(Look up the hilariously cringe-worthy Nintendo and Sega TV ads from the ‘90s to see this marketing in action.)

As before, to find the best examples of video game storytelling we must look to the home computer market, specifically the 16-bit Commodore Amiga 500/600 and Atari ST, and the early IBM compatible Personal Computers.

This was the era of the ‘point and click adventure’. Games such as the cyberpunk-inspired Beneath a Steel Sky, comedic titles such as The Secret of Monkey Island, Full Throttle, and Toonstruck, and the harrowing I have no Mouth and I Must Scream (based on the short story of the same name) were all masterpieces of in-game storytelling.

Many games for the IBM compatible Personal Computers came on CD-ROMS. The greatly increased storage capacity of CD-ROMS provided several new tools developers could use for video game storytelling. These included Full-Motion Video, CD quality audio and in some cases full voice acting.

Many of point-and-click adventures that took full advantage of this were created by the heavyweight studio Lucas Arts. One of their most original IPs was The Dig. The Dig’s creative team included such luminaries as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Some of its CGI imagery was created by award winning Hollywood special effects studio Industrial Light and Magic, and its musical score has been described as ‘Wagner-esque’. Such was the quality of its storytelling that it was given the novelization treatment by acclaimed author Alan Dean Foster.

Point-and-click adventures became less popular towards the second half of the ‘90s. This became the era of the Real-Time-Strategy games such as Command & Conquer and StarCraft and FPS titles such as Duke Nukem and Unreal Tournament. Gameplay was given priority over narrative for most games of this era. For a while, it seemed that a game could have either fantastic storytelling or fantastic gameplay – not both. But a new millennium was just around the corner, and that was set to change.

The Past - 2000s

The start of the 21st century ushered in a sea change in both video game gameplay and storytelling. The improved hardware and the move from CDs to DVDs allowed games to do things that were either impossible or impractical before.

(I remember when some games came on about six CDs, which resulted in frequent, irritating and flow breaking disc swaps.)