ScreenCritics explores why storytelling is such an important tool in the game makers arsenal – analyzing what gets it so right.
I’m sure many who experienced and loved Team Ico’s Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are excited for their third outing into the beautiful, almost poetic storytelling of The Last Guardian. What strikes me most about these games is the narrative pull behind them, which could be said for many great AAA titles still dominating the market. Everything from the emotional resonance of The Last of Us to the multi-layered intricacies of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has delivered some of the most memorable experiences in video games today largely due to the great stories they tell. The core of gaming has always been this way, but perhaps we should reaffirm why a great story can mean… oh so much.
In my mind, the first great example of storytelling in video games emerged from Super Mario Bros. The tale was simple; an Italian plumber is thrown into a world of fantastical danger when his princess is kidnapped by a villainous tortoise. On paper, I’m sure this turned many heads, even in a decade where trippy movies were basically the norm. However, it left quite a mark on the gaming industry, proving that a colorful main character with a singular goal in mind, driven by a very simplistic narrative, can shape the way we play and relate to games.
What followed after was a string of great games each presenting their own unique story with deep characters and detailed worlds. Final Fantasy VI is a prime example of the length developers (in particular, Squaresoft) will go to in order to ensure a very long-lasting impact with its story, clocking in at over 60 hours. Of course, this was eventually challenged with the monumental Final Fantasy VII, a legendary highpoint in narrative-driven games that’s still relevant for many nostalgic gamers today, including myself. The Final Fantasy series may not have been the first to introduce a powerful story with immense character depth, but it definitely set a very high bar.
Stories began to shape the essence of gaming, and for many, it became the sole reason for their gaming tendencies. We all love to feel like we’re a part of a spectacular journey, and gaming was the platform that truly captured this level of immersion more than any film ever could. After all, games place us in the shoes of a character that directly interacts with the world and characters around them, thus we assume their identity as well. Through this basic principal of design, we can feel their anguish, their happiness, their love, their suffering, and their trials and tribulations to overcome, all dependent on our decisions and control. With this comes a very important part of the storytelling process; free creative expression. We can shape the story in however way we see fit, changing the pacing characters will take in tackling obstacles or interacting with other characters. This defines the character we perceive, and our perception of that character is reflected in the game, affecting the events and others around them.
Games tend to follow a mostly linear, predetermined style of storytelling, unless radically challenged by titles like Heavy Rain or Mass Effect which took the concept of free expression to some incredible new depths in narrative design. However, it is the opportunity to be put in the shoes of someone seemingly ordinary experiencing extraordinary circumstances. The Uncharted and Tomb Raider series’ center around adventurers with nerves of steel and a keen sense of exploration, travelling to amazing places around the globe in search of treasures while battling evil corporations. While it is the idealistic take on the hero’s tale, a large part of the charm that brought us back was the characters themselves and the various detailed stories that served as great emotional and physical boundaries for them to overcome. We felt a connection, not only to the main characters (in all their charismatic beauty, oh Nathan and Lara…), but the tales that shaped the cores of their experiences, and thus ours as well.
This finally brings me to the highly anticipated The Last Guardian, a game from the minds who brought us Shadow of the Colossus, which was a game-changer in terms of narrative alone. The Last Guardian promises somewhat of a mystical fairy tale, interwoven with perilous moments of adventure and strong emotional connections to be made with its already lovable nameless hero and, of course, the griffin-like creature, Trico. The reasoning behind the games tremendous hype is very simple (that and the fact that we’re finally getting a spiritual successor to one of the greatest games ever made), yet it speaks volumes about what gamers really expect out of games. We know there’s an unique pull to these artfully designed storytelling masterpieces which include the likes of Okami, Limbo and Journey too, and it brings us back once again to experience the pleasure of what a great story can mean to an individual.
As we trudge onward towards more great games on the horizon, we can see where gaming is going in terms of storytelling. Gamers will return time and time again to a great story with memorable characters, regardless of its production values or simplistic styles. Across the board of AAA and indie-gaming, there’s worlds for us to explore and get lost in. We want to be moved and have our minds challenged by the great imaginations of the industries prime storytellers, which has become, in my opinion, an underrated job in the gaming world that deserves a bit more appreciation. After all, behind every blank page is a writer willing to pour their heart out and most of all, they want us to pour our hearts into the story.