Plots, narrative, storylines. These aspects of entertainment often feature in video games in a variety of ways and in varying degrees of importance. For some titles the plot is simply the loosely assembled backstory that brings you up to speed, before strapping enough ordnance to your body to level a small city. In other games it forms the crux of everything that happens, sometimes to the delight or dismay of the player. And since the days of Pac Man, storytelling in gaming has become a prominent part of the gaming experience. But is it really important?
Being a big fan of Halo I’m immediately tempted to say “yes”. In the Halo games the story has always been present. It provides additional information on locations, characters and events. It also provides the underlying motivation for what you are doing. Though this may seem less obvious in the original Halo Combat Evolved game released back in 2001, it’s definitely still there. Without it there’s no underlying explanation for the huge Halo construct floating in space. Without it there’s no real direction or reason for the war with the Covenant. And without it there’s no reason for a Forerunner super weapon capable of killing all sentient life in the galaxy. Without a plot, Halo simply becomes a FPS with no real reason to exist, and simply provides a multi-level shooting gallery.
Anyone familiar with Halo will also have heard of the various novels that have been penned, which dive deeper still into aspects of the Halo universe that is largely undiscovered in the games. Blue Team, for instance, who only feature in Halo 5: Guardians, prominently feature in multiple novels. But to the regular player unaware of the novels it would be easy to think of the Master Chief as the only Spartan the UNSC has at its disposal. When in fact there were originally 75 candidates who undertook a gruelling training regimen, followed by a sometimes fatal augmentation of physical and mental capabilities. Of the 33 that originally started the Spartan II programme, only 33 survived and were capable of active duty. Several others were left disfigured or permanently disabled, and several died. But does the average gamer really need to know this? Will not knowing this impede the gaming experience? The short answer is no. But a good story does still play a vital part.
Let’s look at another game. Destiny, created by Halo’s original custodians, Bungie, was an ambitious space adventure centred around the arrival of a large, spherical object known as the Traveller. Following the Traveller’s arrival Mankind prospers and reaches for the stars, only to be swatted into near extinction by The Darkness. Mankind is saved at the cost of the Traveller and is forced to climb back up the galactic ladder, against several, formidable threats. But though this backstory sounds delightful, the actual game was a hollow shell. The gameplay was smooth, scenic and enjoyable, but without a solid story it all seemed a bit of a formality. The DLC that followed eventually improved the storytelling experience, but the original game was still tarnished with a somewhat bitter taste.
That being said, lots of people played Destiny, and still do. Like Halo, Destiny caters for many different gaming archetypes. From those who like to test their mettle in multiplayer, to those on cooperative quests, there’s plenty for everyone, with the notable exception of the hardcore fiction fans, who frequently point out that you spend the entire main game and all of the following DLC ignoring the very large white, spherical elephant in the room, namely the Traveller. If I were to provide a Halo analogy it would be like playing a halo game, but never, ever setting foot on it. But that does little to deter Destiny fans from grinding their way to this week’s must have items. Which does beg the question: is it really important to have a cohesive and functional storyline in a game?
It’s easy to say outright that it is or is not important in a game. Halo 4 demonstrated what happens when you place too much emphasis on the plot and drown fans in narrative elements. I loved it, because I love the fiction of Halo, but for a newcomer trying to find their footing, it must have been a swirling cacophony of confusion. The Didact, who’s he? And why is he so mad? Sure, the terminals provide a glimpse into the backstory, but you have to find those. And if you don’t know anything about them you won’t be looking for them. See the problem?
Other games also have their own approach to narrative and backstory. The Elder Scrolls is widely regarding as a solid example of storytelling, through direct and indirect methods. Characters provide subtext via dialogue, and you learn and uncover other elements via quests. there’s also the countless books that you can read in-game, scattered throughout the land. For the likes of Skyrim, the plot is important. it provides motivation and a reason for undertaking certain paths or quests. In fact, Bethesda do such a good job at this that some fans develop openly hostile attitudes to certain races in the game, the Thalmor being the primary recipient of the aforementioned prejudice. It could even be perceived as racism. But, regardless of whether or not you approve of this method, it’s clear that this level of immersion is dependent on a convincing plot.
But the plot doesn’t just play a role in the video game. It’s obvious that novels based upon certain video game titles sell, and make money. So to ignore this element would be ludicrous. Halo does it, The Witcher, Assassin’s Creed, Bioshock, Battlefield, Diablo, and Gears of War do it. And so do countless others. But is the fiction invented to make money or is the fiction created to bolster the experience, and there just happens to be enough of it to write a book about it? That’s certainly open to debate. But most fictional universe have an ample supply of material for both games and novels.
Anyway, back to the original question. Are stories in gaming really important? I’d have to say yes. But only in the right quantity and only if relevant to the game in question. You certainly can’t invest as much time and energy into the story of Pac Man as you would Skyrim. There’s just no need. So any storytelling must be proportional to the adventure. The in-game narrative provides guidance, background, and also clues when encountering certain opponents or enemies.
You can learn from it and, in turn, use it to your own advantage. An example of this is reading the backstory to Skyrim, namely in the form of the books that are found scattered throughout. Some of these provide sound advice on tackling certain characters or when navigating locations. But it also provides a reason for some games to exist. Sure, purist multiplayer fans may not find it important. But lets bear in mind that a lot of multiplayer elements in games are carried over from their campaign counterparts. And the backstory also influences the artists and multiplayer designers. And without inspiration what would be the point? Done correctly, and in proportion, it’s vital to a game.
Lastly, if you’re not convinced by the importance of narrative used in gaming, let me steer you towards The Last of Us. I’m a big Xbox fan, but the Last of Us is truly one of the best, if not the best, examples of how to use narrative in a game. If that doesn’t make you sit up and take note, then clearly you’re dead inside.
Flugel Meister (Dave) is a longtime video gaming fan, who's love for all things pixelated began way back in 1980, when he ventured onto his brother's Grandstand console before progressing to a Dragon 32 and then a Spectrum 48K. That's right. he's old. When he's not gaming, he can be found swimming in the country's reserves of cheesecake.
Follow him on Twitter: @DavidPMcDougall