Telling a story with a video game presents unique challenges. Developers must consider the countless variables of player interaction. Balancing a story being told with player agency is the key to a great experience.
Metal Gear Solid was praised for it’s cinematic storytelling. Previous games had featured epic plots with voice acting, but Kojima paid special attention to cinematography and other elements ripped directly from films to elevate his game. On the flip side, many critics have pointed out the long periods of non-play while watching long scenes play out with zero input required from the player.
Telltale games hit the big time with The Walking Dead and their brand of branched storytelling. The player was given meaningful choice that followed multiple paths to provide alternate experiences. The stories usually followed a diamond configuration, offering the most choice in the middle while the beginning and ends were very linear. This allowed a single thread to be told with much variance along the way for players to enjoy.
What’s the perfect amount of story? Obviously it varies as widely throughout the incredible breadth of gaming genres. A platformer needs only a small amount of motivation. Mario goes from point A to B in order to rescue the Princess. Throughout his adventures Nintendo has shown a wild creativity for environments and characters that seldom need to connect to an overall theme. If an enemy is cute and fun in a windup boot, then so be it.
System Shock, Half-Life, and BioShock are all great examples of environmental storytelling. Music, ambience, notes, audio logs, architecture, lighting, and even cleanliness/disorder all contribute to the experience. Bioshock’s Rapture has long been heralded as a wonderful character on its own. Any player who first descends into the Art Deco dystopia will remember it forever. Keeping environments, characters, and side-plots consistent with the main themes and story can contribute to a very powerful and engaging experience.
Game technology is ever improving. From Naughty Dog’s astounding player modeling to the powerful tools that allow indie devs to create playable cartoons that we could only dream of ten years prior. This technology allows storytelling to progress as well. In 1997 Final Fantasy VII impressed the world with cutting edge CG cutscenes in between gameplay moments. They were beautiful for the time but also very jarring compared to the rougher looking avatars the player would actually control. This was the same for the gorgeous pre-rendered environments mixed with blocky characters layered on top.
On the opposite end, 1998s Half-Life was devoid of cut-scenes or any pre-rendered footage. The player never left the first-person view which further grounded them into their experience. The opening section is unforgettable as the player participates in a setup as natural as going to work and talking to your colleagues.
I believe developers will continue to find better ways to incorporate the narrative into gameplay. Borrowing ideas from films and other mediums is important, but finding methods that can only be done with a video game is the true goal.