If there is one medium for story-telling which has been overlooked by society at large, it is computer games. While we might not consider it the primary function of a computer game to tell a story, it is nevertheless a fact that gaming has become an increasingly important medium of story-telling.
As technology has developed and computer games have grown more intricate and complex, it is only natural that the capacity of computer games to tell stories has likewise increased but this idea of using games to tell stories is nothing new. While it is true that no one would ever try to suggest that Pong, Pacman or even more recent offerings such as Candy Crush make any kind of serious contribution to the world of fiction, writers have been using the medium of gaming to tell their stories in an interactive way ever since the text based adventures of the ’70s. The real question is, can a game have a good story and still be worth playing?
As you might expect, it depends on the game. We should bear in mind, before we judge the stories in games too harshly, that most games are primarily intended to be a challenge to play. That doesn’t diminish their value as games, but it does mean that you will need to do your homework if it’s a captivating story you’re looking for.
The Mortal Kombat series, for example, pretty much sets the standard for all other fighting games (if that’s your bag) but it doesn’t take more than a passing read through the story to see that it is full of holes and makes very little sense, not least of all since characters will frequently die in one game, only to be back for more by the next game. This would be unthinkable if you were writing a film or a novel but it’s essential in a game like Mortal Kombat because the characters of Mortal Kombat are what make it such a unique and recognisable game. Mortal Kombat just wouldn’t be Mortal Kombat if it didn’t have at least a few of the characters from the original game. Besides pretty much everybody dies sooner or later, since it is a fighting game.
There are, of course, plenty of games out there which are heavily plot-driven. The danger of this in gaming, however, is that we can quickly lose interest in the story if there isn’t enough focus on the actual game-play. The Metal Gear Solid series, for instance, is notorious for its long, dialogue-heavy cut-scenes which would perhaps feel more at home in a movie than in a computer game. The story is certainly well written but the sheer length and number of cut-scenes gets a bit tiresome after a while when all you really want to do is run about shooting folk from underneath your cardboard box.
As a rule of thumb, what makes a good story in print or on film will generally make a good story in game as well, provided that there is enough stuff for the player to actually do. That’s the hard part. Writing a quality story which is also challenging to play. This is where the point-and-click style adventure game comes into its own. One of my favourite games for story-telling is the Monkey Island series by LucasArts. It follows the adventures of wannabe pirate, Guybrush Threepwood and has all the necessary ingredients for a good story, such as a logical (if occasionally surreal) plot, humour by the bucket-load and a strong cast of memorable characters. Because the player is generally in control of what Guybrush says, there are very few lengthy cut-scenes to interrupt the game-play, thus creating a story which is truly interactive, rather than one which is simply interspersed through-out the game. There are plenty more games out there that follow this pattern (especially LucasArts games!) but the problem is, unless you happen to enjoy a retro game (like me!), you’re going to have a hard time finding any new ones to play. They pretty much had their day in the ’90s, I’m sorry to say.
Other types of gaming, such as role-playing games, often have very good stories, but like all stories, they also have the potential to be overwritten. The Final Fantasy series, for example, has been known to produce stories which can be a little confusing and melodramatic. The Fable series is a little bit better in that regard but because it has such a heavy focus on the player’s choice in almost everything that happens, it does make for a rather loose-fitting story which tends to take the form of a generic hero fighting something that will probably destroy the world, before the hero is finally faced with a big old moral dilemma.
Ultimately, I think the jury is still out on whether or not computer games can seriously stand shoulder to shoulder with film, theatre and literature as a means of story-telling without sacrificing the element of fun and challenge that makes a game worth playing. As technology continues to develop, I don’t think it’s completely unreasonable to say that the potential of games to tell stories will develop also, however we must remember that the power of stories does not ultimately rest in technology. It may be argued, therefore, that a simple text-based adventure or a point-and-click adventure such as Monkey Island might actually have greater potential to tell us a story in a way which is fun and interactive than a game such as Metal Gear Solid, which has to interrupt the game-play every time it needs to move the story along. As with most other forms of story-telling, it really depends what you’re looking for. I’ve always been a believer that all mediums of story-telling have their pros and cons and what we like is ultimately a matter of personal preference. I suspect the same is true for gaming.