Gamers with a bit of wear on their tires can testify to the fact that storytelling in video games has come a very long way since Donkey Kong...and yes, Donkey Kong did tell a story, albeit a very simple one. Designers have more options at their disposal than ever, and the real challenge today is determining what mode of storytelling will best serve the overall design philosophy of a particular game.
The Final Fantasy and Metal Gear formula--gameplay sequence followed by narrative cutscene--can work beautifully, in my view, especially if the game operates within a cinematic framework. Games like Bioshock and the Half-Life series, on the other hand, clearly attempt to fuse gameplay with narrative, integrating the player's experience navigating the game's environments and challenges with a constantly unfolding plot.
Alternative approaches can work well too. Sometimes designers surprise us with an odd amalgam of storytelling devices. Space Rangers 2, a sadly under-appreciated game, adopts an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, combining RTS gameplay narrative; exploration and NPC trading that deliver more story; mini-games that advance plot further, and just when you think you've seen all the game's got...you're thrown into an old-school text adventure sequence with even more storytelling elements.
What these games tell us is that there is no single best way to incorporate storytelling into a video game. And, obviously, some games don't need stories at all, as Super Monkey Ball Adventure so painfully demonstrates. But as games advance, both in terms of realism and player immersion, the necessity for good storytelling has never been more clear.
No one illustrates this necessity more convincingly than Nayan Ramachandran, an English teacher and journalist living in Japan whose blog High Dynamic Range Lying is subtitled "Gaming for Smart People" (kind of a natural Brainy Gamer fit, eh?) Nayan's recent essay Telling Stories and Realizing Worlds examines the issue of storytelling in video games and offers a prescription, of sorts, to designers for incorporating a solid narrative into a game:
- Don’t treat the player like an idiot. If you want to include metaphor and symbolism in the story, don’t club the player over the head with its meaning, otherwise you have ruined what makes the symbolism so strong. Let it speak for itself.
- Unclog the start of the game. Stop putting tons of cutscenes at the beginning of the game. It’s important to set the scene for the game, but try to figure out a more interactive means of doing so. Like a good book, a game’s first 15 minutes should be spent exhibiting the pacing and atmosphere that the player expects to experience for the entirety of the game.
- Open-ended endings are fun. Try not to explain absolutely everything at the end of the game, but also don’t leave all questions completely unanswered. Leave players with the tools and clues they need to piece the mystery together, but leave enough ambiguity that will keep them guessing for years, or at least until the sequel.
- Give us more unreliable narrators. Nothing builds mystery like experiencing a world as a character the player does not entirely trust. Not only does this allow the player to piece together the character’s true past without the use of the cliched amnesia mechanic, but it also allows players to question everything around them, and the actions of their character. Nothing is more frightening than not being able to trust yourself.
- Provide layers of plot. Metroid Prime, Bioshock, and Halo 3 were on to something. Particularly in action-based games, provide a skeleton frame of a story for the average player who only cares about shooting people in the crotch. Along with that, provide deeper and better written story through diaries and audio that players can optionally track down during their adventure. Additional points if the player can read or listen while they explore and fight.
I like Nayan's suggestions, and I admire his thinking on video game narrative. You can read the full text of his essay here.