With the hype surrounding the releases of Fallout 4, Halo 5 and Star Wars Battlefront, I’ve been thinking whether people genuinely want an engrossing storyline in their games, whether storytelling in video games is actually all that important. Some of the highest rated games of the last ten years are praised for their storytelling, with people claiming that video games can be considered in the same realm as film, television and literature in terms of their storytelling capabilities. Now, video games can be used to tell great stories, there is no denying that; but do they add to the overall enjoyment found in the game?
Clearly, whether a good story improves a game is based on what kind of game it is and whether or not the game itself is actually fun. There aren’t a huge number of games available that focus on storytelling rather than gameplay, and any that do typically are part of the genre of visual novels. However, games like Mass Effect and Telltale’s The Walking Dead have popularised story driven content rather than gameplay driven content, with some video game fans now only wanting these story driven games over those that prioritise on fun. Despite this, there is still invariably a market out there for games that feature little to no story, or storytelling that is second to the gameplay experience.
Nintendo is definitely a company that values gameplay over storytelling, with Mario games featuring a simple “save the Princess” storyline which acts as little more than a reason for Mario running and jumping through lots of different levels. In Mario’s latest title, Super Mario Maker, there is no storyline, it offers Mario at its essence, whilst allowing you to create levels and play levels other people have made. Super Mario Maker has turned out to be very successful for Nintendo, more so than their more story driven content such as Fire Emblem. However, Nintendo’s other flagship series, The Legend of Zelda, is rather concerned with its stories and lore. Despite this however, the plot never gets in the way of a Zelda game, it adds to the overall experience, but not as much as each game’s world.
It can be argued that the world of a video game is more important than the storytelling. A drab, lifeless world sucks the fun out of a video game, even if it had an engrossing story with great characters. The antithesis of this is Just Cause, with it’s laughably bad storytelling and characters, is akin to those seen in the worst action films of the 1980s. Just Cause tries to tell a story, but at its heart it is a game where the aim is to blow everything up – to have fun. If Just Cause focussed on storytelling, it’d get in the way of the game; as it does in the Assassin’s Creed series.
Assassin’s Creed provides an interesting case study, as it tries to give the best of both worlds: an engrossing story backed up with impressive gameplay mechanics. However, by attempting both, we are given technically impressive games with deep gameplay mechanics hacked apart by intrusive storytelling. With Assassin’s Creed, the storytelling forces itself upon you, and unfortunately, the stories in Assassin’s Creed became too complicated for their own good with a wholly unlikeable cast of douche bags trying to be edgy. Of course, this is down to taste and personal preference, but I know I’m not alone in thinking that the “present day” sections of Assassin’s Creed kind of ruined the experience, getting in the way of the “proper” part of the game.
Whilst there are plenty of games where storytelling is practically non-existent, or background, there are genres where one expects if not requires engrossing storytelling. The RPG is a genre in which storytelling is the main port of call, with large worlds and long plots that tell a beginning, middle and end. Series like Final Fantasy pride themselves in their ability to tell good stories over the course of many hours of play, while games like Fallout, and The Elder Scrolls allow you to take the story at your own pace, even allowing you to completely ignore it. Again, with RPGs, it is the world in which one is given the true feeling of the game, bringing up the question whether or not it is worldbuilding and design that is the most important part of a successful, quality video game.
However, the Pokémon series features very basic plots, secondary to the gameplay. The Pokémon series is one of the most loved worldwide and sells millions of copies with every release, not to mention the copious amount of merchandise, spin-offs and TV show along with countless movies. There is something endearing with the Pokémon series, something that transcends ages and that is certainly not the storytelling. Nintendo and Game Freak know that simply it is the Pokémon themselves that keep people coming back. Pokémon shows that storytelling can take a back seat in RPGs and still breed success in a genre where the story is often a core part of the experience.
Storytelling in video games is maturing, but I’m personally not sure if it is improving video games. Some of my favourite games are story driven, but some of my favourite games aren’t story driven. In the case of some games, however, I feel that the story can get in the way of the overall experience, demanding you pay attention to something you ultimately do not care about. If a story in a game is done well, however, it really shines, with the Metal Gear Solid series providing a good example. I don’t know really though whether storytelling in video games is that important, as it can be, depending on the game; I will say this however, everybody got on fine with older video games and arcade games containing very basic storytelling.
Toby Saunders is sometimes opinionated, and you’ll find him posting garbage about games, films and his beloved Spurs and Bath City FC on Twitter.