Every storytelling medium has strengths and weaknesses, and good writers embrace their medium to tell stories that they couldn’t tell elsewhere. For example, novels build heavily on the imagination of the reader, while movies enjoy rigid control over the viewing experience.
Video games are relatively young as a storytelling medium, but that hasn’t stopped creators worldwide from pushing this format to its limits. Read on to learn about three video games that told stories that couldn’t be told elsewhere.
In Fable, released for the Xbox in 2004, a young boy takes up arms after his family is slain. He travels a world of monsters and magic as he uncovers mysteries in the pursuit of justice.
As he struggles with ideals such as justice, morality, forgiveness, and authority, the player is presented with questions and choices. Some of these questions are profound (Do I embrace dark power in order to enact my revenge?), others are more personal (Is it justifiable to kill a soldier who is simply doing their job?), and still others are mundane (Do I eat tofu or chicken for lunch?).
Every action the player takes pushes the main character to one side of a continuum, either “good” or “evil.” Slaying monsters and saving villagers will push you towards “good,” while breaking the law and abusing innocents will create a more evil character.
Depending on where your character lies on the continuum, villagers will either entreat you or flee from you, your appearance will either be radiant or menacing, and different story elements are introduced and withheld.
As you play, your decisions pile up, and the story eventually branches into four distinct endings. This process creates a rich and unique player experience, especially when compared to similar attempts by choose-your-own-adventure books.
2. Chrono Trigger
Chrono Trigger was released in 1995 for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The main character, a boy named Chrono, begins the story in a quiet village but quickly finds himself swept up in a battle for the fate of the world.
The primary hook of this game is the time travel mechanic. Instead of simply traveling to different locales, Chrono travels to different time periods, including prehistoric, post-apocalyptic, and steampunk settings. Each setting contains dozens of characters: some descendants of others, some figures of legend, and most just largely pedestrian.
As Chrono journeys from era to era, the player encounters dozens of puzzles and quests. Often, the solution to these puzzles is located in a far-flung corner of time, and it’s up to you to find it.
For example, in order to bypass a ghost that’s blocking your path, you must travel back in time, long before he became a restless spirit, and help him find peace. In another quest, you must travel to 11 locations in 4 time periods to pursue and reclaim a stolen magical artifact.
While time travel is by no means a revolutionary concept, pursuing such deep and multifaceted mysteries yourself is supremely thought-provoking and rewarding. You could easily beat the entire game and only experience a tenth of the game’s story content (and only 1 of its 17 endings) since so much of it is optional or hidden.
Journey is an online game with no dialogue, no distinct characters, and no plot. You play as a featureless robed figure who is dropped into a vast desert; in the far distance, you can make out a mountain with a glowing peak. With nothing to do and no directions to follow, you’ll inevitably start traveling towards the mountain.
As you travel, you must traverse crumbling ruins, overcoming obstacles and avoiding dangers as you trek towards the mountain. You’ll encounter other players, but with no way to communicate with or even identify the other players, you’ll simply travel together for a time, tackling puzzles together until one of you logs off without a word.
You’ll ask yourself many questions as you explore. What civilization left these ruins? What do these broken murals represent? Who controls the lumbering automatons that still roam the desert? Your guess is as good as any.
The story of Journey is deeply intimate; no one will hold your hand or answer your questions, and the friendships you make along the way vanish like sand through your fingers. In defiance to modern gaming conventions where games are stuffed with as much content as possible, Journey is only two hours long, yet its unique story has made this 2012 release a favorite of fans across the world.
The Core of Game Stories
A good video game story is one that fully realizes the potential of a player-driven narrative. Before you begin the writing process for the video game, you should meet with the directors, programmers, artists, and designers to learn exactly what kind of story you’ll be able to write.
First-person shooter games typically have linear campaigns that lend themselves well to traditional, novel-like stories. Role playing games (RPGs) have wide, open worlds with tons of room for secrets, and these optional story elements should complement the core story by letting the player uncover the world at their own pace.
Fighting games, which typically focus on gameplay instead of story, can benefit greatly from character and stage designs that give clues about the world they exist in. Action and adventure games can feature fully-realized cities, cinematic boss fights, and subtle emotions on the faces of the characters; such games tend to have more in common with cinema than traditional literature.
Above all, as you create the world, characters, and story of your video game, remember that you’re giving the reins to the player and letting them take control. Trust in their intelligence and give them the tools they need to experience your story in a way that works for them.
Have you played any video games that went above and beyond in storytelling? We’d love to hear about them in the comments or on social media.