Why narratives are the best advancement of this generation

Originally written for 7Bit Arcade, the original has since been taken down, this one has been edited to make it read better and stuff. All details were correct at time of writing.

Gaming isn’t what it used to be. There was a time where one single, but brilliant, gameplay concept would be enough to ensure a game’s classic status. From the platform perfection of Mario on the NES or the puzzling masterpiece of Tetris, games became our favourite medium because they were superbly designed to play. But with the advent of HD gaming, we’ve seen a much more thrilling invention from my point of view…

Strong narratives.

Those at the back, please stop scoffing. Because, for me personally, the future of games won’t be in stereoscopic 3D graphics, the battlefields of online or a few more polygons, but it’ll be within a games ability to engage emotions and develop an interest in the story itself and not just the way you play through it. In this young gamer’s eyes, games really need a strong narrative.

For a narrative to be strong, all it needs to do is keep me invested in the story outside of the gameplay. So while I would never hold up Gears of War as being a narratively driven game, it’s surprising just how much I cared about seeing the campaign all the way through instead of seeing the new tweaks to weapons etc.  If I care about the world I’m playing in, I’m more likely to see it through to the end and appreciate the experience.

A narrative – well, my definition of it anyway – doesn’t start and end with the story, but extends to every part of the world that I’m experiencing, which with games, is obviously quite a hefty amount. So even if the characters can be moulded to your whims, i.e. every RPG ever, if a certain amount of detail and care has been placed into the space your character occupies, then the narrative still plays a huge role in my enjoyment of a game.

When playing the recent zombie slaughter simulator Dead Island – which 7Bit gave an 8/10 – I found myself rather enjoying the brutal melee combat, but often struggled to actually appreciate the game as a whole, constantly being ripped out of the experience by poorly written characters and some incredibly weak exposition. It had a solid gameplay concept and, for one of the first times in my life, it wasn’t enough.

The polar opposite of this situation also seemed to happen to me earlier the year as well, where the repetitive structure of LA Noire may have put off some, I found myself looking past this gameplay flaw and invested in a story that had gripped and intrigued like the Noir forefathers it desperately wanted to be.  This isn’t to suggest that LA Noire could have been an Oscar contender, but it was willing to approach mature and adult themes in a way that didn’t sensationalize them, while trying – if not quite succeeding in some places – to add depth to what could have been cookie cutter stereotypes.

There’s still so much potential for videogame narratives, that wouldn’t even have to take away from the gameplay. The original Metal Gear Solid’s Pyscho Mantis boss battle, where he would “read” your memory card, showed us a neat trick that Kojima learnt, while also giving the audience a true idea of Pyscho Mantis’ power. These sort of quirks create talking points and experiences that are impossible in other media forms and show us the real power of a character without having to tell us about. Storytelling 101 that is.

There are also plenty of reasons why some people think that games don’t need strong narratives. The rise of mobile gaming on Android and iOS has meant that a whole legion of new gamers – whether they know it or not – has sprung up and few people play Angry Birds for their emotional investment in the flight arc of a pissed-off bird. Yet this doesn’t mean that mobile games can’t have solid narratives, as JRPG Chaos Rings and the Hector series have attempted to prove.

On top of that, multiplayer –especially of the online variety – has undoubtedly become a huge part of the gaming experience in the past few years, which usually lacks any sort of narrative cohesion, so why should this aspect of games need a strong narrative? Well, as recently proved in the Uncharted 3 beta, even just a hint of a narrative gives the action a fresh feel. With that game’s multiplayer action starting out on an airplane runway then ending up in a hanger, the 10 minute match has a simple beginning, middle and end that could keep players who usually rage quite invested in the shooty fun.

Technology will change, as will graphics and zeitgeist’s, but a good story will always be a good story. Games have the ability to be able to tell the best stories, where they’re stripped of the time constraints of cinema, the politics of television and the passivity of books. Uncharted has proven to be a blockbuster with heart, while Limbo’s hints of exposition are a perfect example of showing and not telling. One story that will stand the test of time as a story and a game is Portal, Valve’s peerless puzzle shooter whose narrative could not be told in any other medium.

Certain games don’t require narratives, because I doubt I’ll ever need reasons to explore what’s possible in Saints Row or seeing a storyline in FIFA, but most would benefit from paying more attention to the world they want us to inhabit, than the ways we can play them.

Do you think narrative should become the focus of videogames or do you think that gameplay should be the be all and end all? Let’s us know in the comments below!


2 thoughts on “Why narratives are the best advancement of this generation

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