Editorial: Story in Gaming through the Ages

Once upon a time, Mario thought he had rescued a princess, but she was in another castle.
Gather ’round children and I will tell you the story of the four warriors of light.

Story, in varying degrees, has been a part of video games since the 1980’s. In the past, a gamer had to turn to the RPG genre to experience a deep storyline. Now, in the age of high-capacity optical media, multi-million dollar development costs, and large development teams, story is quickly becoming a larger part of nearly all game genres. Story development, when done properly, contributes substantially to game. When done wrong, it can be a huge detriment to one’s desire to see a game through to the end.

When gaming was in its infancy, developers focused their limited resources on a stable and fun experience. Storylines of the 8-bit generation were told mainly through the manual, setting up the game’s foundation and allowing the player to take the reins from there. RPGs also had some story told in the manual, however nearly all of it was to build a foundation for the game itself to continue from. Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy are two examples of NES RPGs that helped set the stage to show other developers that video games could be a viable medium for story-telling. Another aspect of early gaming was that it was seen more as a pastime for young children. Due to this most games featured an almost cartoon-style story, such as Mario having to rescue the princess and Doctor Robotnik kidnapping all of the forest animals.

The 16-bit generation brought more examples of both sides of the story-telling coin. Platformers and RPGs dominated the major titles of this era, especially on the SNES. Games such as Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island, Mega Man X, and Donkey Kong Country had the majority of their story told in their respective manuals, while featuring bits of dialogue during gameplay to continue the story. RPGs, on the other hand, continued to show how well a video game can tell a story. Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger both joined deep gameplay with an engaging storyline, while Earthbound and Super Mario RPG brought humor to the genre while still developing the story throughout the gameplay experience.

Keep your story out of my Mega Man!
50% More Story than X3!

The fifth (N64 and PSX) and sixth (PS2, GCN, Xbox) generation of consoles brought some of the largest steps in the evolution of video games as a story-telling medium. The switch to optical media meant developers had much more data space to work with. Cut scenes rapidly became the item of choice to fill up that extra space, with RPGs being some of the first to use them extensively. Soon, however, cut scenes were present in nearly every genre. Even Mega Man X4 had voice-acted cut scenes. With the addition of cut scenes, more money spent on development, and a rapidly increasing fan base, story was tacked on where it was not necessary . Furthermore, this era would begin to have many developers move to more mature storylines to keep up with a maturing (and expanding) fan base.

The aforementioned eras, especially the sixth generation, had some of the first examples of story being injected into games that did not need it. I had no problem playing through the 8- and 16-bit Mega Man games, but the story in the PSX and PS2 games really wore me down. I play Mega Man to blast away eight robot masters and steal their weapons, not to get bogged down in a bad (and boring) storyline. This trend has worsened in the current generation.

With the current generation of consoles I find that it is becoming common for developers to feel the need to bog down games with an in-dept story when there is no need for one. Many games today feature a dialogue-heavy story. A dialogue-heavy story is not always a bad thing, but many games that have a story shoved in as an after thought do not have sufficiently decent writing to carry it. Another element that is popular this generation is the WRPG approach of “branching” stories. Many WRPGs purport to have epic, choose-your-own-adventure style storylines. However many of these storylines end up being overrated rather than epic. The Mass Effect trilogy being a prime example of this.

In the end, video games have experienced quite an evolution in both story-telling methods and the stories themselves. Games now are focusing evermore on story, even when one is not needed. Mature storylines–which were uncommon during the early eras of gaming–are more common, especially in the first-person shooter genre. With the next generation coming up fast, we could be on the edge of another evolution of story-telling in gaming. What are your thoughts on the current state of story-telling in games, where it has come from, and where it could end up?

9 comments

  1. I tend to agree about the tacked-on nature of story these days. Why does New Super Mario Bros. need a story? Why does Sonic need a story? These leads to abortions like Sonic the Hedgehog (2006)–precisely what the game industry does not need.

  2. The New Super Mario Bros. series absolutely doesn’t need a story. I think most would agree that the worst part of those games is the cutscene after selecting “new game”.

  3. I agree New Super Mario bros does not need a story. However, Rosalina’s story in the original Galaxy was quite charming. Also I agree the choose-your-own-adventure style of storytelling in western games is overrated. I would enjoy a well thought out linear story to almost any open world.

  4. Well I think it works in Mass Effect. Not so much about deciding plot elements, but with building relationships. Building a friendship with Garrus in ME and then navigating a potential romance with him when neither wants to harm the friendship is just excellent writing with a connection to that friendship that is more personal than in an entirely pre-scripted one.

    I prefer fixed-plots too, but I think Mass Effect’s choices with relationships more than make up for the “choose-your-own-adventure” style which is a bit of a falsehood in ME anyway.

  5. The worse part of many games these days is the opening hour or so. From excruciating tutorials to a mountain of story that hits you in the face at the onset makes the act of starting most games a chore rather than an adventure.

  6. Yes, particularly when the story is poor.

  7. I suppose one thing I miss (and am always pleasantly surprised to find if included in modern games) is the ability to make up my own story in games. Sure, Super Mario World had a story of sorts, but it was never nearly as epic as the insurrection I imagined Mario mounting against King Bowser’s claim of droit du seigneur.* A lot is to be said about a game setting up a basic plotline (Princess gone! Want cake?) and letting the player fashion the details themselves.

    *I, erm, was a young fan of Braveheart.

  8. A great article, Killswitch. Thanks. Perhaps no game has done branching stories the way you guys want and that is why everyone thinks it is overrated. I think the idea itself is it highly rated enough. If it were, we would actually have good choose-your-own-adventure stories in games. I think all of us would love a game where we truly got to do a quest in our own ways. We just have not gotten a game that does that really well, yet.

    Mega Man does indeed not need a story. Neither does any fighting game ever made. Remember when you beat Street Fighter and saw a little scene about what Ken and Ryu did after the tournament? Who in Purgatory cares about that nonsense. That is why I was really happy about what Daisuke Ishiwatari did with Guilty Gear. You beat the final boss and then it is just credits that you can even skip!

  9. Good article bro I think Its a good point to be made but I disagree with your piont about megaman x4 I liked the added storyline I think it was necessary as it was changing to a more powerful system. And I personally think mature aduiences enjoy the mature storylines presented in the later generations it just wasnt the demographic for first or second gen systems. For example NES was geared to kids (obviously) and the demographic aged (a point you made) so the target demographic aged.

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