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.
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?