As video games become ever more sophisticated and inch ever closer to true art forms in themselves, the importance of a good story becomes ever more paramount. A great gaming narrative can deliver an enchanting and beguiling experience, packed with amazing characters, surprising twists and concepts to dizzy the mind. A bad one can churn up paper-thin stereotypes and predictable story turns that wouldn't even disgrace a bad daytime soap opera. Digital Spy
explores a selection of the great stories from video gaming history, grouped within some of the innovative narrative ideas that have inspired development studios. This is not intended as a definitive rundown of video game storytelling, so please feel free to suggest stories, character and narratives that have blown you away over the years.Silver Screen Stories...
The line between video games and movies is increasingly starting to blur, as developers regularly target cinematic storylines worthy of the silver screen. Acclaimed screenwriters are now flocking to games development, aware that their creativity is less constrained than in the movies - if they can imagine it, then the studios can usually make it happen. THQ's forthcoming first-person shooter Homefront
, for example, features an alternate-history narrative crafted by John Milius, the co-writer of Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now
. This growing trend has introduced a genuinely cinematic aspect to video games, expanding the vision to the outer limits of widescreen.
Possibly one of the first examples of cinematic storytelling was Hideo Kojima's sprawling epic Metal Gear Solid
, released on the original PlayStation in 1998. In the game, the eponymous Solid Snake is pulled out of retirement to tackle a terrorist threat on a remote island off Alaska, after the US government is threatened with nuclear attack. The peerless presentation and voice acting, along with a memorable cast of characters and complex, interwoven narrative, changed many people's perception of what was possible with a video game story. It was fantastical stuff, but crucially had enough credibility to make the craziness feel real - a fact not necessarily true of later instalments in the series.
Another property bristling with cinematic scope was Valve's Half-Life
series, a towering masterpiece that cranked up the quality with every new instalment. The series - Half-Life
, Half-Life 2
and the latter's two additional episodes - ushered in an excellent way of telling the story by eschewing cut scenes in favour of in-game sequences. This approach allowed the player to move around and feel part of the experience, instead of waiting for an animation to finish. The Half-Life
games also managed to build an immersive and engaging narrative despite the fact that the main hero, theoretical physicist and revolutionary soldier Gordon Freeman, was seemingly devoid of any personality whatsoever. The game instead relied on its cast of characters to build Freeman's legend, making the player feel like a true hero against the oppressive Combine forces. Indeed, Alyx Vance remains one of the most believable and likeable video game characters, predominantly due to strong animation and excellent voice acting from Merle Dandridge.
However, it's no longer just explosive blockbusters that are inspiring video games, as there is also increasingly an effort to inject a real sense of dramatic gravitas to titles. Developed by French studio Quantic Dream exclusively for the PS3, Heavy Rain
is one of the first real attempts to make a triple A game feel like a weighty drama, throwing up real emotional choices. Taking a similar narrative approach to Alejandro Iñárritu's cinematic masterpiece Amores Perros
, Heavy Rain
- which followed the equally ambitious yet slightly flawed Fahrenheit
- brought together four different characters in an interweaving story surrounding the mysterious Origami Killer.
Among the game's biggest achievements was making acting out the mundane aspects of life, such as brushing your teeth or putting the kids to bed, still have genuine purpose for the player. The title also injected real emotional impact into the player's choices and actions. The scene in which the player guides the Ethan Mars character as he frantically pushes through a shopping centre crowd searching for his lost child was mesmerising and one of the bravest sequences ever seen in a game. Despite some design flaws, Heavy Rain
was still well-received by critics and gamers alike, suggesting that people are indeed ready for video games to grow up. Grown-Up Worlds...
It's heartening to see that grown-up themes in games are now extending beyond just cranking up the bodycount. 2K's first-person shooter BioShock
certainly had its blood and gore, but this was wrapped up in an imaginary world that was so incredible that it simply took the breath away. After crashlanding in the sea, the player descends in a diving bell to the undersea city of Rapture, created by a flawed visionary named Andrew Ryan. BioShock
's most startling aspect, beyond its incredible gameplay, level design and art style, was the themes it tackled. Hyper-capitalism, freedom, socialism, dystopian realities, mind control; these ideas would not seem out of place in the work of Ayn Rand or George Orwell. The game delivered an astonishingly sophisticated piece of storytelling that never pulled its punches, delighting and terrifying in equal measure. Experiencing the big story twist for the first time was certainly one of the greatest narrative moments in video gaming history.
Another game to deal with seriously mature themes but also deliver an incredible experience was God Of War
. Set in the world of Greek mythology, fearsome Spartan warrior Kratos sells his allegiance to Ares, the God Of War, in exchange for saving his army from annihilation. In a quite remarkable piece of storytelling, Ares tricks Kratos into killing his own family, making him a blade-wielding badass with some serious issues. From the brave opening sequences as Kratos leaps to his supposed death, to the destructive pain drawn from his harrowing visions, the game immersed the player in Kratos's bloody, terrifying and destructure mind as he set out for revenge against the Gods.A Picture Tells A Thousand Words...
Thanks to the growth of online platforms such as Xbox Live, the PlayStation Network and Valve's PC service Steam, the barriers to innovation have eased, as developers no longer need to bear the heavy cost of producing boxed products. This has enabled studios to make bolder moves with storytelling in games, incorporating innovative methods and techniques. One of the most interesting trends has been telling stories with only the minimum of dialogue, instead letting the pictures, setting and atmosphere do the talking.
A fine example of this is puzzle-platform game LIMBO
, released last year on Xbox Live Arcade. Playdead Studio's eerie masterpiece managed to deliver a memorable experience without any dialogue and hardly any characters. The player becomes an unnamed boy who wakes up deep in a forest on the edge of Hell. Using an aesthetic clearly inspired by film noir and the German expressionist movement of the 1930s, LIMBO
wrapped an atmosphere around the player that would merely have been punctured with spoken words. Despite limited tools, the game made it abundantly clear that the goal was to escape this dangerous place, but also crucially left things open for interpretation, particularly with the deliciously ambiguous ending. Demonstrating that developers can and should be brave with storytelling, LIMBO
was the third highest-selling title on Xbox Live Arcade last year and will compete with the heavy hitters for 'Best Game' at the 2011 Video Game BAFTAs next month.
Another good example of storytelling without any dialogue was last year's critically-acclaimed Machinarium
on the PC. Amanita Design's point-and-click puzzle game put players in the metal shoes of Josef, a lovable little droid tossed out of his home city by the Black Cap Brotherhood. Josef must get back home and save his robotic sweetheart, but there is not a single word of dialogue to explain this. Instead, the tale is told through a series of picture bubbles above each character's head, which both advances the story and gives hints on how to beat the puzzles. It's this kind of bold narrative approach that games developers can do so well and should have the confidence to do more often.A Fresh Perspective...
Sometimes a good gaming narrative stems from giving a fresh perspective on a well-known and familiar property. Reboots are often complicated and fractious affairs, not least because everyone has an in-built expectation of what the characters should
be doing and saying, especially for properties with a hardcore fan base. It was unsurprising, then, that there were modest expectations about Rocksteady Studio's Batman: Arkham Asylum
before its launch in 2009 - but how wrong we were.
The game assumed the interesting premise of the Joker willingly giving himself up to be taken by Batman to the Arkham Asylum incarceration facility, only to spring a surprise trap on the Dark Knight. The story was rather by-the-numbers at times, but the setting, atmosphere and premise ensured that it never felt predictable or old. Plus, the mind-melting scenes under Scarecrow's psychological toxin were genuinely affecting and impactful, testing the mind as well as the body.
There are few more famous gaming franchises than Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto
, but creating a narrative to span the game's dizzying open world and hours of missions is no easy feat. GTA: Vice City
and GTA: San Andreas
wrapped a rather comical, cartoonish atmosphere around the player, but Rockstar bravely took a grittier tact with 2008's Grand Theft Auto IV
. Eastern European immigrant Nico Bellic illegally travels to Liberty City - essentially New York - with a less than rosy past, attempting to get his slice of the American dream.
The mission structure always tends to make GTA
games feel a bit episodic, but Niko's rags-to-slightly-better-rags journey had some really affecting moments, as he stumbled back into old criminal habits. There was also an attempt to inject real moral choices to the story, with the player's decisions skewing the narrative in slightly different directions. Overall, Niko became a character that you genuinely cared about and wanted to succeed in his new life, albeit with a pretty high bodycount along the way.Spirit of Adventure...
Sometimes a truly great story can come from a good old-fashioned tale of adventure, featuring heroes and villains, maps and treasure. In this category, LucasArts's Monkey Island
series really stands out. All five games in the series perfectly balanced a strong sense of humour and fun with a plot and world that was never short of gripping. Players took on the role of the hapless Guybrush Threepwood on a mission to become the most notorious pirate in the Caribbean, which generally involved taking on his undead nemesis LeChuck. What the Monkey Island
games did so well was to build a sense of mystery to always keep the player guessing and, crucially, wanting more.
Another acclaimed adventure game from LucasArts was Grim Fandango
. The game's Land Of The Dead world combined elements of film noir with South American beliefs about the afterlife, as recently-deceased souls attempted to find safe passage to rest in peace. The player becomes Manuel 'Manny' Calavera on a mission to save Mercedes 'Meche' Colomar from the dangers of the Underworld. Boasting an incredibly distinctive art style and awe-inspiring cast of characters - all based on Mexican 'calaca' figures - Grim Fandango
remains a towering, if somewhat largely forgotten, achievement in the adventure game genre.
Naughty Dog's Uncharted
series lifted heavily from the Indiana Jones
film franchise and other sources, while its main character Nathan Drake - a descendent of Sir Francis - was somewhat of a cookie-cutter hero. However, the two games so far in the series - 2008's Drake's Fortune
and 2009's Among Thieves
- crucially matched jaw-dropping visuals and excellent gameplay with narratives that packed personality as well as punch.
titles take the player on an incredible journey around the world, but also crucially gave a fresh take on familiar concepts from history and mythology - Drake's Fortune
focusing on the lost treasure of El Dorado, while Among Thieves
delved into the mythical, Asian city of Shambhala. A third instalment, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
, is on the way later this year, promising the equally-beguiling prospect of exploring the antics of T.E. Lawrence in the Arabian desert, searching for the legendary lost city of Iram of the Pillars.
Another adventure game series to cleverly balance historical fact and creative fiction was Sierra's Gabriel Knight
franchise on the PC. All three games in the series focused on New Orleans bookstore owner Gabriel Knight, who realises his destiny is to become a Shadow Hunter, investigating murders and crimes with mysterious causes. The games offered a fresh take on mythical concepts, such as voodoo, werewolves, vampires and the Knights Templar, as well as throwing up real poignant choices to make the player think. Jane Jensen's storytelling is often acclaimed as an excellent example of the possibilities of video game narratives, including superb character development covering Gabriel's tortured past visions and his relationship with sidekick Grace.What are your favourite examples of stand-out game narratives? Add a comment to the space below!