When I was younger, I would play Spyro the Dragon, a cartoony platformer game (think Super Mario Bros, but you can move in all directions), with my father. Whenever you started a new game, a cutscene would play, explaining the plight of the dragons and how the villain of the game, Gnasty Gnorc, froze all the dragons in crystal because they called him ugly. My dad hated these cutscenes and would always skip through them. He did not think it was important to know about this backstory when playing the actual game, and in some respects, he was right. You could probably play Spyro without knowing the reason for your quest and not lose anything essential from the experience.
Many years later, I walked into one of my friends’ apartment while they were playing Tom Clancy’s The Division, a third person shooter game that relies on tactics. What struck me immediately about the game is its ties to Tom Clancy, the late author of Hunt for Red October fame. I had never heard of video games having an overt connection to literature before and I wondered if that meant the game aspired to a higher focus on story than other games in the shooter genre. Despite this connection, the narrative serves more of background, though this narrative is still secondary to the gameplay.
Thinking of narrative as secondary in video games is still a common sentiment. Ever since video games first came to the scene in the 1970’s, they were viewed as high-tech toys. A good game was one that provided challenge, rather than an engaging narrative. While many games may have included a bare-bones tale about rescuing a damsel in distress from a monster, or fighting off an alien invasion, there wasn’t much focus placed on setting, character, or other elements of story. Rather, development focused on gameplay, or the elements surrounding the actions a player performs while engaging in the video game. The story, if there was one, was only briefly alluded to. Sometimes, the full story could only be found in the game’s manual, but even then, it was typically a thin setup—a quick reason for our player character to jump on platforms or gun down enemies.
Now, trailers for new video games look more like movie trailers detailing the story of the game as opposed to the gameplay elements. Take Mass Effect: Andromeda, the most recent entry in the Mass Effect series. Most of the advertisements for this game focus around the story, showing little instances of in-game combat.
Does this mean that narrative is more valued in video games than in the past? Hard to say. Some genres, like role-playing games that involve defined character, such as the Final Fantasy series, have more narrative structure to them than other games. Visual novel, a popular genre in Japan, is probably the best example of putting narrative at the forefront. Typically, gameplay just involves clicking through dialog boxes. Sometimes, there are minigames, but traditional levels are pretty much non-existent. Considering the minimal gameplay present in visual novels, you could argue that narrative does not mesh well with video games, as the interactivity they offer cannot be truly realized. However, I think there is a growing desire in gaming to tell intriguing stories through the medium. Games do not have to be just about the gameplay and, while most games have their stories as secondary, strong characters and plot constructions are becoming more popular.