The evolution of video game narrative
January 24th, 2011
Traditionally the approach a games company takes towards narratives depend on the context of the game, but it’s safe to say that all games feature a narrative of sorts – whether that is just how the game flows from one sequence to another (i.e. a puzzle game) or whether it’s through an engaging story ripe with characters and detail (i.e. a role-playing or adventure game).
Video games take a long time to develop with many tens of people having input in their creation. Understanding your narrative structure and making sure everyone in the development team also understands the structure is paramount in making sure developers stick to their vision and ensure the development doesn’t get side-tracked with “feature creeps” (whereby more and more features are requested which adds to development time) becoming ever present.
Much like in other forms of media such as film, the narrative is one of the first building blocks – especially in a story-focused game where the gameplay features revolve around the games theme and story, so extensive planning is done in this area before development begins. But often it is the case that a games narrative will weigh on a specific game feature in order to propel said narrative forward, so various elements need to be researched and explored in unison to make sure the game idea is realistically achievable – after-all resource is finite in any industry.
Narratives have greatly evolved since video games inception back in the 1980s. As technology becomes more sophisticated and advanced, and as the industry grows larger and larger, new, fresh and more complex ideas become possible. The games industry is always looking at new ways to improve the way narratives are presented – for example there are a lot of story based games out there which invite you into worlds with complex characters and scenarios, some of which feature narratives in such engaging ways that the player themselves get to dictate the story based on their decisions (similar to adventure books) and influence the way they play. It’s always been the ambition to reach this level of story telling and beyond; it’s just never been possible in the past because technology has not allowed it.
At the same time on the opposite end of the spectrum you have games that focus on game mechanics (such as physics) and therefore need to use narrative in a completely different way by transporting the player from one stage to another seamlessly and creatively through it’s theme. The rise of casual gaming has meant that not everyone wants an in-depth story to play through, and so narratives are adapted where needed to take a back seat in order to suit this.
So not only is the games industry trying to improve narratives, developers from around the world are using them in new and creative ways through the technology available, branching out from the traditional story-telling narrative seen in film and books, and using them to complement and interweave with the games theme, style and mechanics.
Ultimately, this means that in the video games industry there is no one set way in which we create and present our narratives – the sky is literally the limit – and because of this in my eye we’ve seen narrative presentation evolve a lot faster in the video games industry than any other industry in the world.
Gameloft are developers and publishers of digital and mobile video games.
You can read our review of their recent book app release War in the Pacific here.