You hear the question tossed around fairly frequently in gaming circles: “What’s the most important component in a game for you?” Many say the gameplay, others may claim it to be the art. However, I feel the most important thing to me would be a game’s story.
Video games have a long history of committing themselves to a narrative. As far back as text adventure games like Zork, developers have been creating video games that prioritize telling a satisfying narrative above all else. In more recent times, this has spiraled into the genre commonly referred to as “Walking Simulators”: games in which gameplay is minimal (often only involving walking and interacting with the environment) and the player experiences a start to finish linear story.
What makes games so unique as a story-telling medium is that they’re interactive. You can watch a great movie or read a classic novel and feel on the edge of your seat, but doesn’t that sensation feel just a bit more amplified when your actions truly matter toward the outcome of the story? Video games have stories that are malleable and variable. The narrative of a game can shift on a dime to accommodate player feedback. For this reason, I feel that video games allow artists to tell stories that simply aren’t possible in any other medium.
To start with a more obvious example: choose your own adventure games. These games often prompt the player with decisions that will great impact how to game’s story plays out. Some well-known examples of these would be Mass Effect, Telltale’s the Walking Dead, and Baldur’s Gate 3. Stories like these simply could not be told in a traditional format like film or literature, but the stories they tell are those that the player creates. In Baldur’s Gate 3, the player has influence on almost everything that happens in the game. Who lives, who dies, who is romanced, who becomes an enemy, what quests you’ll embark on, and what ending you’ll ultimately reach. This interactivity and choice is at the core of what makes a story like this so special.
But there’s another aspect of game narratives that makes them totally unique to that of any other medium, and that’s the metanarrative. Metanarrative elements will often break what we collectively refer to as “the 4th wall”. In other words, the story of the game will break its own reality and reference our world or even the player directly. There are a lot of ways a game can achieve this effect: referencing the player themself as a character in the story, acknowledging the fact that the game is in fact a game, disguising the game as a piece of real-world software… the possibilities are endless.
One of the most famous (and one of my favorite) examples of strong metanarrative use would be The Stanley Parable, and its subsequent “remaster” The Stanely Parable: Ultra Deluxe Edition. Those quotes around the word “remaster” will make sense to anyone who’s played it. These games totally deconstruct the idea of what it means to play a game. The relationship between the game and the user is the crux of the game’s story. Questions are not only brought up about how much control you have over the games, but inversely, how much control does the game have over you? Are you following the game’s rules? Did you break the rules? Did the game want you to break the rules? This mind-boggling tale would not be possible if told via a non-interactive format.
Overall, video game stories are a special thing. Whether they're allowing you the choice to tailor the story to your liking, or making you question your own role in the decision making process, they have the potential to immerse the player in a way that few other forms of story-telling can, and even make the player themself a character in their story.