April 6 2012
There is still a lot of discussion about the role of story in video games, and the claim to "story-driven" content is a selling point of games like Star Wars: The Old Republic. I've touched on that title's extensive use of voice-overs before, but the larger issue ties into whether games are really good vehicles for narrative in the first place. We have other media that seems ideally suited to telling stories, is it necessary to drench games in narrative as well? How important is the storyline to the average player?
While narrative is by no means essential to a game, it has been part of certain types of games for a very long time. MUDs have offered rich storylines for decades, and even earlier pen-and-paper RPGs like D&D have strong narrative elements. While some game genres rely heavily on story, history is also littered with games that are completely devoid of narrative, such as Tetris, Asteroids, or more recently, Counter-Strike and World of Tanks.
Story has received a growing amount of attention in MMORPGs as they've matured. Narrative was scant in early versions of EverQuest, as were quests (ironically), but in the post-World of Warcraft era of quest-heavy games, some sort of storyline is now expected. Story is frequently used to address the inherently repetitive nature of games and make them feel less repetitive. There are people for whom story is the main attraction, and when it ends they stop playing.
Nevertheless, I would wager that those who largely ignore quest text and lore are greater in number. Most of the people I run into while playing are in such a hurry to reach the next level that there's simply no time to read anything. They long ago lost interest in the fabricated reason behind their assignment to kill 10 boars, and wouldn't even bother with the quest if there weren't additional rewards associated with it.
Although games are clearly capable of telling stories, I'm still not convinced that they are as ideally suited for it as other media. Stories are necessarily quite linear, but games aren't subject to this restriction in the same way. The interactive element makes it possible for different players to have different experiences with the same game. It also makes it possible for a game to be repetitive and still be entertaining, which is very difficult to accomplish with a story.
Gameplay is fundamentally a problem-solving activity. A challenge is presented which must be overcome in accordance with the rules and game mechanics. If these elements of a game are lacking, no amount of narrative can save it, so they should always be given priority.
In my view, there's nothing wrong with using narrative in a game until gameplay starts to suffer for it. Developers have the tricky task of deciding how much time and money to put into story, and how much to put into other aspects of the game. One has to wonder what the recent Star Wars: The Old Republic, for example, might have been if the vast resources that went into narrative and voice-acting had instead been devoted to other parts of the project. It's impressive accomplishment, but like a lot of others, I soon found myself resorting to the space bar to skip the long-winded speeches attached to every minor request. Some games, despite having excellent stories, simply try a little too hard to be movies.