Although stories have been used in games in one form or another since the 1970s, it wasn't until the increased memory storage of CDs in the '90s that full-fledged narratives, replete with character arcs and thematic motifs and burnished with voice acting and full orchestral scores became a de facto element of nearly every title.
So much ground has been covered since then that providing a fuller, richer storytelling experience -- decorating the rooms of the narrative house as opposed to building its foundation -- is what many believe to be the remaining challenge left to the industry today.
Or is it?
"I think the biggest step that needs to be taken is to give up on the idea that 'all video games need to be fun,'" Thomas Grip, head programmer of Amnesia: The Dark Descent developer Frictional Games, says.
"There needs to be video games that provide the same sort of experiences for the medium as Schindler's List, The Shawshank Redemption, etc. do for movies. Right now, we are simply not seeing these sorts of games, and while I am unsure we will see any big-budget titles with this kind of focus anytime soon, I do hope so.”
"It’s hard to make a sweeping statement on the general quality of game stories," Chet Faliszek and Erik Wolpaw, writers of the Portal series for Valve Software, said when asked about the current level of storytelling quality in the industry, "but here we go: they're getting better. Bastion is a great recent example. The plot may not be earth-shatteringly new, but the way they tell it is perfect for a game. Really, really well done and well performed.”
Ken Levine, the creative force behind both Irrational Games and the BioShock series, agrees. "You see minimalist stuff coming in, which I think is great. I enjoyed the minimalism of Limbo and of Bastion, which are two excellent games which did a ton with narrative in a very minimalistic approach. I think that’s really terrific that they’re trying to tell their stories without taking the control away from the gamer and not using techniques which people relied upon before."
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
There is a drawback to this general level of progress, however, at least according to Grip. “While there is a trend towards evolving the medium, I also feel there is sort of a trend backwards. Many big-budget titles released ten years ago -- like the original Fallout, Deus Ex, and Planescape: Torment -- promised a great future. Yet, 10 years later, nothing has really surpassed these games in terms of evolving the medium. I would even say that games have taken steps backward since then.
“Part of this,” he continues, “is probably because budgets have grown so enormous over the past few years, and most big companies do not dare to take any substantial risks.” The largest problem here, he says, is artistic vision. “Games made by large teams almost always have this feeling of ‘design by committee’ attached to them, meaning that the end product is sort of an average of what everybody wanted. Because of this, much of the real innovation has been happening among smaller, indie games instead.”