Those of us in our thirties who have been playing video games since we were knee high to a grasshopper might have fond memories of our early gaming lives. Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Defender… they were all pretty simple and generally lacked a real storyline. Some did attempt to create the illusion of a plot with a simple background story set out in the game manual. The only games back then which had real plots were text based adventures where the story developed as the player progressed. Some games wanted to create a complete experience within the limits of the technology and text adventures were the best way of doing that.
The really geeky amongst us might remember Driller, the first game to use 3D polygon graphics (then called Freescape). It came with a novelette that gave a complex story of colonisation of another planet followed by environmental disaster. That was a lot of back story to what was effectively a puzzle/platform game about moving around a landscape placing drills and trying to figure out a way through obstacles and avoid the security systems (in terms of style of play it was very similar to Portal).
With the advent of RTV in games around 20 years ago, I feel that something was lost as playability was sacrificed for graphics and majesty. Some of the best storylines remained in the adventure games, now with graphics but no less playable or complex. Who can forget Monkey Island and the exploits of Guybrush Threepwood?
Or the dystopian and humorous Beneath a Steel Sky?
Or the fantasy Lure of the Temptress?
It was with the PlayStation generation that the technology became so advanced as to be able to integrate complex plotting as part of the game, and not just through video cutscenes. The Blood Omen games spring immediately to mind and I know it was in this generation that the Final Fantasy series became such a hit.
That period also saw the rise of the strategy game. While most were based on real periods from history, the creators of the hit series Command and Conquer created an integrated mythology that I feel was unsurpassed at the time. It remains one of the most complex storylines in strategy gaming.
Talking of PlayStation, Resident Evil made its debut in this period and story-wise that is a very complex and well-developed mythology now spanning nearly two decades and god knows how many games.
Just over a year ago I succumbed to buying my first console (having sworn years before to being a loyal PC gamer), an XBox360. I was struck by how complex and engaging some of the stories are. I’m going to briefly explain my favourites here.
Though I have only played the first two (there are currently four games in the series), after having recently completed the second game, I find the plot to be very intriguing. It blurs fantasy, sci fi and biblical mystery in one game. In the future you play a man put into a device called the “Animus”. It takes you into the memories of your ancestors (all of whom were assassins – as you are – but you do not know this until later). In the first game, you are taken back to the medieval Levant as Altaïr to discover a plot involving those dastardly Templars. You move around Jerusalem, Damascus and Acre carrying out assassinations at the request of your Grand Master until you figure out who is behind the Templar plot.
In the second and subsequent games you are in Renaissance Italy playing a character named Ezio. It is much bigger in every way imaginable and Leonardo Da Vinci makes an appearance as an eccentric inventor. The overall plot has so far been quite intriguing, I like the element of mystery in unravelling the story of the “Pieces of Eden” and the mythology built around the conflict between the Templars and Assassins. Though the story sounds like a collaboration between Dan Brown and Graham Hancock, it is clever.
Batman: Arkham series
Granted, this is not an original concept (and if you haven’t heard of Batman where have you been?!) and I think that the background story that is at the core of the two games so far released is only partly original. The Joker is attempting to make himself, and his henchmen, into supersoldiers using the formula that has mutated Bane. There is an element of mystery in the first game, not so much the second, but there are puzzles to solve and side missions that enrich the story and set up further games in the series. It plays very much like a film or TV series, such is the complexity of the storytelling.
I truly feel that the Bioshock series has the best storyline I have ever experienced in gaming. In an alternate 1950s, anarcho-capitalist Andrew Ryan is sick of the effects of the “New Deal” on American society. He hates the limits that politics, religion and ethics attempt to put on humanity so he chooses to found a city on the bottom of the ocean. It runs on the purest form of free-market capitalism with himself as its chairman. A city named Rapture, it is a Tea Party dream (with one or two exceptions). There are no limits to scientific development, artistic expression or personal success if you are willing to work hard enough.
Genetic engineering has advanced far beyond anything we have today but there is a snag… it isn’t long before the society breaks down as the population descend into anarchy over a shortage of an addictive substance called Adam. It is a complex plot and despite coming across as surreal and cartoon-ish, it makes sense and eventually appears sensible in the circumstances. It is incredibly violent but there is a strong moral tale here. The actions you take in the game (and you are given the option over and over again to choose the path of good or bad – even more so in the second game) have consequences and the end FMV changes depending on those moral actions.
The second game was not as well received as the first but I must say that I found the story better, the playability improved and a more intelligent game overall because it makes you pay greater consideration to your strategy. I can’t really give a summary of the plot without explaining the concept in greater depth and a more thorough explanation of the first game. It is the semi-plausible weirdness of the game that keeps me hooked.
The third game (due out 2013 I think) will not be set in Rapture, it will be on a floating city named Columbia and set some 50 years before the first game. There are parallels between the concepts which makes me think that they will be tied in more than the creators are willing to admit at this stage. I hope the series gets to return to Rapture someday though.
We could easily accuse Dead Space of having a generic B-movie plot with a predictable twist. While this is certainly true of the first game, with the protagonist being a frustratingly silent and passive character, EA took these criticisms to heart and created a far more rounded sequel. Isaac Clarke (see what they did there?) now has a voice as well as a personal reason for his actions. We feel his fear and frustrations. I was pleased to see an identifiable mythology develop through the course of the second game and Isaac become more engaging as a character. The story is still generic sci-fi horror and the game is linear without the opportunity to take a moral path, but the foundations have been set for good story development as the series goes on.
Fight Night: Champion
Even sport games are getting in on the act. EA’s boxing games “Fight Night” contains the familiar legacy mode where you design a boxer and take them through the amateur ranks up to World Champion and beyond. But the real game changer here is the “Champion” mode where the story follows Andre Bishop, an up and coming middleweight boxer who persistently refuses the professional advances of a corrupt fight promoter. Eventually, Andre is framed for a crime and sent to prison. The story kicks off in the prison where the player – as Andre – are roped into fighting in bare knuckle bouts.
On his release, you are charged with taking back his credibility with the eventuality of getting back his license and gunning for a title shot in the heavyweight division against the villainous Isaac Frost. On the way, Bishop must overcome corrupt officials, injury and when his brother is almost killed in the ring by Frost, he demands – and gets – a title shot which he inevitably wins. All pretty formulaic stuff admittedly and the plot develops along the lines of most other mundane sport movies. You tend to get carried along with the plot though, as predictable as it is, because you are an active participant rather than a passive one as you are with a book or film.
With the technology at the level that it is today and with designers able to create complex worlds that are both large and broad, you might expect that storytelling in video games to have become far less important than dazzling graphics, effective use of sound (horror games), ease of controls and playability. Looking at the examples I have given I think there is a developing focus on engaging plot… and long may it continue.