Storytelling is a skill that humanity has possessed for a looooong while, and it has been shown through many, many mediums. Whether it be plays, books, films, or even simply lying to somebody else, the ability to tell a certain story has a consistent importance.
However, in regards of video games which are a much more recent medium for entertainment, they tend to be more ambiguous in terms of the importance of the story and storytelling. “How?”, it may be asked.
Video game genres
The first and foremost point of view from which we can observe this is the genre of each different games. Whichever film or book or play, the story always has a relatively high importance (at least as far as I think, eheh). But it’s not the case for video games. Some do, some don’t. Does a game such as Tetris hold any regard in terms of story? “That’s too old”, you say? Then what about pretty much most arcade games, where gameplay is what matters the most.
On the other side of the spectrum, take a look at RPGs or JRPGs (sometimes even more in the latter). These games do usually have a much larger and important story to tell. To understand why this is the case, simply take a look at the meaning of the acronym RPG: Role Playing Game. You play the role of a certain character. So sure, you have the gameplay aspects of that role which are extremely important. But likewise, in order to feel completely like you are in that world that the game is attempting to immerse you into, the story should be convincing on a certain level. Unlike “simpler” arcade games, the setting or role of the characters does not really matter to the experience of the player, most of the time.
Life is Strange is among those story focused games which feature a usually complex storyline, where it is vital to the experience of the game. We could consider this genre the “story” genre, in a way.
HOWEVER, even with that in mind, even with a more or less heavier presence and importance of story within a certain genre of video games, does it actually matter to players? Do they actually care about the story or do they just want to experience only the gameplay?
Linearity and non-linearity
The concept of linearity in video games can affect the way players see the story, how they understand it, and whether they will actually care. The general consensus is that the more linear a game is, the more important the story is to players.
Let’s see this case: The Elder Scrolls V – Skyrim. In the game itself, the story has importance, right? You have a main quest to do, and so many deep side quests to complete. And yet, how many times do you hear people or see memes about people being 200 hours into the game and yet still being at the very beginning of the game? To these players, the gameplay is more fun to experience due to the open nature of the game. To them, it is interesting to seek the story through the side characters they meet on their adventures, which like those characters are, a “side” part of the story and not a “main” part, instead of following the story of the game.
The main story of Skyrim isn’t where the most story is found, and it therefore begs the question of how important is the “side story” next to the main story in such a type of game. It is especially interesting to think about again consdering many people do not play much of the main story, or simply play it at their own rythm.
Take another famous JRPG on the Wii: Xenoblade Chronicles. While this games does have a large world, its structure has a much more linear approach. And unlike Skyrim, many players will tell you that the main story is a large driving force for the game, for progressing. But yet, both of them are Role Playing Games. I say, the key reason for this difference here is the much linear structure of Xenoblade Chronicles compared to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and any other Elder Scrolls games for that matter.
Why does linearity seem to improve players’ opinion towards the story? It is because a heavier linearity means that players are more “face-to-face” with the story, are much more involved. Simply put, the story moves on much quicker, and this structure also helps in making the story more cohesive and generally good, since more priority tends to be given to the story in development terms compared to non-linear games. After all, in more linear games, the story is what makes the game progress, rather than a “level up” of the character done through gameplay for example (though that can be part of progression in the case of a linear game as well, just not as much, as shown with Xenoblade Chronicles).
Xenoblade Chronicles, while still a “semi open world” in some sorts, generally is a pretty linear game if we think about it, though that doesn’t prevent players from going back to previous areas, of course. It is as much of a linear experience as most The Legend of Zelda games are, except for the original NES game and Breath of the Wild, where while the world is “semi open”, the way the story is experienced is “one way” only, and the pace generally stays similar for most players (though of course the word “generally” can include uncertainties in this case if players are distracted for example by side quests). Hence, players have the same experience in regards to the story. The difference with The Legend of Zelda though is that Xenoblade Chronicles does have a more complex story compared to most other Zelda games, individually, and hence even with the similarities, the story has more importance in regards to how it affects the players’ experience. I could go on about then why The Legend of Zelda is so widely played, and like I stated in my post about Breath of the Wild’s Divine Beasts, story is not the sole, nor major reason.
Now of course that’s only an observation, not some sort of rule that is written in the Compendium of Video Game Making and blablabla. For instance, does any freaking Mario game have a legendary story due to how linear those games tend to be? Heck no. This simply isn’t the case. Because even if there tends to be some sort of connexion, it’s never really consistent.
But then, which aspect is what determines the importance of the story? Which one… is the most important?
The way the story affects players
What does the story evoke? How does it impact players? THAT is the standard to which we can really measure the importance of story in a video game.
Is there anything to notice? Yes there is.
This is also in common with ALL other media. Books, plays, films… Whichever medium you look at, this is always important to take into account. Just replace the word “players” by “readers” or “audience” or whichever word is appropriate and voilà! It still works.
Whichever genre, whether it be a linear or a non-linear game, if the story manages to impact players in the right way, then it will always hold a major importance in why they like the game (or hate it, eheh). That is the consistent aspect that always will be. Who would like an uneventful story? A story where literally nothing happens, where there is nothing to be impacted by. That’s pretty bad, if you ask me. If you do the other side of the spectrum, the story will remain in the memory of the player. It will affect them on a deeper level, if the developers are lucky (or not).
Another story focused game, The Walking Dead, perfectly captures that aspect, since if you played or even simply watched a playthrough of it for example, you probably understand how effectively it affects us. THAT is what made this game extremely memorable to players.
This means that in the end, the importance of story in video games is as important as within any other medium, but it is also ambiguously different, strangely enough. This is because if we simplify it all, it is important in some games, and not important in others. This isn’t the same statement as with books or films, but even with this difference, the moment it is important, it remains important for the reason that it must impact the ones who are witnessing that story.
So, to you, how important is story in a video game? How does it compare to other media of entertainment? Do you think story should have a major or a minor role in a game? Again don’t hesitate to express your thoughts! 🙂