All good stories have a distinct beginning, middle and end. In fiction its referred to as the three act structure. Act one is the set up, a hero is forced to deal with a significant problem. Act two follows the hero as he or she attempts to deal with this new problem and searches for a way to resolve the new conflict. Act three deals with the final battle between the protagonist and their antagonist. After overcoming all of the obstacles put before them in acts one and two and having learned from the resultant experiences the protagonist is ready to finally conquer their enemy. This basic structure applies to more or less all forms of traditional fiction like novels and cinema and in some cases video games. Of course
Whether or not its necessary to have a strong narrative in a video game more than debateable. Some of the best have none, for instance I don’t remember anyone caring why the blocks in Tetris were dropping. Then you have the RPG genre, it being built on strong narratives and the personal motivations of your chosen protagonist.
Early arcade and console games were light on storytelling. An obvious reason for this would be the limited memory and tech along with other factors such as the art form itself. There’s no narrative in a board game like checkers or a sport like tennis, two of the standout influences on early games, so why should pong have a hero? Later games of the first generation like Galaga and Robotron would use themes familiar to fans of sci fi, even going as far to ape the sights and sounds of Star Wars in Galaga’s case. But this couldn’t be considered a story, the only story in Galaga was the one you the player dotted together from the familiar tropes the designer included in the finished product.
It would take a jump in both home and arcade hardware before some yarns could truly be spun. With the NES we got the epic journey of Link and the rather simple journey of Mario. With the Sega master system we got Phanasy Star alongside Alex Kidd’s quest for burgers. It was the 8bit era that gave us solid heroes, clearly defined villains and more importantly something to quest for. While we were assured Yar’s for instance needed to chew up the glaive with Super Mario Bros we got to see the princess and the evil Croco-Turtle-Saur that had kidnapped her. These early adventures still had very simple stories though. Characters like Mario and Link were far from well rounded. They were the hero because you controlled them, not because of the obstacles they had to overcome. All you needed then was something to retrieve and a bad guy who wanted to stop you. This successful formula would continue in various forms for years.
By the end of the 8bit era storytelling had come on a bit. The RPG genre had begun to evolve and adapt some of the more literary approaches to storytelling that would later come to define it. Platformers were still the king of games throughout the 16bit era and once again people didn’t need much motivation to push sonic through those hoops. They just did it because it was fun. The stories in other games got bigger and more epic than ever though. Square rolled out epics like Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG while the brains behind Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter 2 gave us some exposition to the brawling in cut scenes and promotional material.
The 32/64 bit era brought with it improved hardware and a new generation of storytellers. The tech had finally caught up to Hideo Kojima’s ambitions and allowed him to create gaming cinema with Metal Gear Solid, albeit with hammy acting. In the 3rd dimension Zelda felt truly epic, Hyrule now spread out before you as a vast landscape populated by characters with varying motivations. Then Final Fantasy VII brought with it an epic scale never before seen in the RPG genre. Across its three discs a grand narrative unfolded, leaving an influence that can still be felt today.
But it was not only adventure games that had new progressive storytelling included, simple titles would evolve too at the end of the 90’s. Shooters like Giga Wing would come prefaced with bars of text before the bullet hell and previous caricatures like Sonic would be elaborated on ad infinitum. In fact Sonic is a character that truly suffered under the new trends. After his Dreamcast debut he was no longer a silent speedy badass he was now a whimpering fool who for some reason could talk to humans.
During the last two generations games got bigger than ever, both in content and status. No longer a bedroom hobby for us glorious nerds, now everybody was joining in and they wanted to know why they were playing more than ever. RPG’s have become so huge that if they were television shows they would last multiple seasons. Fighting games come with intricate feuds and histories. In fact Nintendo’s urge to keep Mario games simple has nearly made the Galaxy series surreal. On completing Super Mario Galaxy I was left wondering if Federico Fellini had done the scripting.
The way in game stories are told and were told is a very interesting topic. One that is constantly evolving as each new generation brings with it a new approach. Will simple protagonists and dramatic struggles do justice to future hardware capabilities or will we always want to know we’re fighting for the good guys in as simple terms as those. Too much or too little, really its up to you the gamer and whatever hero you choose to be.