It is no secret that video games have captured the hearts and minds of people around the world, building large followings and fostering many communities. I mean, you’re here on Stropse, aren’t you? People fall in love with titles ranging anywhere from a plumber rescuing a princess to a rapping dog. When new games hit shelves, people buy them, falling in love with all new stories or extensions of old ones. Many video game campaigns are titled “Story” in their menu options. Whether as an in-depth or just secondary feature, every game incorporates some sort of story element, so let’s take a look at how stories impact games and what type of games rely on storytelling vs gameplay.
Why do I even care to highlight this? Well, I’m a journalist, a playwright, an actor, but first and foremost, I’m a storyteller. Whether I’m presenting information to the public, crafting my own stories, or presenting someone else’s, I’m still taking part in the storytelling process. Everything starts with a story.
First off, we need to highlight the importance of storytelling. Even if it’s not the main focus, like in many Mario titles, it’s still a driving force behind why you’re playing in the first place. Storytelling is an art form that is difficult to master and requires certain skill. In order to make your players care about your characters, you need to make sure they care about the story, or at least enjoy it. This doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be the most gut-wrenching story out there; Octodad is literally about an octopus pretending to be a suburban father. But the outrageous idea of a simultaneous “octo-” and “dad” is what makes the game so enticing in the first place.
For the case of games in that nature, like Octodad or I am Bread, in which you, as sentient bread needing to be toasted, cause your main character to see psychologists (it’s in the lore), the story is secondary. The game prioritizes gameplay, and while cut scenes are there to provide context, people aren’t raving about Super Mario Odyssey because the minimovies are cinematic masterpieces. They praise it for its mechanics, new features, and amazing locals and graphics. But story is the bedrock on which all of these elements are built. If Boswer didn’t kidnap Cappy’s sister, what motivation would he have to team up with Mario, giving you all these cool new captures and abilities? It’s a small thing to add, but important to note.
Then we get into games like The Last of Us, which has a story so good it’s being made into an HBO show. While the gameplay is beloved, this is also a game people rave about for its storytelling. The voice actors are praised for their ability to capture emotion, even bringing tears to players’ eyes. The world is expansive, with massive amounts of lore and new discoveries, setting a backdrop for a true immersive apocalypse. Here, story is primary, as your motivations are clearly spelled out, your want to explore is guided by your want to learn more about the world you’re in, and you genuinely care about these characters. The game does such a good job storytelling— and has won awards accordingly— that it feels like you’re in a movie. That takes talent.
While there are some games where story is secondary, and many where story is primary, Telltale Games made story the game itself. Before its unfortunate closure, Telltale was the leader in interactive storytelling games because their model focused around already-crafted stories. Guardians of the Galaxy? Telltale game. The Walking Dead? Telltale game. Goddamn Wallace and Gromet? Telltale game.
These episodic releases would feature numerous quicktime events as you navigated through a story where each choice had consequences. These games were interactive, beautiful, and well told, but they weren’t full-on action adventure games like The Last of Us or even Sonic. You didn’t have full control over every character, you couldn’t just go to random areas; you had to follow the story progression, and your choices during events would influence further gameplay. These games were more like interactive movies than video games and were beloved by all. Telltale didn’t skimp on the story, partnering with screenwriters to make sure their story was told right.
We can’t write an article about story without touching on RPGs. I mentioned earlier that Mario games don’t necessarily focus on story, but Paper Mario games do (yep, I included the Paper Mario franchise in another one of my articles). The reason is that these games are more RPG oriented (or at least the earlier entries are), and it makes sense that RPGs are story oriented. You’re literally roleplaying a character, as the whole point of the game is the character’s story arc and your ability to craft it. Final Fantasy and Persona games are excellent examples where the story is the main focus because the world is full of them. There are side quests with stories of their own, the main quest with its own self-contained quests and stories, and so much lore that I’ll commend you if you can get through half of it.
Now, I will say there are some genres of games that really do not need stories, such as sports games, though many have “career mode” where you create your own character and follow their story. You don’t need to care about your characters to play Fifa. However, just because the games don’t necessarily have a story, the players do. MLB 2K might not send shockwaves through people’s hearts, but playing as your favorite team in a season where they won the world series in real life is a story of its own. Being able to call upon hall of famers whose legacies far outlive any video games is sentimental in itself.
All this is to say that story is important in video games. Whether they’re central to the plot or they just influence the design of the flash games you played as a kid, everything starts with a story. So play yours.