Storytelling in video games has changed over the years. In the early days on Atari, you had to use your imagination to imagine the pixels as players on a field or an adventurer wandering through a cave of dangers. In recent years games have become a truly cinematic experience with games such as Red Dead Redemption being praised for its storytelling and truly making you feel as if you are living in the wild west. While some embrace this new age of long cutscenes full of interesting characters, others believe that less is more. In this article we will be comparing and contrasting the storytelling styles of several great games, and see how their stories add to their game.
The first game that will pop into many peoples mind when thinking of none intrusive storytelling would be the Half-Life Series. Having popularized the use of writing on walls and subtle environmental hints to sell its story to the player in a way that rewards exploration with answers and context to the world. This freedom to ingest extra information at will without impeding the players own pace in enjoying the game is still praised and emulated to this day. An excellent example would be From Softwares Dark Souls series. Much like Half Life's approach of using the environment to tell its story, Dark Souls uses item descriptions and vague hints to clue the player into the world and its many dangers. Dark Souls plot is as un-intrusive to the gameplay as it gets, with many players stating that even at the end of the game, where you choose your ending, they still had very little idea as to what was truly happening.
While some consider this a flaw, as the resources used in making a large production like a video game are incredibly valuable, they believe that using so much time in writing in world-building is wasted if the player can just miss it. However, the rewards for this style of writing speak for themselves. Searching every nook and cranny for an item which will give even a crumb of context to the world the player finds themselves in makes them feel as though they truly are an adventurer. By finding certain items or noticing small details plays will feel like an archaeologist slowly uncovering the secrets of a world long gone.
However, this style of storytelling is not the only way to make a truly immersive experience. As mentioned earlier games have become truly cinematic with long cutscenes and complex characters interacting with each other. An example of this style of game would be The Last Of Us. Throughout the game, the player is shown scenes of the lives and tragedies of its main characters Joel and Ellie. Their models beautifully rendered and expressions clear as they speak to each other about the infected and bandits they constantly must sneak around or fight directly. The amazing voice acting and the detail shows its worth in a game that truly feels like you are playing a movie. Watching the relationship of Joel and Ellie develop as they push further and further towards their goal, feeling the intensity of a gunfight, the player will soon find themselves lost in the horrible world of The Last Of Us.
Finally, there is one more example that bears mentioning. On the PS2 there is a game called Shadow Of The Colossus. This game gives the player hardly any context or information about the world they find themselves in. You kneel before the shrine of your lover when a voice tells you it can bring her back if you slay the great Colossi that live in these forbidden lands. After this, there is no definitive answer as to what is happening. Are you simply a grieving man being manipulated by a malicious spirit?
Is the main character Wander aware of the damage he could cause by destroying the Colossi? Some may read this and think this is a criticism of Shadow Of The Colossus, however, this style of storytelling is not only great, but it's also one that has been used by developers since those old days of Atari. By giving little scraps of story and leaving the rest to player interpretation, Shadow Of The Colossus enjoys a dedicated fanbase debating the contents of its story even over a decade later. Leaving the story for the player to decide allows each and every player to relate to the struggle of Wander in a different way, forging a truly unique experience.
Each of these styles of storytelling has its advantages and disadvantages, and many fans debating which is the best. Which style do you prefer? Do you enjoy a movie like an experience? Do you prefer a more subtle approach? Whatever style you enjoy, there is one thing that is certain: Though games will continue to grow more and cutscenes gain greater detail there will always be a place for the imagination of players in games.