How Important is a Narrative, Really?

In class, we’ve discussed the quality and general theme of narrative in modern video games and how well the narratives translate to gameplay. For example, in one of our Coursera videos, the point was raised that LOTRO sticks closely to the storyline of the original text, but does a poor job of translating it into entertaining gameplay. In LOTRO, book I consists mostly of running from one point to another, and while it’s representative of the text, it translates poorly to gameplay. This phenomenon is not uncommon. There have been hundreds of games based in literary work, very few (if any) have translated to a good video game storyline and gameplay.

I’m not at all saying it is impossible for there to be translation between literature and video games, but it seems that the only time it is successful is when the literature is written around the storyline of the video game. For example, The Elder Scrolls has done a fantastic job with their lore. TES is one of the most successful video game series of all time, and in my opinion the best. TES has an extensive, intricate, and fascinating lore woven beautifully into the gameplay that translates into some of the most immersive gaming experiences a human being can encounter. TES, while the best, is not the only example of an excellent narrative in video games.

Games like Red Dead Redemption, Fallout, Bioshock, Grand Theft Auto, and Fable are renowned for the quality of their narrative as well as how entertaining the overall gameplay is, but none hold the title of most played video game in the world. That coveted title is held by League of Legends, and while there is a lore surrounding the characters of the game, it plays no role in the gameplay itself. Each game of LOL starts from the same place and ends in victory or defeat for the respective teams, there is not advancement of a storyline in the game. There are some side quests related to the lore that arise in certain circumstances, but they make little to no difference.

Another games that’s rapidly increasing in popularity is Minecraft. Minecraft is a virtual sandbox involving absolutely no story advancement, the only goal is to survive. The game is starting to replace Legos in child development and in some elementary schools, it has become a part of the curriculum. But why are these seemingly pointless games becoming so popular?

There is one thing that all great stories, no matter the genre, have in common: they end (sorry, fellow GoT disciples, we have to face it eventually). And while a beautiful ending is often what makes a story great, it poses a problem for all gamers: “wat do?” In other words, not every game can have the replay value of TES, and when they end, we are forced to move on. Games with no narrative give us no reason to stop. Every minute of gameplay is completely different, and as the games spread without losing players, the popularity is immense. The success of Minecraft and LOL are indicative of a trend toward story-less games. I still think masterpieces like TES and Bioshock will continue to surface, but the industry’s habit of churning out crap stories in hopes if cashing in will begin to abate. If you’re still skeptical, ask any gamer how interested they are in any game that comes out based on a popular book or movie, the answer will always be “not at all”

-Chall, Anchordown

One thought on “How Important is a Narrative, Really?”

  1. Ok, I had to comment on this, too. So, as a writer who pulls her inspiration from all different types of media, I have to say I feel a little defensive reading this. BECAUSE, it’s not clear where the “fault” lies here. Are we concluding that literary storytellers must cave to a game-centric design in order to appeal in gaming? Or, is this an opportunity for developers to take more liberties and get more creative when constructing games?
    Sometimes I feel like games get a little static and too narrow-minded when it comes to how tasks can be laid out. Defeat this person, meet that person, carry this message, blow up that facility…must all video games be some epic war adventure? Wouldn’t novels suck if they all began to sound like this? Whatever happened to puzzles, or even the interesting paradoxes of every day common life? Perhaps this is what you’re getting at with the sandbox games. I think maybe this begs a bigger question of how we can push more boundaries in the way we tell stories, across all areas of media. Should we be advancing the way we tell stories along with type of media we have access to?

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