As a writer and a gamer, I tend to devote a fair amount of my online blathering to discussions of writing in games. It’s the point where my two main interests overlap, and also something I’m interested in as a writer and developer myself.
Of course whenever I talk about story and writing in games, I always encounter at least one person who will argue that story and writing have no place in games. Their argument is that games are primarily a mechanical medium and adding story just gets in the way of their mechanical purity.
To those people: when you say you don’t want story in games, I don’t think you mean that at all. I think what you mean is that you don’t want loads of text or dialogue in games, which is a completely valid desire but also a totally different one.
‘Story’ does not always equate to reams of text. You can write a story without actually using any words and you can tell a story without having any dialogue. Story, in its simplest sense, is the layout out of events for the purpose of entertainment – which is a pretty good description of game design, too. Story used well in games gives context to the mechanical actions of the game – whether that’s through an entire bibliography of text or with no text at all.
An exercise in context: would Sonic have been such an enduring character if instead of being a speedy hedgehog called Sonic the Hedgehog, he was a speedy cheese slice called Sonic the Cheese Slice?
Few would argue that Sonic the Hedgehog is a particularly story-heavy game, but it has enough story to give context to its mechanics: Sonic has to stop Dr. Robotnik from obtaining the Chaos Emeralds, because Dr. Robotnik is bad and would use the Emeralds to take over the world. Also he puts animals inside robots, which is mean.
It’s hardly an Oscar-worthy screenplay, but it does establish the key characters and give them motives; the player knows why they need to make Sonic run and jump to the right all the time. If we were to strip all attempts to tell a story from the game, then Sonic might as well be a cheese slice.
When you consider that all context is in fact a form of story it becomes very hard to think of a game that is actually purely mechanical, with no story elements at all. Tennis for Two is often credited with being the first true videogame, consisting of nothing more than two oblongs batting about a single-pixel ball.
But there’s a reason it’s called Tennis for Two and not Oblong on Oblong Insane Pixel Showdown. The name Tennis for Two establishes the context of the game for an audience that has never seen a videogame before; they understand the oblongs to be players and the pixel to be a ball, and they also understand that, as in tennis, the objective is to get the ball past the opposing player.
Communicating an idea is the core principle of storytelling. Even naming a game is to tell a story, and to define Tennis for Two with the established narrative of a tennis game made an otherwise entirely mechanical object understandable to an outsider. Pong, the spiritual and commercial successor to Tennis for Two, kept to the narrative of an established sport to sell its mechanics, this time channeling ping-pong.
Good games writing is not about finding a clever way to exercise all those techniques they teach in creative writing classes within the mechanical constraints of a game – good games writing is about using story to give games a context and to help players connect with the game’s mechanics.
This isn’t to say I’m against games that do contain lots of words – I recently wrote a piece of interactive fiction that’s entirely made of words, so I’d be a bit hypocritical if I was. My argument is that ‘games that contain lots of words’ and ‘games that feature a well-implemented story’ are not the same thing.
I can absolutely understand people who say they don’t think games should feature reams of text, and I often sympathise with them. However, this is not the same as saying that story is not an important element of games, because even if your only contribution to writing is to call a spaceship a spaceship, you are still telling a story with that design choice.
Of course it’s ultimately a matter of taste; some people enjoy expansive text adventures while others prefer the mechanical purity of something like Tempest. I imagine that most people lie somewhere in between, and there’s an awesome spectrum of videogame storytelling that can encompass games as diverse as Metal Gear Solid, Journey, Gears of War, Final Fantasy and Angry Birds.
Defining your own relationship with story and writing in the games you play and design is therefore a matter of personal preference, however arguing against their inclusion in design completely is an extremely hard-line stance, and one I think is more commonly based on the misunderstanding of what story in games actually is than on a true rejection of story itself.