Do Video Games Need Narrative?

Narrative comes in many forms and has many functions. When it comes to books, narrative is the objective; you read because you want a little escapism or an emotional journey or a bit of light erotica on the boring train ride. But for video games, narrative has, for a long time, simply been the excuse for why the cool stuff happens. Narrative was the loosely thrown together explanation that framed gameplay.

And that’s okay.

When you went down to the arcade to play Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja, you didn’t do it because you wanted a deep experience. Some ninjas had kidnapped President Ronnie, and that meant you could brawl your way through enemies to rescue him. Nobody really cared who the ninjas were, or why they had kidnapped President Ronnie. That wasn’t the point.

The same thing applies with Pac-Man. He is a yellow head eating dots and avoiding ghosts just because. Nobody suffered an existential crisis over why Pac-Man needed those dots; it was just a contest to see who could get the highest score. In these early years, narrative was sparse, if present at all. The main role was to give and reinforce context in order to make the gameplay more enjoyable; the Bad Dudes are awesome because they defeat ninjas—beating up kids or friendly old ladies wouldn’t be as cool.

Gaming has evolved since then. Now we have a bunch of platforms, countless genres and subgenres, and countless places, characters, and stories to experience. Games have become more than an allowance devouring machine, but not every game is cut from the same cloth.

So, do video games need narrative? The short answer is no, but it’s a little more complicated than that.

Some games are built around narratives. The grind-fest that is most RPGs is only tolerated because of the storytelling. If the narrative isn’t compelling, nobody is going to bother. We put up with grinding for sphere levels in Final Fantasy X because we want to kick Seymour’s butt, save Spira and Yuna, and then live happily ever after.

What about games that focus on gameplay? There is a loose narrative to be found in The Sims, but most people treat it as a torture simulator. The rise and fall of the Goth family pales in comparison to the horde of drowned ghosts you can have hanging about your murder mansion. Those thin threads of narrative could disappear altogether and the game would not change at all.

It gets complicated when we examine shooters. By and large, narrative in these games exists to provide context surrounding the people we’re blowing away with LMGs or shotguns. Even with the “historically accurate” WWI and WWII shooters, the focus is still on shooting bad guys.

But there has been a shift towards including solid narratives alongside enjoyable gameplay in shooters though. Although the dusty “Russian/Chinese/Islamic guys threaten America” plotline is hardly inventive, there are other examples of trying something creative.

It’s an older example now, but the “No Russian” level from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was an attempt to make you hate the villains. And as ham-fisted as it was, it sort of worked. Giving the player some agency—instead of just saying “these guys are bad” or showing the villains shooting up an airport—really adds to the experience and gives it much more impact.

Spec Ops: The Line is another good example. Marketed as a more narrative and choice focused game, it wanted you to think, feel, and question. A lot of the “choices” presented are restrictive, but Spec Ops really tries to drive home the horrors of war and show that even the “good guys” can do really terrible things, which is a nice change from the usual chest-pumping shooters.

But simply throwing a plot into a video game doesn’t mean it’s going to be a better game. Poor storytelling is like poor acting—it might be funny in its own, cheesy, B-grade kind of way, but it certainly won’t be that deep and meaningful flick you wanted. At best, the story might be negligible; at worst, it could ruin the experience entirely.

Bioshock Infinite proves that the risk can be well worth it. It weaves together a rich narrative, and even dresses it in FPS clothing. With a wealth of exposition offered through optional voxaphones and kinetescopes, Infinite allows narrative-seekers to flesh out a detailed world and story, while gameplay enthusiasts can bypass this and just focus ramming their skyhooks into guys.

But it’s the combination of all these elements that make a truly first-class game, one that can provide you with a lasting experience.

Bioshock Infinite is just one of the latest games to show how enjoyable a good narrative can be, but that doesn’t mean that narratives are suddenly going to become that key ingredient. Games are as varied as the people who play them, and having some games without a big narrative focus isn’t a bad thing. So long as the industry provides enjoyable experiences, the genetic makeup of the game is mostly unimportant.

While narrative adds delicious depth to a game, the gameplay in Bioshock Infinite is fun and exciting enough that a great story isn’t even necessary; the game could have just as easily opened with “Are you a bad enough dude to rescue Elizabeth?”

Originally published in HYPER #243.