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Some of us started gaming at the ground floor, playing games with no story and rarely having context for the reason the events of the game were taking place with the games only acting as escapes for the sake of entertainment. Others experienced complex storylines like Metal Gear Solid 4 as their very first video game, maybe even deciding to look further back and experience the storytelling history of the hobby. Regardless, we all experience our own personal evolutions when it comes to stories in video games as well as how those stories are presented to us simply because there are so many titles out there to play that many of us will never get to. And with so many current titles, it can be difficult for newer gamers to find the time to play the games of the past. What follows is my personal evolution through story elements in video games.
The No-Story EraThe very first system I remember my family owning was a Mattel Intellivision that my parents had bought in a garage sale somewhere around 1982 (yes, for some of you I am old). Along with the system was a small box of about 20 or 30 game cartridges of varying genres, many of which I cannot remember. However, I distinctly remember two titles: ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Cartridge and Dig Dug.
The story of the Dungeons & Dragons title (which is capitalized above because that is really how the game was marketed, along with the word "cartridge" at the end) is best summarized by its catalog description which I pulled from intellivisiongames.com:
"Take the wrong turn and you'll soon be staring at the biggest, meanest and most clever dragon you've ever imagined. You start out in a maze. But, this is no ordinary maze. It's revealed to you only a few feet at a time as you enter each new uncharted corridor. The maze scrolls: up, down, right and left. You don't know when it's going to take a turn -- for the worse. That dangerous dragon could be between you and the treasure that you must find. Along your way you'll find a variety of objects to help you avoid the dragon. Based on the popular role-playing board game, this video version will provide you with many hours of enjoyment."
Dig Dug was no better at providing a solid background on its story, if it even had one. Its description, also from intellivisiongames.com reads:
"Burrow your way through a maze of subterranean passages, hunting the deadly Pooka and the fire-breathing Fygar! Break into their tunnels, shoot 'em with your air hose, pump 'em up and...POP! Simple? Not exactly, because now they're after you! Run away! Dig under that rock just ahead...time it just right...BAM! The rock falls on Fygar! All the thrills and fun of the original arcade hit!"
Who the Pooka or Fygar are, we are never told, nor why we are hunting them. But, darn it, inflating them and watching them pop was a ton of fun. Dungeons and Dragons and Dig Dug never really had stories to them, they were just entertainment, and nothing more. Looking back on it, Dungeons and Dragons was the source of inspiration for many of today's fantasy authors, it is almost a sin to think of something with its name on it NOT to have had a character driven story, but that is how it was back in the day.
The Reading EraChristmas of 1986 was a fairly scant one when it came to presents for the family. We had just recently moved to California after my dad had been laid off from work at a forklift design company in Reno and we were still settling in to our new surroundings just off of the military base where my dad now worked. But, Santa had not forgotten the family, for he had brought us our very own Nintendo Entertainment System, complete with the R.O.B. and zapper gun. But the true gem was one of the games included with the console: Super Mario Brothers.
I spent hours jumping on turtles and little moving mushrooms with eyes, never understanding exactly what I was doing and why I was doing it. After all, I was only five when I got the game. One night while I was playing before bed, my dad was reading the instructions out loud, specifically the "Object of the Game" segment. It was then that I learned there was a whole back story to this game and I had purpose! Though it was still scarce, the book explained why I was trying to save a princess and who the turtles were working for. These few short paragraphs from the instructions gave a new dimension to the game that made me appreciate it that much more, even as a kid.
The Progression EraA couple of years after my first foray into the Mushroom Kingdom of Super Mario Bros I was introduced to the progressive storytelling and leveling mechanics of Final Fantasy, also on the NES. Although the quests were not too terribly deep and the story itself was also fairly basic, it introduced new elements of storytelling. This is the first game I can remember playing where the gameplay mechanics, specifically leveling and even growing up, were linked with the progressive storytelling of the game itself. This concept continued, as does my love for, Final Fantasy IV (though my cartridge shows it as part 2).
Over time, the series has made a name for itself with its complex and weaving storylines, filled with twists and turns. But, for me, the original is where it all started and where my early addiction for RPG's began.
The Sandbox EraMany sandbox games have stories included with them that can be played through, but there is something very appealing about being able to go where you want and do what you want, making your own story up as you go. This is probably why The Sims is such a popular franchise. However, my first step into the grainy sandbox was Ultima VII: The Black Gate, released in 1992.
While the game itself had purpose and story, I did not bother myself with it. Instead, my friends and I spent our time killing everyone in a local tavern and then spreading alcohol over a dead body as well as the murder weapon, seemingly making a crime scene depicting a man in a drunken rage destroying the town's populace. Disturbing for a ten or eleven year old? Sure. But I am normal today and that is what matters.
The Dr. Who EraI would be remiss if I did not mention Chrono Trigger in this walk through time (ha, catch the joke?). Before Dr. Who made time travel conundrums popular, there was Chrono Trigger. This game was the first I can think of where the Bill and Ted-esque plot drove the main character around time to save the world.
The More Confusing than Anime Without Subtitles EraMetal Gear Solid was the first time I really tried to wrap my brain around an ever growing and complex storyline. Throughout this series, I had to make timelines and summaries to understand exactly what was going on. Even now, I find some of the plot pieces to be more complicated than trying to understand William Faulker's The Sound and the Fury. Whenever I watch Tropic Thunder, the line: "I know who I am! I'm the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude" I cannot help but picture Metal Gear.
The Choosing My Own Adventure EraWing Commander 3 and 4 were the first time I was introduced to two elements in storytelling: full cinematic cut scenes with real actors (done quite well) and the ability to make choices with consequences. While we tout the difficult choices we can make in games today, I still remember being faced with the choice of blowing up a civilian station, killing thousands of innocent lives, and engaging an enemy head-on with potentially fatal consequences for teammates I had grown fond of. Top that off with the fact that your decision would change the outcome of the ending of the game, and I would be pulled every which way by my seemingly moral decision.
I could go on for some time, but I feel I have already droned on too long for most. But today, we are constantly treated to various story elements and amazing set pieces. Some of us enjoy them, others don't. But through all of these games we play, we make our own evolution of gaming and stories which changes our preferences in the games to come. With so many different evolutions and so many games to choose from, who knows where we may end up next. As Eddie Vedder once sang: "It's evolution baby!"