When video games started their rise to prominence in the 1970s, they were a platform for simple entertainment in which gameplay was basic and straightforward. Just as humans learn to crawl before they walk, the development of these virtual time-sinks began small. Over time, technology, industry, and game developers’ ambitions enhanced, leading to more advanced gameplay mechanics and intricate worlds. However, one element of the industry that has improved the most over the years is the use of story to make games stand out in an ocean of otherwise similar titles. Specifically, the characters and their growth within the plot are among the most crucial factors in a title’s success, especially in the niche single-player market.
Evidenced by the expanded use of roleplaying tropes, the industry has employed typical storytelling elements derived from literature, theatre, and cinema. The shift from simplistic time-wasters to more in-depth fables can trace its roots back to the mid-1980s, if not earlier. The Nintendo Entertainment System acted as a harbinger for story-driven games with its Super Mario Bros. series. The system’s successor, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), continued the trend of creative titles, especially given the rivalry between Nintendo and Sega that ignited one of the most influential console wars in video game history. This war forced developers to take each successive venture to the next level, leading to the creation of the Sony PlayStation (1994) and the Nintendo 64 (1996) after the SNES edged out the Sega Genesis for industry dominance.
The Sony PlayStation and the Nintendo 64 were arguably the first home consoles to consistently offer games that shined more light on narrative than previous devices. Between these two systems, developers expanded their repertoire with plots that were more detailed than the basic one-off objective. Characters within these consoles’ games, while they had rather flat personalities, felt much more alive than their forebears. 1997’s Star Fox 64, for example, offered a basic save-the-galaxy plotline that showcased the different mindsets of four main characters: Fox, Slippy, Falco, and Peppy. Fox, of course, was the fearless leader who never backed down from any fight; Slippy was the overanxious pipsqueak; Falco was the sarcastic tough guy; and Peppy was the experienced mentor. Four characters with four personalities: all of them stayed one-dimensional through most of the campaign, neither growing into something more nor backtracking to something less. In this experimental era, video games as they are known today began forming.
Games such as Sarge’s Heroes and the first Metal Gear Solid added to the noise that plot-focused titles made. From the depths of developers’ creative recesses spawned the innovative roleplaying elements that draw many of their assets from literature and even board games. Over the course of the late 1990s and the early 2000s, the industry’s growth exploded and birthed an artistic community, one that loves stories and competition. The storytelling techniques developers began using during this expansionistic age had a foundation in pen-and-paper RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons, with lore and sagas being the focus of the characters’ journeys while mechanics—though undoubtedly important—were less crucial to a game’s success. Franchises such as The Elder Scrolls, Assassin’s Creed, and Fallout have fostered incredible improvements to the way a game’s story is told. Characters in such series drive the tales forward as much as the gameplay, and fans can feel the tension in characters’ emotions and relate to them more so than was possible in the days of the Nintendo 64 and original Sony PlayStation. Nowadays, characters have more complex personalities than their predecessors, with game developers digging deeper to offer relatable hardships over which modern characters must hurdle. Similar to the way a fable unfolds in a novel or television series, unstable relationships, betrayal, world conflicts, adrenaline rushes, opportunities, and a wealth of other plot devices’ effects ripple through modern game characters, changing and shaping their personalities in a way that players can notice over time. Characters now react to situations in ways that reflect those scenarios, as opposed to the dull, one-dimensional personalities of earlier titles.
Moreover, many titles offer different plot twists based on the decisions players make through the main character. The Mass Effect series, for example, can come to multiple outcomes depending on the choices made by the franchise’s protagonist throughout each game. This kind of interactive storytelling not only gives players a decent narrative, but makes them feel more involved by allowing them to determine how and when the story unfolds. Beyond the main tale, franchises on the scale of Mass Effect typically offer subplots through the use of side quests. These subplots are where gamers see the relationships between characters blossom. Players can choose to strengthen their bond with their companions, whether that means romance or friendship, or alienate their comrades through dialogue choices depending on the kind of personality users wish their character to possess. Narratives and interactions of this kind were virtually nonexistent in the industry’s earlier forms, and drawing inspiration from other mediums has been one of the primary drivers behind its evolution. However, the shift in focus to multiplayer content has initiated a threat that could bring about the devolution of storytelling.
Multiplayer gaming, while fun and popular, has become so prominent that, in many titles, single-player connoisseurs feel intentionally alienated. Star Wars Battlefront II, for example, is one such game that leaves a sour taste for those who enjoy single-player experiences. While Battlefront II sported a campaign, unlike its 2015 predecessor, the replay value is subpar and the offline arcade mode is a placating side project at best. Battlefront II stirred controversy, of course, with its abundant use of loot crates and microtransactions, but again, that focuses more on multiplayer content than single-player and storytelling. If EA-DICE, Criterion Software, and Motive Studios made every multiplayer mode available against the AI, which is possible (i.e. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered), they would likely increase their sales and retain a larger player-base. However, the campaign and other single-player modes being hysterical afterthoughts are evidence of the lack of consideration the single-player experience is given by many AAA developers and publishers. Additionally, this lack of consideration directly affects the progress of storytelling tropes in the industry because, while many multiplayer experiences contain literary elements, they generally do not evoke sufficient emotion to make players feel like they have a stake in the game’s campaign or characters. The emphasis on multiplayer content has hobbled the once-great progress the industry had made in crafting genuine titles that had an equal place for both multiplayers and single-players.
Despite these harrowing shortcomings of many multiplayer titles, single-player fans still have hope in the form of franchises such as Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Dragon Age, and Total War. Most RPGs have a major focus on storytelling. Even the Call of Duty series has halfway decent campaigns in each title, with the added bonus that most games in that franchise allow gamers to play multiplayer modes against the AI. The storytelling strides the industry has made in the past couple of decades are indicative of a well-rounded and growing market, but switching gears to focus on multiplayer may see many fans’ favorite RPGs’ quality deteriorate substantially to make room for more online content. This unfortunate possibility could be driven by developers’ and publishers’ need to stay competitive in a cutthroat business. Hopefully, if single-player fans speak out enough, the storytelling advancements that have been made will be neither undone nor left behind.