Let my explain right off the bat that by “storytelling,” I don’t mean the story itself, but the method in which the story is told. In many games, story is conveyed through movie-like cutscenes or lengthy text dialog, which can seem at odds with an interactive medium like video games. When you’re engaged with actually playing the game, interrupting it to tell the story can hurt the flow. Some developers have found ways to make it work well, but here are some examples that I think handle storytelling a little more elegantly.
Myst / Riven
Myst, originally released in 1993, was the game that popularized the CD-ROM format and essentially made it a standard. This, of course, led to many “interactive movies” that people look back on and laugh at today. But ironically, Myst itself used FMV very sparingly, and its overall storytelling is very minimalist. You watch a short opening cutscene that doesn’t really tell you anything, and then you’re dumped onto an island to solve obtuse puzzles.
And yet, there’s quite a bit of lore and backstory that you can delve into if you so desire. There are several books you can pore over (although who wants to read books in a video game?), but you can also learn a lot just by observing the environments. A little critical thinking goes a long way in Myst.
Riven continues this trend, but even more so. The storytelling is a bit stronger here, but the most fascinating part to me is that the intro to Myst doesn’t make much sense until you get to the end of Riven. It’s quite impressive how everything comes full circle. I’m not sure if the developers planned it that way from the beginning, but it’s brilliant how they tied it all together.
The Last Express
Classic adventure games tend to be very story oriented, but Jordan Mechner’s sole foray into the genre put a fascinating spin on it. The Last Express, released in 1997, happens in semi-real time. In most adventure games, you can take as much time as you need to solve the puzzles, and the game doesn’t care. In The Last Express, however, the clock is always ticking, no matter what.
The game takes place aboard the Orient Express as it travels from Paris to Constantinople, and the story is filled with suspense, intrigue and espionage. It doesn’t have a lot in the way of “traditional” puzzles, but you do have to do a lot of snooping around. This includes eavesdropping on other people’s conversations, which happen at particular places and times, whether you’re there for them or not. Of course, this means that timing is extremely important, but the game includes a handy “rewind” function to help you out in case you miss something important.
There are some cutscenes, but they’re integrated very well and feel like part of the game rather than a distraction from it. A lot of the story unfolds organically as you observe things for yourself, and you may experience different aspects of it depending on where you are at a particular time. It really makes you feel like you’re involved in the story rather than simply watching it between spurts of gameplay.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Unlike Myst and The Last Express, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, from 2003, is a linear action-platform game. It does have some traditional cutscenes, but a lot of the story is conveyed through dialog that’s spoken as you’re playing the game. There are a number of funny exchanges between the Prince and his occasional companion Fara, but there’s also quite a bit of narration that comes from the Prince, himself.
And this is the brilliant part of it. The game, itself, is a story being told by the Prince retrospectively, so you’re not often being interrupted as you play. It even goes so far as to account for mistakes you make, so if you get yourself killed, the narration responds to it with something like, “No, no. That’s not what happened.” (It’s kind of funny to think of the Prince actually telling the story that way: “And then I fell on a bed of spikes and died, and… oops, that’s not right.”) It’s handled so intuitively that when I first played it back then, I wondered why more games didn’t use a similar method.
What’s even more brilliant is that the storytelling, itself, is part of the story, but it’s better if you figure out what that means by playing the game yourself. Between this and The Last Express, I feel like Jordan Mechner really “gets it” in terms of narrative in games.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles
You my have figured out by now that I like it when a game doesn’t directly tell you a story, but lets it emerge on its own as you play the game. Uncovering the story for yourself is, I think, a better fit for the interactive nature of video games. The Final Fantasy series is known for its sweeping storylines, but they also tend to be linear and restrictive. So, it’s a little surprising that a game with the Final Fantasy name on it would be an excellent example of unobtrusive storytelling.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, released in 2003, is more of a dungeon crawler than your typical JRPG, but as such, it has a slightly more open-ended structure. The first several hours of the game actually are a bit linear, but even then, it does a marvelous job of covering up the fact that you’re really being guided to certain areas.
The story is conveyed through talking to townsfolk as well as little semi-random events that happen on the world map. The thing is, though, that a lot of it may seem self-contained or even arbitrary, and it’s left up to the player to piece things together. Some people think the game doesn’t even have much of a story because it doesn’t use its cutscenes as “triggers” for moving the game forward. But it actually has a very rich and poignant story that I think is made all the more effective by letting you experience it through gameplay rather than heavy-handed narrative.