Gaming Narrative – By Stephen McCarthy

In this piece of work I will write about my opinion of narrative gaming. For research I have looked at work from bloggers and game developers. All the games I write about I have played extensively. I will begin with looking at the development of gaming from its humble beginnings in 1972 with Pong up to 2011 with Uncharted. My main argument as always will be that game narrative is a vital part of the game, and that games tell stories well.

If you are a gamer you will notice that they have come a long way from Atari’s Pong in 1972. To look at the start of game narrative we must first remember the ten words that infuriate every gamer in the English speaking world “Thank you Mario, But our princess is in another castle” however poor the narrative was and given the level of graphics available, Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers had a narrative nonetheless which is more that can be said for some big name games today. However, it seems that a game which has a good narrative is not enough and mindless games seem, to ‘out do’ masterpieces in profit margins. To understand this we look at Super Mario Brothers to start with as this was line recited to Mario every time he would beat King Kopa, now Bowser, in one of his many castles. It was repetitive but its fair to say that it worked.  Super Mario Brothers was the formula that made a game great – it had a narrative, and good game play for its time so much so that in 2010 Nintendo brought out New Super Mario Brothers on the Wii which did quite well. If you can call us scholars, and perhaps we are just die-hard gamers, we have argued that Super Mario Brothers is the real start of gaming and it has received IGN’s best game of all time spot. It’s hard to disagree with IGN in that respect. It is the Citizen Kane of games. However, narrative fed the game, the player was playing to save The Princess. Nintendo did try to improve this repetitive narrative in Super Mario Brothers 2 which, as  most gamers will tell you, was a flop in the gaming world. The narrative was there but the game play was not.   This  in-turn lead to most gamers favorite game Super Mario Brothers 3. Super Mario Brothers 3 saw the return of the repetitive narrative  the game, it can be argued, sounded the death knell for Sega and the Sonic franchise. Even when Sega would try to come back with the Mega-Drive however, Nintendo would hit back with a rerelease of the three Mario games (Super Mario All-Stars) and the masterpiece of 2D gaming which was Super Mario world (which is still regarded as the best game to ever be released on the “snes”). What I’m saying here is the combination of a narrative and good game play lead to The Super Mario Brothers long stint at the top as it applied to the right generation at the right time. This being said it is not only Mario  that had a story. It has long since been argued that Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in 2005 IGN ranked it a number two as the second best game of all time beaten to the number one spot be Mario. IGN said:

Considered by many critics to be the greatest game ever made, Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is one of only a handful of games to receive a perfect IGN rating. The masterpiece, which stars hero Link in both child and teenage form, helped pave the way for 3D adventure games, but it will likely be remembered and adored for two other reasons: first, it reinvented Nintendo’s famed Zelda franchise and actually made it better. And second, it showed Nintendo 64 fans and the larger video-game community that as revolutionary and pretty as Super Mario 64 was, Nintendo still had some serious magic in its hefty bag of tricks. Ocarina of Time is an epic undertaking shining with tight control, ingenious level design and intuitive play mechanics. It remains one of the all-time most innovative adventure outings to date(IGN.com). 

This game is considered a masterpiece of its time it was story telling at its best and paved the way for future block buster games like Metal Gear SolidFall Out and Uncharted. The ability to control time in the game was new and innovative I believe this is where the “wait” feature developed in the Bethesda studios line of games. I remember watching people play this game and my amazement at the fact the player knew where other game characters were at any given time. This control of space and time in the playing environment was completely revolutionary. However, Nintendo’s time at the top was brief and ended with Sony breaking into the gaming world. Sony had game narratives like no other and movie star characters that were idolized by the gaming world. No longer were people playing games for the game play but to see what happened to their favorite characters. These characters became household names, Lara CroftDuke Nukem, Solid snake and Nathan Drake to name a few. Developers of narrative games saw that, like Nintendo, consumers wanted to follow a character moreover these consumers were people who grew up with Mario but were too old for him. This game character came in the form of the 6 foot  tall, athletic and very beautiful Lara Croft. Every teenager’s desire, Lara broke the mould of game characters. She did not just appear on game magazines but on mens magazines she is the first computer generated female to be requested to appear in men’s magazines.  The level of interactivity, the design, and the immersive quality of the game play engaged legions of new fans. Because of Tomb Raider we forgot about Mario and Sonic for the mass expanding worlds,  places like China, Alaska and South America.

The thing game developers seem to not understand at times is that there are two generations of gamers. There is the narrative gamer from the Nintendo generation who has moved from Mario to Drake and the somewhat mindless gamer of the x-box generation. We narrative gamers are starved for a game with a story, but the problem is that most game creators cannot write game stories (Daniel Floyd). When looking at writing a story you should write what you know yet most game designers although able to utilize graphics well they are all the same.   They are mostly inspired by very specific media. It has been argued by many bloggers, quite sarcastically though it may be true that most game developers  have read one book and seen one movie (Ken Levine). Therefore you get games that may resemble a quest to destroy an item of jewellery or defeat a dark lord of some sort!  They are predicated on tropes that persist in the fantasy genre only.

This is not to say that narrative is not ‘growing’. One must remember that game developers would love to produce games with story lines like Inception or Sherlock Holmes but it is also hard for game writers to write stories that the player does not just watch but takes part in. There are games out there that do force the player to delve into the narrative. These games normally fall in two categories there is the linear game and the nonlinear. The nonlinear games seem to hit a home run where game play is concerned and games like Fall out, the Elder Scrolls series, and Grand Theft Auto allow the player the option to find the story in its open world in their own time. When we get to the linear games we get great game play but sometimes a short narrative that really has no point. There are some great narratives in linear games including Metal Gear Solid and Uncharted.

Greg Costikyan, a blogger, argues that games cannot tell a story like cinema, books or music can. Obviously I would argue against this. Today video games tell intricate stories. Moreover games are still at a young stage in their development – only forty years old. If we look at the beginning of cinema up to its present state,  the time it took to get from the Lumiere brothers first films in 1895 to Michael Bay’s Transformers 2007 is 112 years. Whereas we look at the release of Pong in 1972 and only 35 years later, also in 2007, were met with Assassins Creed which brought games from Pong to Assassins Creed. I believe that narrative is a vital part of gaming and that games when developed correctly have the ability to tell great stories. I disagree with bloggers like Costikyan who argue that narrative seems not to belong in gaming.

Bibliography

  1. Ernest Adams, “Three Problems For Interactive Storytellers,” Gamasutra,
  2. Jesper Juul, “A Clash Between Games and Narrative,” paper presented at the Digital Arts and Culture Conference, Bergen, November 1998, http://www.jesperjuul.dk/text/DA%20Paper%201998.html. For a more recent formulation of this same argument, see Jesper Juul, “Games Telling Stories?”, Game Studies, http://cmc.uib.no/gamestudies/0101/juul-gts
  3. Markku Eskelinen, “The Gaming Situation,” Game Studies, htttp:cmc.uib.no/gamestudies/0101/eskelinen
  4. Henry Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture”, Henry Jenkins, pub. Web. http://web.mit.edu/cms/People/henry3/games&narrative.html
  5. Greg Costikyan, “Where Stories End and Games Begin,” Game Developer, September 2000, pp. 44-53.
  6. IGN Top 100. 2005. Web. http://ie.top100.ign.com/2005/001-010.html
  7. bethsoft.com .Web. http://www.bethsoft.com/eng/index.php?cn=ukeng
  8. Ken Levine (game developer). Web. http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/
  9. Christopher Nolan. Inception. Warner Brothers. 2010. Web.  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1375666/
  10. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes. 1887. Web http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherlock_Holmes
  11. Michael Bay. Transformers. Dream works. 2007. Web http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0418279/
  12. Daniel Floyd. kirithem’s channel. Youtube. 2006. Web

Youtube videos

Please note all videos are not edited by me and are directly linked back to their source.

  1. Naughty dog.Uncharted 3.youtube. 2011. Web. 01 March 2012
  2. Bethsoft. Fallout. youtube. 2010. Web. 01 March 2012
  3. Naughty dog. Uncharted 2. youtube. 2009. Web. 01 March 2012
  4. Ubi Soft. Assassins Creed. youtube. 2007. Web. 01 March 2012
  5. Nintendo. Super mario. youtube. 1985. Web. 01 March 2012
  6. Nintendo. Super mario brothers 3. youtube. 1988. Web. 01 March 2012
  7. Nintendo. Super mario world. youtube. 1990. Web. 01 March 2012
  8. Nintendo. The Legend of Zelda. youtube. 1998. Web. 01 March 2012
  9. Konami. Metal Gear Solid. youtube. 1998. Web. 01 March 2012
  10. Bethsoft. Fallout 3. youtube. 2008. Web. 01 March 2012
  11. Edios.Tomb Raider. youtube. 2011. Web. 01 March 2012
  12. 3D Realms. Duke Nukem. youtube. 2011. Web. 01 March 2012
  13. The hardy bucks. The viper’s MW3 video. youtube. 2011. Web. 01 March 2012
  14. Rockstar.GTA.youtube.2011. Web. 01 March 2012

Click here for websites used on narrative Gaming.

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