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Computer Games and Stories

June 23, 2008

At first glance, computer games might not seem the best place to look for stories. Surely a music video or even a nearby wall would have more chance of containing a decent story?

Well, Yes and No.

Many computer games don’t have any story, because they don’t need one. Some just need a premise (the princess has been kidnapped! rescue her by jumping over a series of moving platforms!), some don’t even need that. Tetris is its own device.

Other computer games do have stories, poor ones. Stories that would ill grace the backs of cereal boxes pass muster too often in the industry.

However, others do tell good stories. The best use the medium to tell stories that wouldn’t be possible to tell elsewhere.

I’m going to list a few here, but I must warn anyone below the age of 20 that you might not recognise any of the titles here. There’s nothing wrong with today’s games, but the stories that gripped me are all from last century.

Half-Life was an important game, not just for the strength of its story by for the game genre (that word again) in which it took place. For whatever reason, prevailing wisdom in the 1990s was that you can’t tell a story through the medium of a first-person shooter. Valve proved that to be wrong, and did it in style.

The Last Express was a good mystery, done in vivid style.

Starship Titanic and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream are both examples of science fiction authors trying their hand at the medium, with mixed results. The first was Douglas Adams, the second Harlan Ellison.

Wasteland (and this is going back a ways – to the 1980s) told a grim tale of life hanging on in a post nuclear Nevada.

Of more recent games, there is little to tell. First-person shooters rarely rise to the storytelling heights of Half-Life, Bio Shock and Mass Effect are two recent efforts that may entertain.

Role-playing games, what you might think of as the natural home for stories in computer games tend to be a little stunted. Either the story is truncated and used as something to give your mouse of joypad hand a rest between combats, or else you spend your whole time squinting to read reams and reams of text – that is for books people.

Don’t dismiss computer games as a storytelling medium. A closer look can reveal some real gems.

  1. August 30, 2008 at 9:21 am

    Warning proved right. Only recognized Half Life. But that game was a good one. I miss it just talking about it.

  2. August 30, 2008 at 9:23 am

    I like the Final Fantasy computer games for their stories, especially the earlier versions. If I’d rate them all according to story I’d go for Final Fantasy III and VII.

  3. davekay
    August 30, 2008 at 11:19 pm

    Wasteland was re-imagined many years back as a game called Fallout. Now Fallout itself is being reimagined and due for release this year. I expect it will be great!

  4. October 14, 2008 at 10:16 am

    Fallout! That was a great game with the submachine guns and flamethrowers. = )

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