Storytelling in Video Games: Are Stories Essential for Immersive Gameplay?

Mega Cat Studios
6 min readFeb 21, 2024

The trends in video gaming have slowly shifted over the coming years. Recent titles have a far more focused approach to bringing a more cinematic experience to their audiences. Games like Last of Us 2 and God of War have doubled down on their story, identifying it as being an integral part of enjoying their game. Other titles like Spiderman II and Horizon Zero Dawn go even further, putting great effort into bringing a more movie-like experience to their regular gameplay.

Image courtesy of Santa Monica Studio’s God of War via Steam

It all begs the question of whether this new trend is here to stay. Is this focus on cinematic experience and the intense focus on storytelling an important part of gaming, and if so, just when did it begin?

Early Technological Limitations — Gameplay Over Story

The earliest video games released typically prioritized gameplay over story for a multitude of different reasons.

One such reason was just the physical constraints of the hardware at the time. Early video games, especially those in the 1970s and 1980s, simply did not have the luxury. The technology at the time was unable to house sophisticated graphics. Some games barely even had room for text, often resorting to supplementary materials like game manuals, books, and other physical media to get their story across. Games like Wasteland Classic and Akalbeth: World of Doom show firsthand how resourceful devs need to be to incorporate a story into their game.

Image courtesy of Interplay’s Wasteland Classic via GOG

Another reason was that games simply had different priorities at the time. Classic games like Contra and Mega Man needed no real story or setup to be great hits. Just pick up the game and play. John Carmack of Id Software, one of the creators of the iconic Doom game, even infamously once that the story wasn’t that important. It was expected to be there but wasn’t the main focus for most gamers.

John Carmack | Image courtesy of Drew Campbell via Flickr

And how could he be wrong? Early video games simply had to go to great lengths to get any amount of its story across. So why bother? Games could be played with just a minimal story setup and didn’t need an esoteric narrative to keep audiences interested.

So, are games best played without a story?

Adventure Gaming In Action — Storytelling Finding Prominence

Some game developers simply did not believe that to be true at all. Sierra adventure games were one type of video game people at the time remembered. These adventure games were infamous for their difficulty, often outright killing players for making minor mistakes during gameplay.

What made them special was that they specifically relied on their story and atmosphere to hook their audience. Games like King’s Quest, Dark Seed, and Death Gate were an important part of early video game history and cemented the popularity of narrative-driven games having a place and audience.

Image of Dark Seed courtesy of user Mellomarke at r/vintagecgi via Reddit

The prominence of RPG games also worked against this. Games like The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall proved that combining a fleshed-out story and good gameplay could become massively popular with its audience. JRPGs such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest heavily relied on their story to contextualize their adventures, and the act of beating dragons and defeating gods would not be the same without the overarching narrative at play.

Even more action-oriented games started to throw their own hat in the ring. Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid in 1998 was a resounding success in part due to its witty writing. The franchise would not be the same without its dramatic cutscenes or over-the-top narrative.

And that’s not even talking about more recent games, either. With the advent of better technology, an entire genre of “story-only” video games has come about. Called “Walking Simulators,” this game genre focuses exclusively on its story-driven component. In a way, it’s like the adventure games of old, with games like Layers of Fear and Firewatch relying solely on good storytelling to leave its audiences satisfied.

Image courtesy of Bloober Team’s Layers of Fear via GOG

An Achievable Balance

For what it’s worth, John Carmack has since retracted his own statement. In a tweet, he has since clarified that their stories can carry games. He just feels that gameplay is far more important in the end. He’s not wrong to think so, either. Recent years have proven that a good game can succeed even with poor storytelling. An overarching narrative does help enhance games but isn’t always needed to make a game good.

A tweet made by John Carmack via Twitter / X

For instance, Postal 2 , one of gaming’s most offensive franchises, needs no deep story to get players into the game. You’re just a man doing everyday errands, and how you do these errands depends solely on how you feel at the moment. Whether it’s sowing chaos and blowing everyone away or doing it safely and slowly and following the law, the choice is in your hands, and the story doesn’t really care. The game is all about expressing yourself and nothing more.

Image courtesy of Running with Scissors’ Postal 2 via Steam

However, Games can be carried by their story as well. Until Dawn was a well-known horror game mostly played through choices and playing out QTEs. While the gameplay was minimal, its story kept people at the edge of their seats, and an entire franchise of similar games called The Dark Pictures Anthology has proven that there is an audience for it.

If anything, it seems that a good mix of storytelling and gameplay is the ideal balance to strive for. Larian Studio’s Baldur’s Gate III was 2023’s Game of the Year and blended an interesting story of redemption and betrayal with some solid RPG gameplay. Older games like Hotline Miami emphasized its psychedelic, brutal violence with a twisted narrative about nihilism and desensitization. Even something like Spec Ops: The Line was a fun subversion of the third-person military shooter, twisting a routine tale of military men taking out terrorists and turning it into an exploration of guilt and pointlessness.

Image courtesy of YAGER’s Spec Ops: The Line via Steam

We at Mega Cat Studios think the same. The narrative is as important as the gameplay, and while we specialize towards a more retro style of game, our releases like WrestleQuest spare no effort in blending turn-based combat with a fun, light-hearted tale of a wrestler coming into his own and saving the world.

WrestleQuest

At the end of it all, how important a game’s story is depends on what kind of expectations your game sets and what your audience expects from you. While it’s important to some, it isn’t to others. This debate might rage on for years to come, but it does at least allow other gamers to find out for themselves if they think the story really does matter. In the end, the answer they come up with is as right as anyone else’s.

If you have your own personal input on just how important you think narratives are in video games, feel free to drop by our Discord and tell us all about it. We love these game discussions and would like nothing more than to hear your side. Don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter as well for our updates!

This article was written by Alexander Cuaycong.

Originally published at https://megacatstudios.com on February 21, 2024.

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Mega Cat Studios

Mega Cat Studios is a creative first company based out of Pittsburgh, PA. We love creating games. From retro cartridges to PC & VR, come play with us.