Regardless of their credentials, people like to give their opinions on all manner of things. From the best way to pick a password for your email account to what makes a video game good, you will hear a lot of opinions in your lifetime, and not all of them will be good. I once heard someone suggest in all seriousness that the best PIN to use at the ATM was your birthday. Yeah, because reducing your PIN to one of the 365 options is definitely going to make it harder for a crook to figure it out.
Similarly, there will be people who will tell you that the most important aspect of a video game is the graphics, or the interactivity, or the fun you might have, or the story. Graphics aren’t video games, no matter how much you may have liked Myst‘s environments. Interactivity is inherent in video games; otherwise you are left with a movie. Still, interactivity isn’t the only thing you need to make a game. Since serious games have come into their own, and since some games are meant to be art or commentary, fun is no longer inherently important to video games as it once was. That is, if a game isn’t fun, it is not necessarily a bad thing since it might not be the point. Super Columbine Massacre RPG is an example of a game that isn’t meant to be fun.
But what about story? Do all games need a story, even if the story is not explicitly told to the player? RPGs almost always have a story, and I do remember a time when almost everyone could agree that “a good story” was what made an RPG fun. Final Fantasy 7 is usually touted as a good example, but then there are games such as Rogue and NetHack that have the flimsiest of stories and drop you into the game. Yes, you know the goal is to retrieve the amulet, but how many times have you forgotten this goal as you died Yet Another Stupid Death? How much do you pay attention to the short bit of text that introduces your character and his/her god to the world?
Tetris didn’t need a story, although some people seem to enjoy applying their own abstract story to the game. There is no story inherent in Tetris, but Juuso claims that it has a survival aspect in common with Resident Evil 4. Since zombie movies have usually been used to be commentary on Communism, and Tetris was created by a Soviet, maybe there is more to Juuso’s line of thinking…
Still, abstract puzzle games don’t rely on story. Tetris, Bejeweled, Cubis, and Zuma don’t really offer stories. They may be themed, but stories aren’t the reason why you continue to play day after day. And then there is the poem/game hybrid game, game, game, and game again, which claims to rebel against the tyranny of clean design that rules the web. Somehow, I couldn’t help but finish the game even though it seemed like one large mess of random text, strange imagery, and standard video game constructs. Part of the point of the game is to come away with your own interpretation.
Do games need stories? I don’t think that games need stories any more than they need full motion video or real-time pixel shaders. Are stories important? Yes and no.
Yes, stories are important. Stories give you the why, where, and when of the game. You would not think about searching for a person unless you knew that she was the princess and your king has asked you to save her from the dragon in the abandoned castle across the continent. Mario had to travel across the Mushroom Kingdom to save Princess Toadstool, and Link needed to find the different triforce pieces in order to save Princess Zelda. Japan surprised the United States at Pearl Harbor, and the President and your country are depending upon you to fight back and secure the Pacific Theater. The Zerg, Protoss, and Terran have all come together because some higher ups in the Terran ranks thought they could control an entire alien species as a weapon. The Tiger’s Claw is positioned along the front lines of the war against the Kilrathi, and you are a newly-trained recruit.
Stories also give us context for talking about the games. You didn’t just hit a certain set of buttons in a sequence, timing it to some lights on the screen. You hit the afterburners, turned your ship around 180 degrees, and fired all of your missiles into your pursuers. You were down to one health point and nearly hit by Metalman’s gears before you fired off one last shot and defeated him, and then you took his weapon and went after the next of Dr. Wily’s creations. Heck, you even found that the blocks in Tetris were getting too high for your comfort, but you were lucky enough to receive the straight piece and dropped the entire level down to a manageable level. You lived to clear lines another day.
Still, I don’t think stories are what make for a good role-playing game. If I wanted a good story, I’d read a book. I need to play games. Occasionally I feel the need to create my own stories. While some RPGs (and games in other genres) allow a branching storyline, sometimes making things up on my own is fun. Maybe I don’t need or want the developer dictating what will happen every single time I play a game. NetHack is fun in this regard because it always feels like a different game. Everything is interactive, and you sometimes get surprised that a certain action triggered a certain response from the game, even if you’ve been playing for years. SimCity allows me to decide what kind of urban environment I want. Maybe this city is a bustling metropolis in which natural disasters occur often, but this small town by the river is tranquil and acts as a vacation spot for the SimCitizens. The Sims allows me to create a perfect family, or a completely dysfunctional one. Either way, it’s my story that I get to tell. And let’s not forget that Black & White‘s creatures were as fun to talk about as your real life pets. My cats may be adorable, but my ape was trying very hard to learn how to throw a rock, as evidenced by the horses strewn about the beach.
In general, I suppose stories are important for games. I just think that they don’t necessarily have to be dictated from within the game. There is nothing wrong with games that tell a story, but games that do tell stories shouldn’t let the story get in the way of the game. Some people might prefer games that let them figure out their own stories. When I play Flatspace, I like to be a trader, but I like to hunt pirates as well. I don’t have to fight the pirates, but I’m just taking the law into my own hands, hoping to get my hands on the pirate who destroyed my life in my made-up past. There is no actual support for the story in the game, but there isn’t anything that gets in the way of that story, either. I enjoy the act of creation, even if it is only in my mind.