Games Without a Story
Let me begin by stating that many games with minimal or nonexistent story elements have been unfathomably successful. Tetris and Pong represent the two prime examples of this select sect of pure activity. Tetris drops the player into a deep chasm with an unlimited supply of blocks to score as many points as possible. Pong, one of the most minimal forms of story-less gaming, drops the player into a raster void with two white paddles bouncing a ball past a white line in an attempt to score on the opponent's fault. Why do these games reek of commercial success while many other games merely get tossed by the wayside? Here are some reasons as to why that is:
Both Tetris and Pong reside in the highest tier of videogame nostalgia, reserved for only the indisputed greats of videogame history. These two landmark games are so ridiculously simple that most people can intrinsically understand how to play them at first glance. “The more, the merrier,” as the old saying goes. While supplementing either of these landmark games with a story could potentially enhance the experience (as it inevitably has with the unimaginable amount of clones Tetris and Pong have inspired), their original forms have dazzled and astounded many gamers and individuals alike throughout the generations.
This is a later rendition of PONG. That being said, games don't get much simpler than this!
So, if Tetris and Pong hit the videogame industry’s jackpot, why would any game need even remote elements of storyline or plot in order to be successful? There are several valid answers to this question, but the one I’ll expand upon is the natural tendency for games to be stories that you are a part of.
Games Mimicking a Story
The art of storytelling goes way back to the time of cave paintings and beyond. Storytelling has been proven as a relevant means of communication throughout history. Even today, people enjoy a well-written story from the conventional examples of newspaper articles and fictional narratives to the more obscure as concept albums and videogame plotlines. But what do videogame plotlines have in terms of marketability and creativity as opposed to books or news? The player directly interacts or unravels the game’s story through actions all its own instead of merely skimming through pages full of dauntingly long paragraphs and dialogue.
This simple, yet imaginative methodology has come to life most rudimentarily through the avenues of interactive fiction and text adventures. Classics as Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork rely solely on text to provide their remarkable gaming experiences. No fancy graphics, no complex mechanics, only elaborate literary descriptions of setting and scene incurred through brief commands: move, look, examine, etc. In the same vein as Tetris and Pong, simplicity reigns as king in this realm of gaming. There are such thin boundaries between the realms of interactive entertainment, story-less gaming, and story-driven gaming.
As this screenshot of Colossal Cave Adventure illustrates, graphics and advanced game mechanics aren't necessary to provide a quality gaming experience.
Games With Immersive Stories
But, when correlating simplicity to success, what is there to be said about the many other popular avenues of gaming? Shooters, RPGs, adventure games, etc. Whether acting as a mere selling device or an unshakeable foundation, these kinds of games more often than not integrate stories and story elements into their experience. The Xbox's flagship shooter series, Halo, would be a mere shadow of itself without its overarching story. All the technical aspects of the game would remain, as would the remarkable graphics and sound. However, the removal of plot from Halo would result in a much less personable, palatable experience for the player. All the game would represent then is an armored person shooting at alien-like creatures with no specified goal or incentive. That, as anybody could see, would get boring and unenjoyable much more quickly than if the storyline was present in the game. This sentiment rings true with Halo’s storyline complexity. But even for a game in which the story is merely tacked on, the story is undoubtedly important for such an experience.
The Halo series would prove a much less immersive experience without the intricate, imaginative storyline and personable characters.
Games With Superficial Stories
Here’s an unconventional exhibit for a game with a tacked-on story: Color Dreams’ Menace Beach. In this 90’s cult atrocity, the player controls a skater on his quest to save his girlfriend from the antagonist, Demon Dan. The two primary incentives for beating the game are: 1.) bragging rights considering how glitchy, bugged, and difficult the game is; and 2.) seeing what the protagonist’s girlfriend looks after her clothes have completely rotted off. Yes, you read that correctly. The girlfriend’s clothes rot after each successive level the player completes, with a brief monologue describing her bitter despair at having your date with her at the malt shop postponed. If that’s not a tacked-on story element, I don’t know what is. That being said, even a simple storyline such as that is enough to get a significant amount of players to at least try the game for what it’s worth. I’ve reached the final of thirteen levels out of curiosity alone just to see if I could defeat Demon Dan and get my date at the malt shop... Alas, that never came to be!
I wasn't kidding when I mentioned the girlfriend's deteriorating clothes. On the other hand, don't you just adore cheesy monologues?
The Last Word
Games are not required to have a story. Games are not required to lack a story. For better or for worse, games involve just the right amount of story for their genre, for their audience, and/or for their creators’ ambitions and intentions. What story does for a game is indispensable, but what it also doesn’t do is similarly vital as well.
When nostalgic videogame forerunners come to mind, Space Invaders is high up there with Tetris and Pong. Space Invaders indisputedly set the pavement for the trendsetting space shooter genre, without a story.
Returning to the story-less realm of nostalgic greats discussed upon up at the beginning of the article, Space Invaders and many similar games comes to mind. The player begins in space piloting a spacecraft that shoots projectiles. The mission: survive for as long as possible, or until the end is reached. There’s no sort of plot or story to accompany the mission, nor is there any obnoxiously direct mention of the mission itself; the mission is truly instinctive in context of the game. The incentive for playing is, if not completion, the high score. Yet, so many people young and old, dead or alive have enjoyed games like Space Invaders, Tetris, and Pong. Proves you don’t need a (compelling) story to hit it big in the industry, huh?