When John Carmack and the id Software team were creating games in the early 90’s, they developed the underlying game engine first before ever putting pen to paper. Carmack would add a new feature to his already breakthrough engine (like a new rendering system or physics model) and then show it to the rest of the team. Then, rather hastily, game designers John Romero and Tom Hall would think of a random story just to give the playing experience some context. Most times, the game’s story, level designs or characters were created specifically to show off Carmack’s new code.
In fact, the story Tom Hall wrote for Doom was scrapped entirely. Carmack’s new game engine was so fast and furious, the id team thought, no gamer wanted to waste time watching cutscenes and reading backstory. Apparently, they were right: Doom and Doom 2 sold millions of copies in the 90’s and, to this day, it remains the creative fountain that many current games draw from.
Finally (and fortunately) these days are over. In the early days of gaming, each new console, graphics card or operating system brought along significant advancements, which gave programmers like Carmack greater freedom to build mightier and quicker game engines. Entire systems alone were sold due to the “graphics being better” (Nintendo 64 over the Super Nintendo). Sega had the bright idea to try and convince gamers to buy a console based on graphics too - the Dreamcast. It didn’t work, but it was a sign of times to come: gamers no longer needed consoles with powerful graphics, lighting and physics capabilities.
I can point to several examples to help prove this point. The Nintendo Wii, with its barely last-gen graphics capabilities and weak third-party lineup, is one. The fact that there has been no talk of successors to the five-year-old Xbox 360 and PS3 is another. Here’s some more: the popularity of casual gaming (Facebook, iPhone), the decline of PC-only releases, the resurgence of of user-created games and levels (indie games, level editors), and the continued support and fanaticism for World of Warcraft.
All of those examples show that the revelry for a game’s outer-shell - the graphics engine, the lighting capabilities and all that - is no longer top priority for the world’s gamers.
So what’s left? The very thing John Carmack and id Software didn’t believe what was neccessary in 1994: story. Eyecandy has lost its flavor - now, the concept of an interactive and participatory story is what will keep people coming back.
Rockstar Games’ recent masterpiece Red Dead Redemption is a perfect example of this. While the graphics are still amazing, it’s the pull of the main character’s troubles that makes the player continue on. These days, games without a strong multiplayer component rarely succeed. Red Dead’s single player story is so engaging the outcome of the tale feels like the your responsibility.
And, finally, the ending of the game is an experience never before felt in video games. To make the player build an emotional connection to the character’s situation and relationships, Rockstar Games lets one live the daily life of a wild west rancher for several hours. The player becomes comfortable and safe in his new situation, and he waits to ride off into the sunset. This priming makes the eventual climax of the game even more powerful.
Experiences like those are the events that stay with you, the player. Other games have had impacts similar to this: the airport scene in Call of Duty 4, the ending revelation in BioShock, and the “save-file” continuation in Mass Effect 2.
Those experiences, and the strong stories that compliment them, will drive the future of gaming. Yes, new technology is being introduced (Kinect, Move, 3D), but technology should help players build a stronger connection to the story. Games started with no story - we should be getting closer to Hollywood as the time passes, not further away.
Even John Carmack agrees. Doom 3, released in 2004, was based on Tom Hall’s original story for Doom 1. Carmack’s new game, Rage, is a story-driven epic that promises to question modern conventions.
People can play games to pass time, yes. Games should be easy, simple to learn and fun. But that doesn’t mean there doesn’t need to be a story. It also doesn’t mean the story needs to suck. Every game should strive to leave a lasting impression on gamers, like Red Dead Redemption did. Whether a game appears on an iPhone screen or a 3D screen, there’s an opportunity to engage and touch the emotions of the player and it shouldn’t be thrown away.
- Cody Corona