Last summer I felt the desire to retread an RPG from my childhood. I wanted something simple and familiar. I dug out Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete for the PlayStation and plopped it into my PlayStation 3 to see how it matched my memories. What impressed me most in my trot down memory lane were the lack of complex systems. Classic RPG-fare are here: inventory management, leveling and growing characters through combat experience, and following plot devices — but that’s all there is. No mini-games, no mission list, no side quests, even. The game appears to be most concerned with one thing: guiding the player through the action of a scripted story.
There was something refreshing about this, which got me thinking more about the nature of story-telling in games. There’s an expected tension in game development between narrative and gameplay, with, presumably, the ‘grand prize’ going to that game which can effectively pull off an emotional story exclusively through full player agency. Often cutscenes and scripted moments are regarded as crutches — holdovers from cinema used only to make up for technical and creative limitations. One day perhaps we’ll unlock the code and be free from these shackles and finally have a game with all the freedom of Grand Theft Auto and the emotional punch of The Last of Us. (Maybe Red Dead Redemption 2 is that game. I haven’t played it yet.) Is that the dream?
What if some games just want to tell discrete stories? In Lunar, there is only one path forward. Everything is driven by the story and to play the game is to follow that one story — a story of a boy and a girl, an evil magician, ancient dragons, friendship, and saving the world. There are no alternate paths. There are no hidden dungeons or challenges. There is a world map to wander but it’s strictly gated by the plot. This could have been a movie, TV series, or most likely, a graphic novel, and had no less content to experience. Except, if it were, it wouldn’t be interactive, at least not in the same way. What does the extra interactivity do for it?
Games change pronouns. I believe this is their greatest power. Watching a show, reading a book, “they” (the characters) do things. This is how we talk about our experiences with other people. From stories in movies “they” become friends, “they” overcome challenges. Playing a game, however, morphs the “they” into “I” or “we”: “we” become friends and “we”overcome challenges.
When I was a child — this will be a very simple illustration — one of my favorite movies was “The Lion King.” I watched the movie often and, after finishing each time, I would run around the house pretending I was Simba. I went outside looking for my Pride Rock to roar from. I wondered what it would be like to face Scar and fight him for my kingdom. Thankfully, the local game store had The Lion King for Sega Genesis in stock. I could fight the hyenas. I could run from the wildebeests. I could face Scar, and win. I could be Simba — at least, more than I could watching the movie.
My point is this: I could’ve easily watched or read about Alex and his friends trekking around the world to find lost dragons. Instead, I was able to join them. I got to walk with Zidane to the end of the world (FINAL FANTASY IX), to leap from crumbling buildings with Nathan Drake (Uncharted), and to save Hyrule from Ganon (The Legend of Zelda). I love stories. I think there’s a place in game development forever for linear, interactive story-telling. At the very least it tends to avoid narrative dissonance and respects players’ time. I want to encourage developers to be okay with simple, straightforward games that tell good stories with memorable characters in imaginative worlds, and to be okay with stopping there.
This post was originally written and published on March 2, 2019.