In today’s society, we express ourselves through an indefinite number of creative means. Some use visual means, such as videos, graffiti or artwork, others use actions in order to be heard, but the oldest and most common form of expression which even correlates with the others, is storytelling. In this new age of ‘social’ networking, everyone is linked yet there is no aspect of sociability; in reality. It drives people apart and becomes a way in which relationships are hollow and transparent. Storytelling is a tool that can be implemented into an incredible number of different means allowing people to express their feelings and be heard by others in this deaf world.
In ancient times, a common means with which to tell stories was cave paintings. The subject matter mostly detailed the tribe’s day-to-day lives which consisted mainly of hunting and rituals, so they were the most common paintings. Early storytelling was revolutionised by visuals, as the primitive man had no such control or understanding of their complex vocal capabilities, they communicated their stories by creating a visual representation. These epics that detailed encounters with other tribes and great beasts was one of the cornerstones that brought about modern storytelling as we know it today, be it fiction or not. As the species began to evolve and their communication skills started to progress, so did their stories. They turned from true to life depictions of their feats and struggles into something much larger than life. They exaggerated these tales until their stretched visions became something out of a fantasy epic. These wild exaggerations awe-struck members of the tribe and soon it became common premise to spin unrealistic yet amazing stories. These works of fiction led to the creation of many imaginary answers to unresolvable mysteries, such as bizarre weather or tragic occurrences. These global mysteries eventually became the catalyst for the creation of various tribal gods (that later progressed to the gods we know today), who were blamed for these occurrences forming the brutal rules and rituals that went hand in hand with primitive religion.
Here is a video showing the earliest discovered cave paintings that were created between 15000-13000 BC. They were discovered in 1940 in Lascaux, France.
Word of mouth has always been a consistent way of conveying information and this is true for storytelling also. Sure it has its pro’s and con’s, for example, as the message is conveyed from person to person it gradually alters, little by little, into something exaggerated and far from the original truth, like with Chinese whispers, but it has always proved itself as a tried and true method to spread information quickly. The downside also serves as a great compliment to the storytelling, as it can evolve a mediocre story into a tale of epic proportions.
As the daily activities of primitive man became more and more complex as their economy and intellect grew, their forms of communication began to evolve from simple gestures and noises into complicated actions and sounds that formed the basis of languages. These techniques and noises were recognised by others within their small society and little by little it became a common, ever-evolving means of expression. From early times the species used this communicatory tool as a new means of storytelling, as they started to grow out of illustrating their tales. Not that they didn’t still do this, but it became a secondary means, or used as an aid to go with the verbal tellings.
As time progressed, storytellers came to become valued and highly regarded members of communities. So much so that when they spoke their stories, they were always heard and passed around the community, never dismissed as heresy as foolishness. Their skill in presenting the pure values and raw emotion from a meaningful event in their small history was prided as it allowed them to preserve their deeds through time. Proof of this is how certain stories survived through long periods without any literary means, such as Aesop’s fables and Homer’s stories. They were able to hold on through speech for hundreds and hundreds of years, before they were eventually written down as research and technology allowed people to record these moments. Whilst this gradual conversion to recording stories in script took place, storytellers still held their position because even though their role was becoming redundant, nothing could convey the stories with the same meaning.
Recording stories through text was revolutionary, it granted a way to eternally preserve memories and events. It was combined still with carvings and paintings, as they were a good visual aid, as well as a fast way to present key exerts from a story to a large amount of people. Little did the storytellers know at the time, as well as story writers of the future, that they would become immortalised as their stories were written and re-written, printed and re-printed, in order to share them with as many members of society as humanly possible. A good example of this is Shakespeare, as he never believed that his work would survive, and he didn’t even believe that his work should be recorded, but now he is preserved forever as a legendary playwright.
The greatest example I can possibly show for recorded work however, is the Bible. Be it gospel or fiction, it does not matter, as it is still a huge collection of stories that ‘document’ history with amazing tales that have survived through the ages. Much of the new testament was all accounts and stories heard by word of mouth or retellings of events seen by others, which later become part of this huge collection. It has become globally renowned enough to form religions, cause wars and provide reason for people to live their lives. Is this not the greatest status a storyteller could hope for their stories to achieve?
The method of storytelling has always been an ever-evolving and ever-experimental thing, as culture and technology grows, so does storytelling as a whole. There is no true, primary tool to tell stories, as they are all widely recognised and widely used and it varies as you travel to new areas of the world and experience new cultures. As contested as methods are, at heart storytelling is simply a means to convey emotion from one person to another.
Bringing this history lesson into the not so distant past, 1978 to be precise, I going to talk about how storytelling itself ties in closely with the video game industry. In the beginning, technological capability was minimal which vastly restricted the depth that could be achieved at the time, this resulted in many minimalistic and simple games with basic gameplay mechanics to be released. An example of this is Space Invaders, the narrative is almost non-existent, and as with the other games of its time, there was no explanation as to the plot or what was going on as it was easily readable through the simple task you had – to defend the planet from an incoming onslaught of alien ships. Due to the lack of resources, game narratives had to be obviously summed up with the gameplay and art itself, this was fine though as it was such a revolutionary new medium that people didn’t care about anything other than the fun of the game itself. The closest development teams could get to exploring narrative further was just by adding more depth to the storytelling through gameplay and art. That said, plots that should have been very simple sometimes became nonsensical and confusing to understand, take Pac-Man for an example, what part of a round ball eating dots and being chased by carnivorous ghosts that suddenly became blue and would be eaten by their prey makes sense? None, but that was all part of the fun of arcade based games of the late -70’s and early -80’s.
It didn’t take long for technology to expand though, in only 5 years from the release of Space Invaders, the first home console called the Nintendo Entertainment System was released. Over the course of it’s 7 year life (before its successor was released) there were an incredible number of released titles that evolved over that period as developers experimented with and built upon their previous releases or previous ideas. As gameplay mechanics became more complex and experiences were experimented with, the first signs of storytelling became apparent. The level of depth and the techniques used to tell the stories varied hugely, some using a lot of interaction with characters and dialogue, whilst others remained completely silent. The first example I will talk about is Metroid. The interaction between you and the character is very raw, as it is completely based on how the game immerses you in it’s systems. The dialogue-silent game focuses on using art and music to guide you emotionally through the game. You were able to better relate and immerse yourself in the character and universe as they were very mysterious, you weren’t forced into a particular role. There wasn’t originally any signs of gender or appearance as they always wore a futuristic suit complete with mask. This was almost like a blank canvas for players to emotionally and imaginatively paint their own thoughts onto.
My next examples are the three Super Mario Bros. games, however I will start with their arcade predecessor – Donkey Kong. This is considered the first game that’s plot actually unfolds on-screen which it does through the use of employed cut-scenes. Whilst they are short and basic they give a good overall feel for the story. The character Jumpman (later to become Mario) was created to be easily relatable as a workman type, which was displayed through his attire (hat and dungarees). The plot starts with Donkey Kong kidnapping a young woman who appears to be Jumpman‘s girlfriend, as he then goes onto battle through multiple levels, avoiding objects and eventually defeating the villain. Upon completion, the game plays another short cut scene depicting on-screen romance between Jumpman and the now saved lady through the use of the easily recognisable heart symbol.
After the huge success of his arcade hit, Shigeru Miyamoto went on to create 3 more Mario games on the NES. Both the first and third follow the same ‘save the princess‘ trope, which is also used in most of the later titles too. Like Metroid, they extensively experimented with the new available hardware and produced increasingly technologically advanced games. They started using very basic graphics to explore a variety of game mechanics that later became common standard for other games of the genre. The third game was very similar to this however the updated art and newly included features built upon the narrative very well, as allowed the player to gain a good overview of what was going on, and the designers managed to bring out certain emotions from the players at certain moments in the game with minimal effort because they had been guided so well through the plot with graphics alone.
If we now skip ahead to 1997, the industry has become much more defined, with developers having a much more set archetype to follow when it comes to games. There was a lot less experimentation in terms of game mechanics simply because there didn’t need to be; back in the -80’s everything was yet to be made, there was nothing to guide the developers, no one saying “these mechanics worked well in the past, lets build on these and remove these”, etc. The game industry had become much more of an art form with which developers could build their own universes with prior releases as inspiration in order to create something innovative and revolutionary. In terms of storytelling, it developed differently based on what genre you are looking. It became something that’s necessity varied completely on the type of game being played. For example a casual, fun game aimed at young gamers had much less of a story or plot and the game focused a lot more on the mechanics and simply how fun it would be. However, as you moved into games of the RPG genre, you delved into a lore-heavy, story driven industry. I chose 1997 as the year we would move to as that is the year that the game highly regarded as the pinnacle of studio Square Enix‘s career was released. Final Fantasy VII. The Final Fantasy series has pushed boundaries and helped to define the RPG genre as a whole, with every release building on a new set of mechanics and grafting a compelling story set in a universe we’ve all come to love. Final Fantasy VII weaves together the tales of 9 nine playable characters, each with their own rich and unique backstories, into one epic adventure that lifts the player through a broad range of emotions. Whilst the story itself is linear, the open-world setting of the game provides the player with plenty of time to explore and immerse themself in the rich and beautiful world. This fools the player into feeling a sense of freedom in a game where everything is already pre-defined and there is no real choice.
Jumping ahead into the future once more, there is one final example I would like to share with you that relates to modern-day gaming. It’s incredibly impressive to look back from the point we are now and to see the way that games have evolved even over such a short span of time. In just 30 years technology has leaped forward at rates that couldn’t have possibly been predicted, allowing for innovative new techniques to be spawned with each home console and development kit release. It has gotten to the point now where the possibilities are almost limitless, which in turn means that the level of detail that can be invested into immersing players into a story and universe is only limited to the time spent on creation. An example of a game with such a level of world detail and lore is Skyrim. The open world game has so many different possibilities and quests that it really feels that you are a free adventurer able to go out and do whatever you want. As you explore the world and fight against the random world events it brings about nostalgia of the classic games that guided the story through gameplay alone, as you basically forged your own character and backstory in your mind. Even when you interacted with the other characters and npcs there were various dialogue options and different options as to how a situation could turn, adding a level of depth that was rare because it felt like the story you were venturing through was unique to you.
Narrative and storytelling, whether it is in a short, basic mobile game or a rich, in-depth role-play gaming is a vital element to the industry. The difference between a mediocre game and an amazing one is they way in which the developers combine the narrative elements and the gameplay together into something truly beautiful. The narrative breathes life into a set of pictures, it creates an immersive, 3-dimensional universe from a flat idea; it is truly wondrous how a simple story can transform a player’s perspective. This is something that has reigned through history, in the same way that storytellers were heralded thousands of years ago, they were never taken off that pedestal. Whilst they aren’t as globally recognised, you can see that the real works of art are distinguished above the others because of the fact that they’ve had someone with that special skill working on it. This is my perspective on the way storytelling has been shaped through the ages and how it has been implemented and woven into the games industry.
Thanks for reading.