The maturation of narrative in video games

SuperData analyst Courtney Sanders discusses why rich storytelling is a key reason why games are earning big.

Beginning in the 1990s to the early 2000s, a surge in both the quality and quantity of scripted TV shows brought on the modern incarnation of the golden age of television. Shows like Twin Peaks, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones continually set the bar for modern television. As independent platforms continue producing creator-driven content outside of the influence of network regulations, storytelling will continue to evolve. Similarly, the gaming world is experiencing a similar shift as creators as large developers are budgeting more resources into their game narratives to create more diverse and immersive stories that can only be effectively told through an interactive medium.

It’s true that indie games like Undertale have been telling deep stories for years. Small teams consisting of only a few developers can experiment with storytelling without major publishers’ concerns for mainstream marketability. Among the giants, however, storytelling in video games has always been a topic of debate. AAA game narratives have been criticized for playing second fiddle to gameplay, which are usually the real star of the show. However, gamers who play single-player games enjoy them for their story just as much as they enjoy them for gameplay mechanics like combat, exploration, and puzzle solving.

Due to the demand for better storytelling, mainstream games are making bigger leaps into nuanced writing as creators are given more freedom to make their own creative decisions. Themes like romance, sexuality, and family are being treated as more than just side dishes to an extravaganza of hacking or shooting. Compare God of War (2005) to God of War (2018), both critically acclaimed games in the same franchise. The first title, while thrusting the player into an epic and compelling world, is fairly straightforward; the main character, Kratos, is primarily motivated by rage. God of War (2018) presents a more emotional story about a father and son while still retaining the satisfying, violent gameplay of its predecessors. Naughty Dog’s franchises The Last of Us and Uncharted offer the players a highly cinematic experience.

Game narratives do not have to imitate the success of TV shows, they can also be tailored to fit the interactive medium of video games. The major reveals of NieR: Automata’s existential storytelling could not have been effectively presented as a TV show or movie. In order to obtain the first two endings of the game, players must complete the same campaign twice. The redo of a significant portion of the game works due to the differences caused by gameplay mechanics.

The surging emphasis of rich storytelling in games is a key reason why story-driven titles are earning big. During their respective launch months, The Witcher 3 earned $69M, Uncharted 4 made $56M, and God of War raked in $131M in total digital revenue. These results show that there is a significant demand for narrative experiences among gamers.