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Storytelling in Video Games

Video games, since their inception into modern culture, have always made it a point to try and convey some semblance of a story to the player. And as the technology behind them advances, so does the complexity and richness of the stories they are telling us. In the early days of video games, the hardware had major limitations in how it would allow developers to tell their stories. We will take a look at a few examples of storytelling conventions in the past and then look at how they evolved into what we have available today.

Space Invaders gives away the game's entire plot in two words. Because, seriously, who could tell what was really going on otherwise? The sprites in the game look bug creatures while the artwork on the cabinet showcases a frightening, glowing eyed Sasquatch. If a child were to play the game today with no idea of the title and on an arcade cabinet devoid of any artwork what they would make of it? The enemies look more like crabs and octopus while the player controlled figure is pretty much just a box. But with something as simple as the title and a little accompanying artwork on the side of the cabinet, the game makes more sense and now tells the story of a lone space pilot battling an onslaught of evil invaders, naturally, from space. Space Invaders has gone on to become an iconic symbol of video gaming's humble roots however which there's no mistaking that.

Another iconic game, or rather series, Super Mario had to rely on precisely constructed level and character design to convey a setting and story for player's not already aware of the game's history to enjoy. Super Mario World had a continuous overworld map, a logical continuation from Super Mario Bros 3's segregated world maps which in itself was a continuation of the previous game's themed worlds. Granted, Mario's constant adventuring to save the princess isn't some new untold tale, but having to deal with 8-bit and 16-bit graphics required the developers to be more creative in designing their characters and environments.

Role playing games by nature have always been very story laden games. Now again, thinking back to early gaming before developers like Squaresoft started making multi-million dollar games heavily strewn with expensive cutscenes, developers needed an easy way to get these stories out there. Seeing as they couldn't emulate the same experiences found in the theaters or on television graphically they turned to a low tech source of stories, books. Role playing games were filled with novels of text to tell rich stories, some of which involved tales as grandiose as Homer's Iliad or Odyssey.

Squaresoft's "Final Fantasy VI" told the tale of one characters awakening as a magical hero while she and her ragtag group of friends aide in a rebellion's uprising against an evil emperor. An emperor who wanted to shut out all magic from the world so that he in turn could use his own powers to reign over all. The characters have emotion, they grow and mature as the game progresses, and even relationships are developed and destroyed between various characters as the story progresses. All of this is conveyed in text and 16-bit graphics used in creative ways, even forming small scale custscenes in which the player would sit back and watch as the story would unfold before them.

Modern gaming has technological advances allowing even more creativity in the way a story is presented. With the advent of voice-recording, highly textured character models and more, our stories are able to be more original and emotionally engaging than ever before. 

A game like Space Invaders is still pretty common in today's video game offerings. Series such as Halo and Mass Effect have taken the reigns and run like crazy. 

Mario games haven't changed all that much in terms of story or gameplay but the way the stories are told has evolved greatly. We've now seen the iconic plumber jumping in to magic paintings, visiting paradise islands, and even exploring the depths of space to save his fair princess.

Final Fantasy games have evolved from complex text based stories into highly cinematic, movie-like features.

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