In October 2006, the editors of Gamasutra asked its readership of game industry professionals to chime in and vote for which game brought storytelling forward in the biggest way, from any genre (text adventure through action title to RPG or sim and beyond), and from the early days of video gaming right through to the present day. We were looking for any game which in some way moved, astounded, or engrossed the player through its plot and the way the game evolves through it - and has specifically advanced game storytelling in the largest way. Specifically, we asked:
"Which video game has made the biggest 'quantum leap' in terms of storytelling, and why?"
On the following pages, we'll first present the "honorable mentions" - games that, while certainly innovative and important, did not receive enough votes to make it into the top echelon.
Following this, we'll present the top five best storytellers voted for by our readers, in reverse order, ending with the overall recipient of Gamasutra's third Quantum Leap Award, which received the largest amount of votes from game professionals.
Honorable Mention: The Sims
No other game before The Sims had taken as many options and choices and made it so friendly to all all ages, sexes, and social groups in order for them to create their own families, lives, and neighborhoods in which to tell their own stories. User-centric storytelling is the most powerful form that we have long after the initial narrative dies away. People always love telling fellow game players what they did here or what they accomplished differently over there. Pure narrative and plot only goes so far, but The Sims took the extra step and delivered the story-making tools to the players.
Ben Wari, Hot Thoth Productions
Honorable Mention: System Shock (series)
Forcing the user to build the story piecemeal through personal logs and snippets of information throughout the game created a varied experience for each user. This drove the player to fill the holes in the story with the next log and their own assumptions and imagination. I remember playing System Shock 2 years after playing it for the first time and had a markedly different reaction due to changes in my own perspective. Phenomenal.
Matt Knowles, EA Chicago
Honorable Mention: Marathon
The integration of (often quite long) monologues with recognizable characterizations into gameplay through computer terminals was a brilliant way of keeping the story engaging during gameplay--you never knew whether you'd get smacked in the back of the head while reading your new mission objectives. What's worse, you were more often than not being insulted by some snarky AI. You got the depth of story you wanted--you could play through it without scratching the surface, or you could seek out hidden terminals and try to decipher the bizarre and often garbled stories contained therein, and post with other pale obsessives to the Marathon's Story Page, which still exists at marathon.bungie.org/story. Finally, consider that this game was going up against Doom. Same genre, same era, profoundly different attitude towards story. 'Nuff said.
Honorable Mention: Baldur's Gate 2
Even the smallest of quests in Baldur's Gate II seemed to have a huge impact on the inhabitants of the world around you. You don't just clear trolls out of a castle, you go into the castle and rebuild an heirloom artifact, rescue hiding servants, discover some of the castle's hidden treasures and ally with the castle's young heiress. And after that's done, you can inhabit the castle and help manage its assets, all with the aid of those whom you rescued in the process. Rarely in this game do you go clear out a dungeon, then go back to town and sell your loot and forget it ever happened. This game has done a fantastic job of making each of the player's actions have a lasting impact on the game's characters.
If there's one thing that makes a story great, it's the characters. Baldur's Gate II had tons of unique characters, all with very fleshed out personalities. But one thing that made it a "Quantum Leap" was the integration of these personalities into different situations. Your stoic Paladin buddy may react differently to the horrors of a sinister cult compared to your brooding Drow cleric. And better yet, they may just react to one another, leaving it up to the player to settle their dispute. On the other hand, the game also offers the player a chance to romance with certain characters in the game, a relationship that grows over the course of the adventure, so subtly that the player may not even notice he's in that character's "romance" string.
In a game where the player can choose to be any race, to be good, neutral or evil, and to be any class he wishes, Baldur's Gate II does an amazing job of making the player feel like the story was built just for his character, and that the party he chooses to travel with was hand-picked just for him. Games like Grim Fandango and System Shock 2 have characters, plotlines and deliveries that have really stuck with me, but the fantastic dynamic aspect to Baldur's Gate II give it my vote for the biggest quantum leap in storytelling.
Josiah Colborn, Novo Interactive
Honorable Mention: Jade Empire
Jade Empire had absolutely gorgeous art direction, an incredible original score, and amazing character development. The game had a great plot and excellent pacing. It perfected what Knights of the Old Republic had prototyped with the good/evil character schema, something which was copied by virtually the entire industry. Achieving meaningful play through dramatic decisions and creating situations requiring sacrifices and compromise made the game truly a game and not simply interactive fiction. Few games have ever brought tears to my eyes because of genuine emotion.
Kale Menges, The Guildhall at SMU
Honorable Mention: Gabriel Knight (series)
What I like about Gabriel Knight is that the characters’own views aren’t forced on you, like in a lot of story driven games. Also, a point that stands out is how Jane Jensen actually gives you the background story in the game if you are interested in it. Overall, the writing in the series is consistent and characters act as you’d expect them to act when they take up their reoccurring roles in the later games. I really believe that the Gabriel Knight series was a quantum leap in terms of story telling.
Honorable Mention: A Mind Forever Voyaging
Simply put, [A Mind Forever Voyaging] was one of, if not the, first games with a serious plot. Instead of fantasy (Zork, Ultima) or sci-fi (Star Raiders, Starcross) the story was about politics and modern society. Instead of rescuing the damsel in distress, the goal of the game was to discover if a social policy would result in a better future for mankind. Your "character" was a computer that could simulate the future and you would "live" in that future to see what it would be like. This computer simulation had existed as a mere simulation, living as a man with a wife and child, for years and suddenly found out that it was a computer and that everything it had known was fake. In addition to having one of the best gotcha moments in gaming (anyone remember typing "Ryder" and the way the senator totally freaked out?) it also had one of the greatest endings in the history of videogames. Not only do you find out that the future would have been a disaster under this new policy, your reward is to be put back into the original simulation to be reunited with your "family" to live out the remainder of your life. I was in my early teens when I played this game and I still remember the tears in my eyes at the final paragraphs.
Honorable Mention: Zelda II: The Adventures of Link
Trying to choose one game that has ushered in a new age of unprecedented storytelling is like trying to pick one book amongst all books for the same award. It seems almost impossible. However, after much deliberation with myself, I have settled on Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. While there were NPC's in the first Zelda, and in other games, Zelda II was one of the first games that really sought to breathe life into their townsfolk. NPC's walked around and seemingly had their own agendas. It gave the world a life of its own, instead of being a simple stage for Link's story to unfold upon. Now, this is a standard. Games rarely revert back to the days when NPC's were lifeless - standing in a cave waiting to give you a wooden sword with no personality or reason for their existence.
Fernando De La Cruz, 1st Playable Productions
Honorable Mention: Xenogears
Xenogears re-defined the term 'scope' as it applies to video game story telling. With a story that spanned thousands of years, and took on topics such as religion and the origin of man, Xenogears went where other games were afraid to tread. Lasting well over 80 hours, nearly every plot point and character was fleshed out completely, creating an epic and dynamic story that stands today as one of the greatest examples of video game storytelling.
Chris Gaub, Excell Data Corp.
Xenogears had such an intricate plot, with split personality and reincarnation leading to the best climax ending I have ever seen. And Yasunori Mitsuda's music plunged you deep into the story. I have yet to find another RPG that equals it
Mel Saint Marceaux, BNP Paribas
Honorable Mention: Planescape: Torment
Planescape: Torment had the same emotional effect (which is not to say that it's entirely on the same aesthetic level) on me that The Brothers Karamazov did, a kind of feverish struggling with oneself that I very rarely experience through any medium, be it book, film or game. Furthermore, Planescape: Torment used an unusual approach in that it wasn't about saving the world, nor even was it character driven, but rather it seemed to be question driven, as if the whole game was a riddle. Essentially, it posed profound metaphysical questions with sublime eloquence.
Honorable Mention: Fallout
Black Isle's 'Fallout' was one of the first games with a cinema caliber story, sharp dialogue, and true story-driven objectives. You had a reason to act that was intensely personal. The whole world may have been in danger, but your first priority was always your own friends and family. That you are then rejected and cast out into the wastes, even as their savior, remains one of the most poignant moments in gaming history. Even when you "beat" the game, your character loses that which is most dear to him.
Jamison Moore, USC/ISI
Honorable Mention: Façade
Façade - It's the first game ever to combine truly non-linear plot, natural language input, and drama management.
Honorable Mention: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
[Dreamfall's story] really relates the real world we live in to the non-fiction world of Arcadia indirectly. Playing the game was like reading a novel; indeed, a novel that has come to life through the game. What amazed me was also how each characters' emotions affected me, the player.
Dreamfall comes closest, in games of the past five years, to realizing the dream of interactive storytelling.
Honorable Mention: Indigo Prophecy
Indigo Prophecy (aka Fahrenheit) was immediately engaging and allowed for intuitive multi-path storytelling. The first two acts where actions and inactions had game-affecting consequences were particularly effective storytelling. The use of different player characters, whose actions were directly contrary to the actions of the main character, were great touches and helped highlight the depths of the game's story. Indigo Prophecy took adventure gaming and its focus on storytelling to new heights. Overall, it was an amazing, enthralling, and revolutionary video game.
Jason Blair, Human Head Studios
I believe that Quantic Dream's Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit outside North America) is so far the video game that has, in many aspects, pushed the bar highest in terms of interactive narration. It is the very first game were you actually play the story, with player's actions having real consequences on the scenario and outcome of the journey. The quality of the story, that sucks you in from the first second until the end, the way it was structured, character's back stories and personalities and the way you could actually switch characters to always follow the main protagonist (or not) in a particular scene - like in a movie, the inspiring music (Angelo Badalamenti!) etc..were truly unique. What is also of particular interest is the fact that you really feel the game designers have put a lot of thought into interface and control, for these to be at the service of story and immersion.
5. Grim Fandango
Look, I know everyone's obsessed with non-linear, interactive storytelling in video games, and games like KotoR really made that leap. But we are forgetting that a good story is just a good story - real characters, real plot. The player can never truly be a character in the truest sense of the world. A game like Grim Fandango got it all right. The story was so good and the dialog so lean and fresh that it was a perfectly suitable reward for completing gameplay obstacles. Also, the story and gameplay were not exclusive of each other a la Final Fantasy - every puzzle was derived from the story. Brilliant.
Adam Nash, Ithaca College
Grim Fandango. Simply put, it's the greatest story ever told by a game.
StarCraft was a game that had surprising emotional power, given its somewhat detached in-game perspective. It was the active participation of the player in the unfolding events that made it work so well. When Arcturus Mengsk left Kerrigan to die at the hands of the Zerg, the sense of betrayal was so much stronger for having truly been the one who was betrayed along with Jim and Sarah. Then beginning the Zerg campaign, guilt as the contents of the 'chrysalis' I had been tasked to protect was revealed. Guilt and disgust for having helped to destroy a friend and create the "Queen of Blades."
Starcraft told us the story before the gameplay, completely separating both concepts. Blizzard's design team needed to tell a story with small animations inside little frames and text, simulating strategic communications between races. The result was a perfect excuse for the gameplay. Each mission had an excuse to be, not only "destroy your enemy" but dressed like "we need to conquer this area in order to avoid the Zerg arriving with reinforcements".
Ricardo Carretero, Tragnarion Studios
3. Final Fantasy VII
Final Fantasy VII is the first game I can remember that had a main character die as part of the unavoidable main story path, and the first game that truly moved me to think of games as a medium for creative expression in terms of the storyline's divergence from a linear path. Wonderful, simple storyline that manages to develop the nine characters available to the player to such a degree that you are truly able to describe individual and subtle nuances of their personalities. Side-quests and exploration leading to advances in characters' backstory, highly developed emotional attachment through narrative alone and the ability to really immerse a player deeply in every aspect of the world were features that I really hadn't seen before.
This was the first game that managed to envelop me as thoroughly as a novel could, and has made a lasting impact on me. To this day it is one of the only games that will provoke an emotional response when I hear music from the game (Aeris' theme) - an unmistakable sign of a wonderfully engaging storyline and full, attaching character development that has yet to be matched in my mind.
Ben Keen, Electronic Arts
Final Fantasy VII represented the greatest narrative jump forward for its time, both in terms of scope and depth. From the game's opening sequences, it was apparent that the steam enshrouded cityscape of Midgar was not only a breathtaking vista in and of itself, but provided a dark and brooding atmospheric setting for introducing the story's protagonists. As the dramatic elements unfolded, there were subtleties to the emotional tone of the characters that drew the player into the complex plot, and often elicited a deeply sympathetic response to their struggles. In a medium where a character dying is a customary occurrence, the death of Aeris was both unexpected and unexpectedly moving. These elements set new standards for the difficult process of incorporating compelling storytelling into an interactive world.
Half-Life is the obvious answer, not because it used movie-level production values or deep philosophical conundrums (those would be Metal Gear Solid 2 and Deus Ex, respectively), but because it chose to integrate the storytelling entirely into the gameplay. By eschewing dialogue trees and non-interactive cutscenes, Half-Life cut right to the meat of a FPS, and gave us a peek at what video games can be capable of.
Andrew Swan, Snow Goose Productions
Half-Life introduced a new high bar in immersing the player in a world where he is the hero.
Javier Heredia, DukWorld
Half-Life was the first FPS that used the strengths of the first person view to tell a decent story. The train ride intro was brilliant.
Corey Navage, Day 1 Studios
1. Deus Ex
Not only did Deus Ex include the feel of a branching story line, it also makes an attempt at changing the way your character acts and reacts based on previous actions. Everything from how many people you kill to whether or not you wander around in the women’s bathroom have an affect on other characters’dialog, and yours as well. The game achieved a sense of agency unmatched in any game previous and (in my opinion) every game since, including its own sequel. Just the fact that the plot never felt forced and that there were so many options available to the player throughout the game makes it certainly worth recognition as a quantum leap in game driven storytelling.
Deus Ex made the biggest quantum leap in story telling because it gave the player freedom to choose the method of playing through the story-line, whether the method is violent, sneaky, or skillful.
Vitas Povilaitis, Graceful Boot