Ever since the days of Resident Evil on the original PlayStation, I’ve been a sucker for a video game’s ability to tell stories beyond the narrative right in front of you. Many mediums, such as movies, comics or even traditional literature, have the theoretical ability to sneak in tales about people or locations that aren’t relevant to the main narrative, but video games have a decisive advantage in the extent to which this can be done.
Games are an extremely flexible, malleable medium for telling stories – some games don’t have a story at all, and they don’t need it, because the experience is in the gameplay. Some games are like movies, the scenes punctuated with segments of pressing buttons to proceed. And then there’s all this stuff in the middle, that also includes astonishingly creative ways to get the story across, sometimes without words entirely.
But the concept that’s closest to my heart in most games is backstory. I’ve always appreciated video game writers who go the extra mile for a game world, and develop history and characterizations that aren’t part of the main path the player will have to take to reach the end of the game. What takes even more talent is telling these stories without actually telling them: the player will have to piece it together from visual cues in the environment and implications in casual comments from characters, and ultimately piece it together using their imagination and skills of deduction as a glue.
I mentioned Resident Evil as the game that got me hooked on supplemental storytelling. That game has, to be honest, an awful story, in terms of the narrative whose arc your main character is following. But that game does have some amazing writing – it’s just not out in plain view, but rather hidden in both the written testimonies of non-present background characters, as well as hints in the environment that you’ll only see if you look around with enough care. The beauty of the story in Resident Evil isn’t in the awkward plot about combat-testing the Tyrant that they put in front of you, but in the somber tales painted by those non-mandatory pieces of information.
A World with a Soul
But Resident Evil is but a small nugget compared to some of the bigger, deeper goldmines of hidden stories out there. Another of my all-time favorite games, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, is unrivaled in the vastness of writing that you may never see, unless you go looking for it. And here, much of it isn’t found in written or spoken words, but simply in the places you find in that immense game world.
Morrowind, too, has a fairly simple and straightforward main story, even though you can dig up much more information about the people and factions involved if you want to – and you should. But what’s uniquely believable about it is that the majority of these underlying stories have nothing to do with the main plot, the main character, or anything that you should really care about; for example, you may end up in a remote village in an exotic region, and find out that not only are there various characters with interesting personal backstories there, but the village itself has a history and a life that makes sense. The game’s story will never intersect with the story of that village or any of its inhabitants, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t stories there. And that’s how it would be in real life.
I’m not talking about a small questline or a punchline that sums up these characters’ lives, either – that’s sort of what they did in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. No – in Morrowind, there is actual culture, history with various viewpoints, allegories and traditions, all put together in a way that makes the district of Vvardenfell seem like it’s a place that actually exists. If you find a town, you can take a look at its surroundings and its location on the map, and discover a logic in why that town is in that particular place, and why its architecture, people and regional culture are the way they are. The same goes for everything else in Morrowind – nothing is there “just because”, but rather, there’s a reason for everything, and that’s what brings the kind of soul to a game world that no amount of scripted daily schedules, full voice acting (which is actually detrimental to the dynamic of a pseudo-living world) or radiant AI ever could.
Depth is Strength
Not all supplemental storytelling needs to be scattered and isolated to be good, of course. It’s also interesting if the writers of a game manage to flesh out a good backstory to the main plot of a game, and discovering that story can be very rewarding indeed. I recently replayed Fallout: New Vegas and completed all of its downloadable add-ons as well, and rekindled my love for the amazing stories Obsidian Entertainment is capable of telling.
The main story of Fallout: New Vegas is already pretty immense – it starts with a simple, personal story of wanting answers or vengeance, and gets blown up into the struggle for the future of the entire region. This all happens in a rather organic way, where the main character doesn’t become a “chosen hero” by some weird cosmic influence, but simply gets caught in a struggle of several powerful factions by chance alone. The character becomes relevant through the deeds they perform throughout the game, rather than being born into a certain role.
The premise still seems simple enough, despite the size of the story – two factions fighting over a landmark that has both symbolic and practical importance, both attempting to gain control of the entire region. A third party is involved in its own way, and the main character ends up in the middle, eventually directing the tide of history. But there’s a lot of detail in that plot if you just look for it; the factions didn’t just appear out of nowhere, and they didn’t just now meet each other. They aren’t just piles of chess pieces either, but rather groups of actual people, some of which are more important than others in context with the main plot.
Furthermore – like with any event in actual history – there’s a lot of things that led up to the situation the game starts with, and the diligent player will find many of those stories just by deviating from the main path and following the threads they discover. There are fascinating characters in the backstory that aren’t meaningful in the story at hand, but that played an important part in what happened before. The characters vital to the main narrative have nuanced histories as well – for example, my first playthrough back in the day had me switch sides from the NCR to Mr. House, because the latter’s monologue about his achievements and purpose were so fascinating. As history is essentially a collection of causes and effects, this kind of backstory is vital in any game that wishes its world to seem believable and interesting.
Still in the realms of stories told by Obsidian Entertainment, another game with very strong background writing is Pillars of Eternity. This is a game that the developers designed from nothing, and they didn’t just wing it: whether you’re interested in geography, the culture or history of the relevant peoples, or even linguistics, Pillars of Eternity has thorough information on all of it, and it makes sense in a way that makes you want to learn more. Again, nothing in this game came out of nowhere, but there’s a distinct causality to everything, from the conflicts some of the nations have fought to the locations of the settlements. Obsidian even paid attention to the different languages, as well as dialects that separate people of similar origins from each other.
The game shows restraint in that it doesn’t parade every bit of that information in front of you; you’re not forced to acknowledge all the work they did to develop this unique world, but instead it’s there for you to find on your own, if you wish. The depth of the lore makes the world believable and dynamic, and that in turn makes learning about it very rewarding. It makes you want to immerse yourself in the world, which is nothing but beneficial in terms of role-playing, especially since Pillars of Eternity puts significant weight on your character’s personality, not just their skillset.
The characters, too, are deep and interesting. They have personal stories stemming from their individual backgrounds, giving them ties to places and people that may or may not mean anything in terms of the main story. Some of them are entirely insignificant until they join up with the main character and go on to make history, but they’re still unique characters that have their own personalities, dreams, fears, and past experiences of pride and shame. You don’t need to know anything about your companions, but learning of them makes them more meaningful, and contributes to the depth of the experience.
While not all games need an immense amount of supplemental stories, many do greatly benefit from it due to how deep it allows the player to dive into the world. It encourages the player to piece together bits of lore that brings the world to life, and gives them an opportunity to use their imagination in order to fill in blanks, which in turn makes the world infinitely larger than it could be with any concrete information. It creates those “water-cooler moments” of discussing the game with fellow gamers, and provokes internal consideration of things found, things unclear and things yet to be learned.
Whether it’s implications that tell a story without telling it, or putting care and effort into developing a background that appreciates a player’s ability to discover and comprehend it, supplemental writing can often make for a much more memorable experience than the direct narrative.