Does a good story make a good game?

Fallout 3 (2003) and Myst (PC 1993)

Now for those of you reading this that don’t have a clue what either of these games are, I’ll give you a quick synopsis. We’ll begin with Myst, because not only is it an oldie, but she’s a goodie. Created in 2003 by Cyan Inc. Myst is a point and click puzzle game that revolves around you, the player, discovering and unraveling the mystery on the Isle Myst. You get taken to different areas, and the the puzzles at times make you want to bash your head onto your circa 1990’s keyboard. But figuring out that puzzle and continuing forward has to be the most rewarding thing on this planet.

That Super Mutant is in for a bad time…

Fallout 3 on the other hand is not a puzzle. It’s a first-person shooter RPG. It’s set in post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. where you, the ‘Vault Dweller’, leave the confines of a corrupt fallout shelter in search for your Father who managed to escape the vault and leave you behind with a million questions. So your character ultimately leaves the vault too in search for your father and thus realistically begins Fallout 3. It’s an open-world environment, and you’re basically free to do whatever you so please, besides shooting children. You’re also free to do it as you wish whether that be nicely or kill everyone and be a dick… or maybe a bit of both!

The reason behind this comparison of games is to really understand is it possible to have a great game, without a story driving the purpose of it? Is a story really necessary in gaming? By examining Fallout 3 and Myst, I’m aiming to discover what a critically acclaimed game known for it’s story and excellent game play and a point and click puzzle game have in common. How did they both attract and retain a significant amount of gamers when they’re both so different from one another? Lets also keep in mind that the original Fallout game was created in 1997 and is the foundation of Fallout 3, and Riven (the sequel to Myst) came out that same year. So realistically, these games are totally comparable.

Beginning with Myst…
You know we’re dealing with some old school games when you see that cursor.

When you boot up the game, there is no back story. The only sort of information you get about the game is a vague description of the game on the box, and this extremely well worded and almost borderline frightening introduction. That’s it. You’re then dropped onto an island with literally no direction, no clues, and usually end up whispering to yourself “What the fuck am I doing?” a few times. It isn’t until you figured out to go into the library, discover no other bits of information and find a piece of paper with some numbers written on it that you’re supposed to go into a hidden door on the dock. I know what you’re thinking… “What?!” It may sound weird however it’s totally enticing. This game is literally so vague and so mysterious you’re determined to understand what the hell happened. There is very little story. Only until you progress further and go to various other ‘worlds’ that you begin to read Atrus’ diaries and discover what happened on this island. However, Myst is not driven by the story, rather the stories are assisting your continuation into the game. You don’t NEED to read the diaries, however they’ll help you immensely. It’s funny that this game spawned 5 more Myst related games, and three books. Not only that, but was adapted to gaming consoles and even smartphones.

Riven is the second Myst game to appear in 1997.

So what is bringing gamers back to this game? Clearly a point and click game can’t be that good, can it? I remembered playing this game when I was 5 years old. It was a valiant attempt to understand, but after 20 minutes of playing I didn’t understand it and decided to play Street Fighter II on my Super Nintendo. But Myst got to me. For years I thought about that game. There was something about it that literally drove me insane thinking about it. I needed to know what happened. How do you beat a game where you have no clue really what’s going on? There was no story but just you and a chilling soundtrack. It haunts you. It was so visually enticing yet managed to emit this desire to beat it even as frustrating as it may have been. At the age of 21, I’m proud to admit that I finally beat Myst.

Fallout 3 on the other hand..
Ahh good ol’ Dad reading some Bible passages. Revelation 2:16

Fallout 3 is the epitome of a story driven game. From the moment you start the game you grow up as a child in the vault. You go to birthday parties, you go to school. He tells you stories about your mother that died, and what he does for a living. Then one day your dad leaves you, and you have no choice but to understand why and you escape the Vault. That’s where the real story begins, and the real tough decisions come into play. Fallout 3 is a story driven narrative that surrounds itself in the idea of post-apocalyptic survival building off the world both Fallout 1 and Fallout 2 created. You wander the wasteland of Washington D.C. and you make every decision to a scenario based on the information that you’ve sought to discover. Every situation has an emotional backstory, and it’s your decision on how you want to deal with it. You have the option of going straight for your Dad and follow the main quest, or veer off and help out others trying to survive (or don’t) and understand their story.

Vaultec’s shining star and your best friend. Vault boy.

Fallout 3 is not only entertaining to shoot things and loot bodies, but the story enhances that 100x more. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, and depending on whichever way you decide to spin it every decision you make leads to an ending based on those decisions. Even while roaming through the city, you may come across old notes, or computer terminals with Good-bye notes or personal diaries. You may also come across business co-workers talking towards another employee in a particularly non-HR friendly way, which are rather amusing. Regardless, story is everywhere and that’s what entices me about this game. I could literally walk my character around in khaki’s and a t-shirt (which I’m almost positive you could do in the game)and look JUST at stories and I’d love it. Fallout has always been the centre of video game storytelling. Creating a fascinating tales about factions and rivals and history that led up to the events of nuclear devastation. As a fellow history lover (I’m not cool enough to call myself a historian) I am very intrigued on their take of how the world will be altered forever, and how society may evolve from possible situations.

So…

In conclusion, does a video game need a story? No. As seen by Myst it’s not necessary. In fact, a lack of story can be just as good as having no story at all! Does that mean that some people will be turned away? Absolutely. People love stories. People want to know what happened or wish to be captivated by a story. Not everything requires elaborate backstories and emotional rollercoasters. Both games use their story to effect the gamer in different ways. Sometimes a great soundtrack and a desire to keep working toward the ultimate goal of beating a game can keep a gamer entertained for days. Fallout 3 enhances the gaming experience though through its use of story. Without the emotional introduction and elaborate storytelling, Fallout 3 would be just another first person shooter game. It would lose it’s desirability and wouldn’t be the game it’s known to be today. Fallout’s ability to use story grabs the attention of the gamer and ropes them in so tight that it hits an emotional trigger that resinates with the gamer to motivate their continuation in the game. Myst does that very thing, but without any story. It drops you into a situation you know no way out of. But by looking for clues and examining small details, things begin to unravel and the gamer subtly understands the backstory and the best way to approach beating the game. Myst begins with complete isolation of story. If it is able to attract the gamer’s attention enough to beat the first puzzle, Myst uses it’s small bits of story to keep the gamer moving forward.

I believe every game has the ability to be great, with or without a story. It’s how they execute and entice that gamer into their world is what makes it legendary.