The History of Storytelling in Video Games


The curation and design of a museum exhibition requires an extensive understanding of its theme and content.  Everything from the artifact labels and placement to the overall flow of the exhibit requires consideration and knowledge of the artifacts as well as the overall topic.  For this reason, we felt it was necessary to do a significant amount of research on the topic of our exhibition, the history of storytelling in videogames.

            The following section describes the history of storytelling in videogames.  It not only focuses on specific games that had a significant impact on storytelling, but it also gives an overall synopsis of the evolution of videogames as a method of presenting story.   Due to the fact that the artifacts are the primary focus of this exhibition, we paid special attention to highlighting their relevance. Our coverage in this next section is not fully linear since different sagas and genres overlapped each other.  This is particularly evident toward recent times, when simple storylines developed branches and different plots.  


The Video Game Era


In the beginning there was the simplest of all storylines; the protagonist vs. the antagonist. You either won or lost.  The technology at the time could not meet the requirements for detailed graphics or immersive plots, and it held back developers from including much story in early games. Despite the lack of more sophisticated technology and storylines in the 70s, there were still important developments.  Many video game genres were developed that would serve as a foundation for storylines to come.  Due to the limited technological advances during this time, it was quite common for a video game to contain simple graphics such as shapes and lines.  A popular and memorable game developed by Nolan Bushnell in 1972, Pong, is an excellent example of the simplicity and limitation of video games (Damaria & Wilson, 20, 2004).  This game featured two lines that acted as paddles along boundaries of the video screen, and a square “ball” to be bounced back and forth by these paddles. 

Games comprised entirely of text commands were popular as well.  William Crowther began developing a game that he created for his two daughters so as to bring himself closer to them once again.  The program was based on maps he had created of nearby caves. His game was inspired by a Dungeons and Dragons fantasy role-playing game he played called The Mirkwood Tales (featured in the exhibit) created by Eric Roberts.  Crowther added a few elements to the game, giving it a slight fantasy theme, and dubbed it Colossal Cave..  His daughters enjoyed it and gradually the program was spread to other machines over the internet.  In 1976, Don Woods came across this program and decided to contact Crowther to see if he could expand the program further.  With the original author’s consent, he added a distinct Lord of the Rings theme to the gane, incorporating touches such as a troll, elves, even a volcano inspired by Mount Doom in the trilogy (Adams, 2005).  It was around this time that the game was renamed Adventure, which stuck with the game throughout the rest of its life.  A small blurb from the game is written below.

Somewhere nearby is Colossal Cave, where others have found fortunes in treasure and gold, though it is rumored that some who enter are never seen again. Magic is said to work in the cave. I will be your eyes and hands. Direct me with commands of 1 or 2 words. I should warn you that I look at only the first five letters of each word, so you'll have to enter "northeast" as "ne" to distinguish it from "north”.


            This simple introduction begins the game Adventure.  It is unknown whether this is the original text by Crowther or from a different version created (Jerz, 2, 2001).  However, it is known is that the game began at a building near the cave.  With various text prompts giving details of the player’s location or of events that happen, decisions must be made by the player and the game becomes an intricate maze based off of those decisions.  Woods’ work pops up often in the form of a barrier that the player must cross to continue; for example, a troll who will attempt to kill you if you don’t kill him first (Adams, 2, 2005).  

This simple start opened up a world of possibility for beginning programmers excited at the sight of a game that had an expandable plot as this one did.  From its humble beginnings, the game quickly became the “most famous, most modified, most ported, and most pirated game in the history of Interactive Fiction” (O’Brien, 7, 1999).  Many different authors took the original layout for the game and added new rooms, items, and puzzles.  An interesting standardization in naming came about for these games; as the game was made more complex, it would be commonly renamed by the new potential number of points that can be scored.  Some spinoffs didn’t even contain a similar plotline, such as John Laird’s Haunt built in 1979, but provided a style inspired by Adventure. 

The first significant spinoff of Adventure was a game produced in 1977 by MIT students Dave Lebling and Marc Blank, known as Zork.  This game, written for the PDP-10, provided a similar feel to the original Adventure game but was actually completely rebuilt from the ground up (Persson and Meier, 1, 2005).  The name was actually simply a common name given to any unfinished prototype at MIT, but even with a proper renaming to Dungeon, the name Zork still stuck.  Two years later, they marketed the game with the help of then-named Personal Software (later known as Visicorp).  Many other versions made it to commercial sales, and in 1978 even Adventure itself was ported to the Atari VCS. 

            Along the same time, producers recognized the potential for video gaming as a marketing spin-off to already popular media, such as television shows or movies.  With its popularity increasing, video gaming opened a world of resources and possibilities to promote such current media.  One example, included in our exhibit, is the Star Trek series.  By 1976 video gaming was becoming a regular pastime, and games based on the series were released.

            The start of the 1980s marked the video gaming industry’s second decade.  The Atari VCS console was introduced in the 1970s, but sales were about to soar again due to the increasing popularity of video games (Demaria, 56, 2004).  Home computer usage drastically increased during this decade, which attracted game developers to take advantage of these platforms.  The 1980s is arguably the most innovative era, since developers could implement in-depth storylines, and cutting edge graphics into their games.  There seemed like there was no turning back for the video games industry.

            The Apple II computer was released in 1977 which resulted in independent developers using these machines to develop video games (Bellis, 2005).  VisiCalc for the Apple II and soon thereafter, Lotus 1-2-3 on the IBM PC helped legitimize personal computers and increase sales.  In turn, this meant many more potential customers for these games.  Commodore and Amiga made a valiant attempt at being a force in the Home PC market with the release of the VIC-20, Commodore, and Amiga PCs, but IBM and Apple had a firm grip on this industry.  Most of the games developed during this era were made for these systems.

Text-parsing games continued to be extremely popular heading into the early 1980s.  These games allowed the player to become immersed in the game environment by reading the text pushed onto the screen.  Players would be able to react to what is happening, and then type commands to manipulate the characters and game environment.  Most of these games were adventures, which were dominated by exploration, puzzle solving, and interaction with the main characters.  Compared to previous arcade games, these games focus on storyline and plot instead of mindlessly testing reflexes.

One popular text-parsing computer game included in the museum exhibit is Zork.  This game was officially released in 1980 by Blank & Liebling, and published by Infocom.  It was the first commercially released text-parsing adventure games ever released for the computer (first released on the TRS-80), and was the direct successor to the mainframe game Adventure.  The premise of the game is that you are a fearless adventurer who has been inspired by stories of the legendary realm of Quendor (also known as the Great Underground Empire).  The empire was one of the mightiest in the world, but collapsed a few decades ago and the caverns lie empty (Wong, 2001).  The objective of the game was to collect all of the nineteen treasurers and place them in the house’s trophy case.  The plot for this adventure game was very straightforward, but enabled the players to be immersed into the gaming world.  Numerous sequels to Zork were released throughout the 1980s and 1990s to continue the epic adventure.  Most notably, Zork III was released in 1984, and is also incorporated into the museum exhibit.

Ken and Roberta Williams released their first game Mystery House in 1980.  The married couple developed the computer game in their home office, which happened to be the kitchen (Demaria, 134, 2004).  The company at the time was known as On-Line systems, but later changed its name to Sierra On-Line.  Mystery House was the first adventure based text parsing game which also combined graphics for the Apple II (It was later released on the PC).  Some of the graphics for the game are shown in Figure H1.  Before this game was released, text based adventure games like Zork and Adventure were the norm.  This was the first commercial computer game that contained real graphics.  The game sold eighty thousand copies, which allowed the couple to produce three more games in 1980, and seven more in 1981 (Demaria, 134, 2004).  The objective of the game is to simply go into the “mystery house” and to steal the jewels that are hidden within.  The game itself did not innovate much on the storytelling side, but it led to the development of extremely popular Kings Quest, Space Quest, and Police Quest series of games released by Sierra On-Line (Demaria, 134-138, 2004).

Figure H1

A Screenshot from Sierra Online’s Mystery House (Mystery House, 2003).  This is one of the early text-parsing graphical adventures.


There were other developers who made text-parsing adventure games as well.  Scott Adams is an icon in the industry and founded Adventure International in 1978.  Throughout the late 70s and early 80s, twelve games were released by the company including Adventureland, Pirate Adventure, and Secret Mission (Adventure International, 2005).  One game that is included in the exhibition is Savage Island (Part 1 & 2) which was released in 1982.  The player starts the adventure on the beach of an island, and the objective is to solve a mystery of a hidden bottle of rum that is found on the beach.  This game also combines text-parsing and graphics to make it immersive for the player.

Akalabeth was released in 1980 for the Apple II.  It is another combined text-parsing and graphical adventure game.   It was developed by Richard Garriott, and published by California Pacific.  The plot of the game is to traverse the land of Akalabeth, and defeat the monsters as ordered by Lord British (Demaria, 118, 2004).  Unlike most Role-playing games where the objective is to remove some-all powerful evil, the player is questing towards self improvement to become an Avatar (Schultz, 2000).  The player’s goal is to learn the eight virtues of the Avatar to understand how they are derived from Truth, Love and Courage.  Even though only thirty thousand copies of the game were sold, it led to the creation of the highly popular Ultima series.  Both Ultima I and Ultima IV: The Quest of the Avatar are featured in the exhibit.

The Temple of Apshai is a popular role-playing game originally released by Epyx in 1980 for the Apple II computer.  In this game, the player’s goal is to seek treasure in a dungeon while defeating the monsters that lie within (Temple of Apshai, 2005).  The storyline for this game is minimal, but is still extremely immersive due to the combination of text and graphics to describe the rooms and artifacts in the game.  Pen and paper Role-playing games were extremely popular during the early 1980s, which translated into success for this computer game.  There were several add-ons released, including the Upper Reaches of Apshai, which is featured in the museum exhibit, and the Temple of Apshai: Curse of Ra.  A copy of the original game was not found, but the expansion pack was readily available.  The Role-playing game genre is extremely important in the history of storytelling in video games, which makes it imperative to have in the exhibition.  Role-playing games were

The early 1980s brought on many arcade game classics.  Even though these games did not contain the most in depth and sophisticated methods for telling story, they did help evolve the gaming industry.  Many of the games contained high quality graphics, and sound to immerse the player in the game.  The most popular games also had addictive, and action packed gameplay.

The first smash hit game released that reached the mainstream in the 1980s was Pac-Man, released by Namco.  The idea for this game came from the Japanese Programmer, Toru Iwatani, when he was staring at a pizza and noticed that there was one slice missing.  Quite possibly, “It may have been the first and only time a game concept was inspired by an Italian entrée” (Demaria, 62, 2004).  The storyline for this game was very simple; the main character, Pac-Man, was a hungry character whose goal was to eat little dots on the screen, and had to dodge his enemies within a maze.

            Pac-Man’s true significance is that there had never been a “real character” in a video game up until this time.  In all of the previous game environments, games featured “nameless cars, spaceships, and featureless stick figures” (Demaria, 62, 2004).  Pac-Man was the first true video game superstar, and joined the ranks of pop icons such as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny.   Pac-Man’s success spawned the “first real licensing craze with toys, lunchboxes, Pac-Man cereal, popular songs, and even a Saturday morning cartoon show”.  There were well over a dozen sequels made, including Ms. Pac-Man, Professor Pac-Man, Pac-Man 2, and Baby Pac-Man (Demaria, 62, 2004).

            Another Arcade video game that had massive sales and a huge impact on the industry is Defender, developed by Eugene Jarvis and produced by Williams.  The objective of the game was as follows; “Your mission, as a captain of the Defender, is to protect the humanoids stranded on the planet from their alien abductors” (Coin-Op Museum, 2005).  As true with most arcade games up to this point in time, the storyline is not very sophisticated.  There game did not feature any cut scenes, and didn’t immerse the player in the game world.  The real breakthrough with this arcade game is that it is the first game to incorporate a virtual world.  Radar is used to alert the player where the enemies are located (Demaria, 61, 2004).  At a trade show in Chicago, Illinois, the game was deemed a flop because of the high level of difficulty (Coin-Op Museum, 2005).  Contrary to the predictions, it became the highest grossing video game of all time, alongside with Pac-Man.  Both of these games have earned more than one-billion dollars each (Coin-Op Museum, 2005).

            Nintendo’s Donkey Kong was released in 1981, and is featured in the History of Storytelling exhibit.  The game “is about a gorilla that runs away from his master, a carpenter, and steals the carpenter’s girlfriend.  The carpenter must chase the gorilla through a series of industrial settings to rescue the girl” (Demaria, 82, 2004).  This video game introduced the “save the princess” theme that is used in many later games, including those designed by Shigeru Miyamoto.  The game is in the exhibit is because of its highly innovative plot which paved the way for future games in this genre.

            Activision released the highly innovative game Pitfall in 1982.  To continue the trend with most of the games made during the 1980s, the plot is very basic.  The main character, Harry, must run around through the jungles and collect all of the treasures that were hidden in Enarc (Brundage, 2005).  The game definitely did not make any breakthroughs in regards to storytelling, but Pitfall is the first game with a side scrolling environment (PS3 Portal, 2003).  A screenshot showing the side-scrolling environment is in figure H2.  This style of game allows the player to control the main character in a 2-Dimensional environment.  In most side scrolling games, the player has to run, jump and sometimes duck to avoid obstacles, and fight through many enemies in order to reach the goal.  Pitfall laid the groundwork for future side scrolling games, including the popular Super Mario Brothers and Lode Runner games.

Figure H2

This is a screenshot of the side-scrolling environment in Activision’s Pitfall (Brundage, 2005).


            Another game featured in the exhibit is Castle Wolfenstein, by Muse Software.  The game was not a huge technological breakthrough, but the gameplay was very intense and exciting.  The objective is for you (the prisoner) to escape from the castle while avoiding or killing any of the Nazi guards (Castle Wolfenstein, 2005).  This game offered an overhead view of the action, which paled in comparison to the 2-D side scrolling games offered in arcades and console games.  This was the first game to implement sampled speech in a computer game. ID software purchased the rights to the game and created highly successful sequels in the 1990s (Castle Wolfenstein, 2005).

Even though the 1980s introduced many new games to the market, this era also endured the biggest flops and failures in the industry.  The biggest single video game flop in history is Atari’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (PBS, 2005).  This video game was designed, programmed and debugged in six weeks.   Immediately after the development cycle, over five million copies of this video game were produced for the Atari 2600, which exceeded the number of systems available at the time.  The vast majority of these game cartridges were unsold, which resulted in Atari sending the extra copies to the landfill (PBS, 2005).

            The big video games industry crash started late in 1983.  Numerous companies went bankrupt, but this turned out to be more of a shakeout than a crash (1983 crash, 2004).  With the combination of the already poor economy, the quality of games rapidly declined, the overly aggressive and expensive marketing practices by the game developers, and low sales caused the crash.  During this time, critics argued that video games were overexposed.  “Every company in existence had decided that they could make money in the video game marketplace” (1983 Crash, 2004).  Companies including Kool Aid and Chuck Wagon dog food had contracted developers to make video games to help promote their products.  Even Quaker Oats had their own video game division during this time.  The industry simply had not matured enough at this time to enter the mainstream market.  The games did not appeal to the mass market, which caused so many of these companies to go bankrupt.

            Another reason why the industry spiraled downwards is because of the success of many classic games including Pong.  Numerous video game manufacturers released “almost identical games, which left the customers unable to differentiate between them” (1983 Crash, 2005).  This all resulted in the massive shakeout of the industry, forcing companies such as Mattel, Magnavox, and Coleco to abandon the industry all together.  In 1982, the revenues for the entire game industry exceeded three billion dollars.  By stark contrast, the revenues in 1985 were a pitiful one hundred million dollars (Thomas, 2003).  The video games industry was virtually dead in the United States.

Despite the massive downturn, the video games crash had a positive effect on the industry.  The shakeout forced developers to create new, original, and high quality games.  The release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1986 turned the industry back the right direction (PBS, 2005).  Super Mario Brothers was released for the NES, and this saved the video games industry.  The game is a milestone in the video games industry, is on display in the exhibition, and can be played in the interactive room.  The game successfully combined the “save the princess” theme which made Donkey Kong very popular, along with the side scrolling environment that Pitfall first created.  As with any “save the princess” theme based game, the plot was very simple; Mario and his brother Luigi had to rescue Princess Toadstool from the grasp of the evil Bowser Koopa (Demaria, 236, 2004).  When the game is started, the player is immediately placed in the game world.  The only explanation of the plot is in the manual that was included with the game.  The game’s state of the art graphics and gameplay makes it a timeless classic.  Figure H3 below shows the brilliant graphics that were incorporated into the game.  It spawned dozens of sequels (with many more to come), a cartoon, a movie, and many merchandise product lines.

Figure H3

Screenshot of Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers, which saved the video games industry. (Gamekult, 2000)


            Another monumental game released for the NES in 1986 is The Legend of Zelda.  This game is also featured in the exhibition, and in the interactive room due to its popularity, and innovative storytelling. This game followed a much more complex version of the highly successful “save the princess” theme, and became a smash hit.  In the land of Hyrule, there was a princess named Zelda.  An evil being named Ganon came to Hyrule in search of the Triforce, which is a legendary golden triangle that granted mystical powers to the beholder (Legend of Zelda FAQ, 2004).  Ganon managed to find the Triforce of Power piece, which made him a force to be reckoned with.  His next goal was to find the second piece, called the Triforce of Wisdom.  He knew that Princess Zelda possessed this Triforce, so he went after her.  Zelda managed to split the Triforce of Wisdom into eight shards, and hide these in elaborate underground dungeons scattered throughout the land.  Ganon did manage to capture Zelda, but she sent out her bodyguard Impa for help.  Ganon and his troops were able to corner Impa in the middle of the wilderness.  The young hunter named Link showed up at the right place at the right time.  He was able to fend off Ganon and his minions.  Once the enemies were gone, Impa told Link the entire story, and then he vowed to be the hero and save Princess Zelda and the land of Hyrule (Legend of Zelda FAQ, 2004).  Link’s quest was to find all of the eight shards of the Triforce of Wisdom hidden throughout the dungeons.  Once he became powerful enough to enter Ganon’s lair, he would have to slay him, rescue the princess and save Hyrule from the madness.  Compared to all the other games released at the time, The Legend of Zelda had a very in depth and enticing storyline.  It is often considered as one of the great adventure gaming classics.  On the technological side, it was the first console game to incorporate a save game feature, and had a very original style of gameplay.  The save game feature allowed players to experience the game at their own pace.  This allowed players to play for as long as they pleased, and return at the exact same state at a later time.  The implementation of this feature allowed developers to make longer and more immersive games which had a long continuous storyline.  Up until this game, most games were 2-D side-scrollers.  The Legend of Zelda featured an overhead view to give the players a better view of the action.  Even though the game was not a true RPG, it is often considered a founding father for the genre.  Even though RPGs such as the Zork and Ultima were developed in the past, they didn’t hit the mass market until the late 1980s and early 90s.  Many sequels spawned from this original game, including Zelda II: The Adventure of Link also for the NES, and many other versions for future consoles developed by Nintendo Incorporated.

            Also during the same year, Electronic Arts released the popular Starflight computer game.  In this game, the player took on the role as a captain in a state of the art starship, which was created to rescue a “dying homeworld in a seemingly barren galaxy” (Starflight, 2005).  The game allowed the player to explore hundreds of planets throughout the galaxy.  The plot for this game was seemingly one dimensional and linear at first, but it turns out to be quite a “space opera of epic proportions containing shocking plot twists and deep mysteries” (Starflight, 2005).  This game is most widely known amongst the industry as pioneering open-ended gameplay.

            In late 1987, the smash hit Mega Man was first released for the Nintendo Entertainment System.  This is another classic side scrolling game (Mega Man Game FAQ).  In this game, Dr. Light “has created nine new robots made to help in production and maintenance of Megaopolis, a major city where humans and robots alike live together in harmony with each other” (Kishan, 2001).  Dr. Light’s assistant, Dr. Wily, however stole six of the robots from the lab and reworked them to plan on taking over the city, and the entire world.  The remaining three robots, Mega Man, Proto Man, and Roll must work together to stop Dr. Wily before it is too late (Kishan, 2001).  Once again, the plot for the game is very simple as common with most of the games produced in the 1980s.  Unlike most games released at the time, Mega Man allowed the player to beat the game in a non-linear fashion.  Before entering a level, the player has a choice of which world and boss to defeat before encountering the next one.  After each boss robot is destroyed, Mega Man is given a new weapon.  The strategy involved in choosing which boss to attack first is very important if the player wants to have the easiest time beating the game.  This game spawned a slew of sequels up to the present day.

            1989 marked the release date for the extremely popular PC game Populous, designed by Peter Molyneux of the Bullfrog development studio.  In this game, the player’s goal was to shape the landscape and build a civilization with the goal of conquering the enemy force.  The game is regarded as the inaugural god game.  In this type of game, the player has complete control of the lives of virtual people or worlds (Populous, 2005).  Populous spawned numerous sequels, and many other god games released in the 1990s and beyond.

                        In the early 1990s, the video gaming industry adopted a new style of storytelling. Instead of inventing new plots to match developing games, designers imported popular stories from outside the gaming world.  One game that is featured in the exhibit and followed this trend is DragonStrike, released in 1990. DragonStrike’s storyline was taken from the popular DragonLance universe, which is a realm of Dungeons and Dragons. The DragonLance universe was so popular that they bought the new DragonStrike game on the sole basis that it expanded upon the original storyline. This new idea of bringing in customers with popular story rather than just video and gameplay would soon expand exponentially. Instead of making games with new stories, developers could just expand on the old ones.  This effectively created massive worlds which brought games back for more.

On display in our exhibit because of its fine storyline reuse was the biggest selling stand alone video game of its time, Super Mario Brothers 3 (SMB3) for the NES. In the aftermath of an incredibly profitable use of SMB3 in the movie “The Wizard,” the game gained a major hype while Universal Studios paid Nintendo for the use of Mario and other characters. With the free promotional movie, SMB3 was so popular when it was released that it brought in more money than anything else in the entertainment market for three years, until the movie E.T. became a huge hit. SMB3 grossed over 500 million dollars alone and by the end of its production it sold 17 million copies. SMB3 permanently placed Mario in the spotlight. The game furthered the plot of Mario by placing Mario on a quest to free his princess from various Koopa bosses, but always being in the wrong kingdom.Super Mario Brothers 3 brought the action back to the Mushroom Kingdom, which was now a fully realized place” (Davis, 1, 2005). It was this game that secured the Mario series and allowed it to expand and add multiple characters.  Many of these characters were featured in future games produced by Nintendo.  In the present day, Mario is easily the most well known story in video gaming history.

‘Like with Mario, storyline expansion did not have to come from an outside source (such as DragonStrike or Star Wars). Some games started their own storyline worlds and survived long enough to create a fan base. With a following, a saga of games could follow. One such following from 1990 was Wing Commander by Origin Systems. Set in the 27th century, Wing Commander was about a young Confederate Navy Lieutenant.  His goal was to take control of the Vega Sector in space ruled by the Kilrathi, an alien race focused on ruling the galaxy. The game was designed to be a space flight combat simulator which focused more on great gameplay than real world physics. Despite its impressive development cycle, people were so pleased with past games and their storylines that they were willing to purchase Wing Commander blindly. Even so, it lived up to its predecessors and expanded even more on storytelling in general. The game’s character development, interpersonal conflict, and ethics make it significant in storytelling history (Biondich, 1, 2005). After each mission, a part of the story was revealed to the player.  Occasionally the player could make a major plot splitting decision that changed the story and ultimately affects the overall outcome of the game. Although the first two Wing Commander games used cartoon cinematics, Wing Commander started a series of games that were of the earliest to play out like a movie with cut scenes that used real actors.  In figure H4, a screenshot from a cinematic sequence in Wing Commander 3 is shown.


Figure H4

Comodore Geoffrey Tolywn Malcolm McDowell from Wing Commander 3 looking up from a star map.


As time moved on in the game development world, developers exhausted story reuse.  Gamers begin to demand more from their games than just a familiar setting and characters.  Technology and gameplay soon stepped back into the light.  With more space and speed available from the new Super Nintendo, Nintendo released Super Mario World in 1991, which is on display in our exhibit.  The game world was 3 times the size of previous Mario games and it sported colorful graphics and animations. It introduced the addition of a new character, Yoshi, who would later go on to spawn another series of games.  Being yet another major Mario success, Super Mario World began the trend of character creation from Mario games.  Later Wario, WaLuigi, and others would emerge from the wildly popular series.

            Watching Nintendo win over players with Mario, Sega decided that if their company was going to succeed they would need a popular mascot for their 16-bit system, Sega Genesis.  Add a face that looks eerily like Felix The Cat, a good dose of attitude, and enough energy in his system to equal one hundred caffeine addicts, and you have Sonic The Hedgehog,” (Davis and Shoemaker, 1, 2005).  In 1991 the release of Sonic the Hedgehog worked out far better than Sega had even hoped for.  The character and game were completely designed to take advantage of the Genesis’ advantage over Nintendo: speed. To match this theme, they designed Sonic and the storyline of the game. Sonic would be kept simple with only the ability to jump and run.  His goal was to defeat evil Dr.Kintobor who had turned every animal on the planet into robots, excluding Sonic because he was too fast to be caught. To win, Sonic had to run through the game using his speedy jump spin attack to defeat his enemies. This was one of the first times the story of a game was designed specifically to highlight the latest technology. This later would be seen again in games when graphics cards were introduced.

            Sonic was one of the games that would bring about another turning point in video games. Once again they would return to their root, featuring technology changes in video in sound rather than rich storyline. Very few games have had as big as an impact in this way as Wolfenstein 3D, released 1992 by id Software.

Wolfenstein 3D’s story was about the ally member Captain William J. Blazkowicz, his gun, and the eight floors of Nazis he had to kill to escape a Nazi dungeon (Bowen, 1, 2005).  The game’s major significance was that it introduced the first-person shooter (FPS) to the mass market.  Instead of the traditional side-scrollers or even a top down view, Wolfenstein presented the Nazi dungeon from the Captain William’s perspective.  The player saw what the character saw projected three dimensions onto the screen, as shown in figure H5.  At the time three dimensional games required immense processing power and Wolfenstein was no exception. It was made possible only by the vast advances in computer technology of the time. Wolfenstein was certainly not the first FPS but it took advantage of the latest technology combined it with excellent sound and visceral action, made it a smash hit.

Figure H5

A screenshot of the first person view in Wolfenstein 3D


Wolfenstein opened the door for a revolution of first person shooters and at first this was a massive blow to story telling in gaming. “Part of Wolf3D's appeal is in its simplicity: it is all about firepower, not brainpower,” (Bowen, 1, 2005). First person shooters took the gaming community away from story and brought them closer to action. Many years later, games like Duke Nukem and Halo would progressively expand the genre into a story telling form of entertainment but for a while it only mattered how much more convincing the developers could make the gore. Wolfenstein not only gave birth to a new genre, its repercussions changed the game industry forever.

            What came next in the history of storytelling was general experimentation. In our exhibit we feature artifacts from games like Maniac Mansion, King’s Quest, and Monkey Island because they tinkered with old storytelling methods to great success. For instance, Maniac Mansion came from the original command line style RPG. Instead of one character typing in commands like “open cupboard” and guessing which verb and spelling would make it work, there were multiple characters you controlled and the keyboard was completely removed from the game. You used the cursor to pick from a table of verbs and then clicked on the object you wanted to perform the verb on. This kind of experimentation in game design made games of that type less about guessing and more about deductive reasoning and figuring out the story.

Another example of such experimentation came in 1992. Accolade, a publisher well known for sports games, released its very unique epic sci-fi space shooter role-playing game, Star Control II. Listed as one of the best and most unique epic games of its type it was one of few successful attempts at merging different game types (Kasavin, Star Control II, 1, 2005). It had a top down combat view, an unbelievably good storyline for its time, and some well integrated RPG elements.

The game begins when you return to Earth after being marooned for decades on a distant planet, only to find that the human race has been enslaved by a hostile caterpillar-like race called the Ur-Quan. Separated from your species, your only hope is to try to free Earth and put an end to the Ur-Quan conflict. In so doing, you travel across the galaxy, upgrade your alien vessel from a skeletal husk into the most powerful starship around, recruit the assistance of a number of memorable alien races, and do battle against many others (Kasavin, Star Control II, 2005).


Simply put, Star Control II is worthy of mention because it made you feel like you were in the story.  The player was free to continue the plot, build an army, become rich, or explore the universe. By the end you could choose to tie all loose ends or leave things unfinished, there was no higher authority giving you missions or orders, you were in control.  Even while conversing with aliens, as shown in figure H6, the player had the option of choosing what to reply with, effectively making friends or enemies depending on the choice. The game pushed the envelope for creating a detailed universe that players could loose themselves in and because part of the story. This rare hybrid inspired more in depth worlds in future games but was so original that it has not been imitated in the more than ten years since it has been released.

Figure H6

During conversation in Star Control II, you usually had some interesting responses you could choose from.


X-Wing, the first big Star Wars PC game, is well known in history but its successor TIE Fighter is one of the most impressive PC games of the mid-nineties. Lucas Art’s TIE Fighter (released 1994 and shown in the exhibit) featured one of the most in-depth storylines for its time. Each mission had a primary, secondary, and secret goal. Players could just satisfy the primary goal to continue on, but if they were dedicated enough they could finish the secondary and secret goals to unlock hidden pieces of the plot line. The game also placed the player in the Galactic Empire, the well known bad guy of the Star Wars universe. Unlike other games of its time, TIE Fighter did not have a player self-moral realization to turn into a good guy; it kept the player with the Empire all the way to the end – an unheard of idea at the time. Combining story from the movie and novels by Timothy Zahn, TIE Fighter had one of the most enriched plots of any game of its time (Chin and Kasavin, 1, 2005).

In the mid-nineties, as always in video games, things started to change again. Previously games always had a single protagonist. But in the coming years, games would have players tell stories through multiple characters.

While neither game invented the Real Time Strategy (RTS), Warcraft II and Command & Conquer both brought RTS into the mainstream in 1995 (Bush, 2, 2005). More than a chess  game, RTS allowed the control of multiple units. Instead of being one person with a life bar, you controlled an army and built cities and conquered your enemies. Both Warcraft II and Command & Conquer showed a long spanning plot that put the player in very different situations each mission. Some missions involved all out war while others required the escort of single units. Both games incorporated stunning and slick cut scenes that outlined the progression of the story. Real Time Strategy would become very central in the coming years with games representing entire eras and wars. With RTS, stories could be told on a much large scale than the story of a single person.

In game history, there are no clear cut defined eras of storyline types. This is because while some developers abandoned some styles, others went back to them. The lines are blurred and you can find different styles mixed together constantly. Here are some games that went against the times, but never the less had a unique impact on storytelling in games.

Telling a story through pictures, the PC game Myst was a very important puzzle game from 1995. Some avid gamers would go as far as to classify games as before and after Myst. Myst certainly did have a big effect on gaming. It was one of the first story driven games that had no death and no dialogue (Sengstack, 1, 2005). Outside of brief cinematics, you rarely saw anyone else. The game is set in a bright yet isolated world without people. You are alone until you find a book with a person looking back at you from one of the pages. Myst featured incredible art and challenging puzzles of logic. Combined with its in-depth storyline, it was a huge game (made possible only by the massive storage ability of the CD-ROM) and it only had two brothers for developers! Myst showed a new form of story telling that didn’t feed the player the plot so easily; they were forced to figure things out.

Another game that stood out during the mid nineties was Resident Evil in 1996. Resident Evil was a third person shooter with a major focus on horror. Before this game, no other game had really made its entire theme solely survival horror.  With a rich storyline based on survival and betrayal, Resident Evil defined the survival horror genre in gaming and completely immersed the player in a story where they felt like they were in a horror film. Despite its horror predecessors, no other game brought this genre into the mainstream as much as Resident Evil.

            Lucas Art’s released what many argue to be the finest graphics adventure creation of its time, 1995’s Full Throttle (Young, 2005). The superb story is of a confident square-jawed man named Ben waking up in a dumpster framed for a crime he didn’t commit. The film-quality plot contains murder, deception, greed, lust, love, and honor – all with good balance. The game, on display in our exhibit, perfected the art of story telling in adventure games and is remembered for that fact ten years later today.

            Up until the late nineties, games had always been the ones to tell the stories. This changed when games started becoming vessels for players to tell stories instead.

In 1997 one major game genre still had yet to emerge into the mainstream. That genre was MMORPG, or Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing game. The MMORPG was fathered by Origin System’s Ultima Online.  In this online virtual world people could live out their characters’ lives with other real players through the use of the internet. While the developers constantly added more content to the game through the internet, the true story of the game was open ended and defined by other human players. In fact, players would write news stories on the happenings of other human players in the game world. In a lot of ways MMORPGs pulled people away from actual storytelling and brought them closer to story creation, but later on some MMORPGs would become more in depth and driven such as Everquest and World of Warcraft. MMORPGs were and are notoriously difficult to develop story for because multiple players must be able to play out the plot on their own all in the same world. If you save the princess, will she be there for the next hero to save? In a way all players had to take a step down from being heroes and were more like equals.

At the end of the nineties, many games were released that were not changes in the general field, but made impacts in their own genres regarding storyline. Here are some highlights that are well remembered for paving the way for current storytelling. 

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64 was a landmark title in terms of storytelling through videogames.  “The new benchmark for interactive entertainment has arrived”( Schneider,1,1998).  The story of Zelda has been seen in some form on every Nintendo console; but this game was the first to bring Link and his adventures into three dimensions (see Figure H7).  However, this was not the only significant thing about this game.  The game featured one of the largest game worlds in an action/adventure game up to that point, as well as an intricate plot and clever story progression.  Specifically, the game world was touted as the most interactive world in a game up to that point, a world in which if the player could see an area anywhere in the distance, they could more than likely go there.  This level of unbounded game world design would set the bar higher than it had ever been before, and coupled with the games stunning visuals left the player immersed in the games story (Gerstmann, 1, 1998).

Figure H7

When the first screen shots similar to these hit before the game’s release, the site experienced more hits in one day than it had ever before (Gerstman, Screen Shots, 1998).


            The story of Metal Gear was first seen on the MSX home computer and more notably later, in the form of two games Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2 on the NES, however in 1998 a next generation sequel, Metal Gear Solid (MGS) was released on the Sony Playstation.  Several video features discussing the history of the game series are included in the interactive media section.  “What can I say? Hideo Kojima has come through and produced the finest PlayStation game ever” (Nelson, 1, 1998).  In MGS, you play as special operative Solid Snake as you are suddenly launched into a mission that turns from a simple hostage rescue, into saving the world from nuclear holocaust.  The game is presented as a stealth/action game, in which the importance of being undetected far surpasses a traditional “guns blazing” approach.  In designing the game as such, the creators perfected this genre and brought it to the forefront of gaming, resulting in several other hugely successful games such as Splinter Cell and its subsequent sequels.  This title marked a significant change in how in game FMV sequences would there after be used in games.  It displayed very strong cinematic qualities, both in design and implementation, something that had been seen in a handful of earlier games. However this game perfected it.  The fact that it was developed at a time when computer graphics technology were beginning to make large advances, its transitions between gameplay and in game cut scenes were seamless (Nelson, 1, 1998)(Perry, “Metal Gear Solid”, 1, 2005).  “Fact -- the game enables players to immediately immerse themselves into a movie-like game that stirs a fantastic cocktail of high-quality, informative cut-scenes in an unobtrusive fashion in amongst smart stealth-based gameplay”(Perry, “Metal Gear Solid”, 1, 1998).

            1998 also saw the arrival of another very significant action game for the PC, Half Life.  The exhibition features a copy of the actual game software for this ground breaking title as well as gameplay footage in the interactive media section.  In this game, you play as Gordon Freeman, a scientist in a mysterious research facility.  When something terrible goes wrong, you are released into a world where nothing is normal and you fight for survival.  While the plot is not terribly original, the execution of the story was unparalleled at the time.  Through a series of subtle and artistic design decisions, Half-Life creates a reality that is self-contained, believable, and thoroughly engaging”(Dulin, “Half-Life”, 1, 1998)   Half Life unquestionably marked a change in the first person shooter genre in terms of gameplay elements; however it also made revolutionary changes to story.  Unlike many other games before or since, the game opted to cut back on the use of FMV sequences, instead the game flowed seamlessly, playing out in real time.  This meant that the player gained a sense of continuity and could become completely immersed in the plot and how it played out.  In addition to this, the game was one of the first to heavily use scripted events during gameplay that would give it a more cinematic feel (Dulin, “Half-Life”, 1, 1998).

            This year also marked the release of one of the best selling real time strategy games in history (over 6 million copies sold), StarCraft (“Blizzard Entertainment Press Release”, 2002).  A Blizzard Product Catalog is featured in the exhibition, as the company has produced many games significant to the evolution of storytelling in games.  In this game, you play as the commander of the armies of three distinct races in a futuristic setting.  “It doesn't stray far from the blueprint created by its predecessors, but it is without a doubt, the best game to ever adhere to that formula”(Dulin, “StarCraft”, 1, 1998).  While it was not the first Real Time Strategy game to heavily incorporate elements of story into gameplay, it added new and innovative methods of expressing that story.  The game featured the typical FMV sequences expected of such a game; however, it added pre/post mission briefings that strongly emphasized the introduction and evolution of characters (see Figure H8), as well as in game dialogue and scripted events.  Each race had its own distinct characteristics, both artistically and technically, taking the game to a new level, as no previous game had gone to such lengths to distinguish each race. “The RTS genre was pretty well established with Blizzard's Warcraft and Westwood's Dune II, but it didn't change significantly until Starcraft came out in 1998, pioneering the concept of dramatically different races in one game”(Chick, 1, 2000).  This care in creating distinct races unquestionably added to the depth of the story as well as adding to the gameplay.  Finally, the inclusion of persistent playable characters that interact with each other and the player added another layer of the story and further immersed the player.

Figure H8

This is an example of the pre/post mission briefing screen where a good deal of the

charachter development took place (Dulin, “StarCraft”, 2005)



            By 1999, internet access was standard to most computer users and internet gaming became increasingly popular.  In the past, many games featured multiplayer as a secondary feature, and some games such as Ultima Online were focused in the online realm. However this year saw a vast increase in these types of games and marked the beginning of the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing game as a vastly popular genre.  This meant more player to player interaction than ever, opening the door on infinite possibilities for story creation and development.

            In 1999 one game expanded the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing game genre drastically, and that game was EverQuest.  Screen shots from this landmark title will be featured in the exhibition.  In EverQuest, you as the player take control of a fully customized character that you create from scratch.  After that, you are allowed to essentially find and follow any story path that suits you within the game’s universe.  This game was by no means the first of its kind; however, it was the first to reach such a huge audience.  With the internet progressively improving throughout the decade, and with broadband becoming more readily available, this game exploded onto the scene with its impressive design and graphics which were unmatched by any other MMORPG at the time.  The game presents the player with a universe in which they can create their own characters and live out their own story dynamically. It uses a quest based system to develop gameplay, and each player can further enhance their character depending on what quests they chose to complete.  These quests can sometimes intertwine with those of other players, as well and they do not always need to be violent in nature.  In fact, the player is allowed to follow a non-violent path and still be successful in the game world.  Between its excellent graphics, its performance, its rich fantasy setting, and its propensity to force you to cooperate with, rather than hinder, your fellow players, EverQuest is the best game in its class”(Kasavin, “EverQuest”, 1, 1999).

            2000 was the year of The Sims, a game that is, in short, a simulation of life.  The player selects and customizes family members, builds a house, and then interacts with the game as the virtual family’s life carries on (see Figure H9).  “The Sims, for all its frustrations, highs and lows, is still -- gulp -- better than your average working day in real life, and a fun experiment in psychology, love and relationships”(Lopez, 1, 2000).  Though there had been several “Sim” games previous to this one, The Sims was the first to introduce human behavior as the primary catalyst on such a specific level.  The game lacks a predefined story; it has no preset beginning or end, and yet it still allows for the development of a story.  Perhaps its massive popularity can be traced to the fact that this story that the player creates for their virtual family can be related to his/her own life story, something that other games can accomplish, but not on such a simplistic yet specific level (Lopze, 1,2000).

Figure H9

The game featured a very easy to use and intuitive menu system thus making it accessible to a very wide audience (Park,Screen Shots, 2000).


            As 2001 rolled around, the videogame industry was changing, specifically in terms of artistic content and storytelling.  Developers were finding more and more success in turning to darker storylines, based on characters that would traditionally be considered the antagonist.  Though this marked evolution in what direction videogame storylines could be taken, it also caused a good deal of controversy, as this new trend in storytelling resulted in more realism and violence being presented to a wider audience. 

            “Having taken advantage of PS2's new technology to expand and develop their vision, the makers of Grand Theft Auto 3 have created a complete videogame experience like few, if any, before it”(Perry, “Grand Theft Auto 3”, 1, 2001).  The Grand Theft Auto series is undoubtedly one of the most original and controversial ever.  Video features on the history of the game series and the more recent iterations are included in the interactive media section.  While the first two games in the series did a great deal in establishing it, the series did not really come into its own until the third installment, Grand Theft Auto 3.  In it, you play as a no-name criminal, trying to work your way up the crime ladder of a New York inspired city.  The game allows the player to either follow a specific storyline through a series of missions, or to simply explore what the city has to offer in their own way.  This was a marked change in game design, where the game was created with enough content to keep a player satisfied even if they chose not to pursue the missions.  While the earlier games in the series had followed this ideal, GTA3 perfected it, by not only presenting it in a completely 3D form, but also by vastly expanding the game world and turning it into a living, breathing city (see Figure H10).  Things like dynamic changes in what types of people are seen on the street according to the current time of day, dynamic weather changes, and moving traffic and public transportation all added to the game world immensely.  Additionally, the game’s actual story was rich, featuring professional voice actors and a fully developed script.  As well received as the game was, it still caused a great deal of controversy due to its violent content.  Though the previous GTA games included similar content, this game was more realistic than ever before and was also introduced first on the PS2, a console that, unlike the PC, was much more accessible to a younger crowd (“Classic:’s Essential 50”, 1, 2005).  Despite this though, GTA3 still will go down as an extremely significant title, it broke as many boundaries as it caused debates.  The game was not only technologically way ahead of its time, but it was a culmination of the idea that games could take on dark, realistic storylines and still be well received by gamers (Perry, “Grand Theft Auto 3”, 1, 2001).

Figure H10

These shots show the progression of the GTA series graphically.  You can see that GTA 3 (pictured to the far right) showed a marked improvement over the previous two games, further enhancing the sense of realism and story immersion within the game (Perry, “Grand Theft Auto 3”, Screen Shots, 2001).


            Another notable game from this year is Max Payne.  In this title, you play as Max Payne, an undercover cop, whose family and friend have just been murdered, leaving him in an intense mystery that leaves him framed for the crimes.  The game’s original trailer is featured in the interactive media section of the exhibition.  The game goes above and beyond what is expected of an action game in terms of storytelling.  “The story elements are handled through a variety of means, presented through in-game cut scenes, conversations during gameplay, and narrated graphic novel-inspired panels that fit the game perfectly, and really add a lot of style and character to the game in the process” (Blevins, 1, 2001).  The game did not revolutionize the industry in terms of storytelling, however it still deserves credit because it portrayed a dark story (something that was only beginning to become massively accepted), in a way that left the player compelled to continue on with the game. 

            With a story similar to that of Max Payne which had been released on the PC one year earlier, Dead to Rights left a significant mark on the console market in 2002 with its initial release on the X-Box.  The game tells a story of a police officer named Jack Slate, who has been framed for murder. In this action style game, you as the player must take Jack through society’s underworld to clear his name.  While the game did not receive much recognition for its quality of gameplay, it was revered by many as having one of the best stories of the year and the execution of that story was extremely well done and reminiscent of an action movie.  Though many earlier games had been using cut scenes and general film techniques to give them a more cinematic feel, this one was an excellent example of the state of the industry in this area.  Simply put, the game is an excellent example of how far storytelling in video games has come” (Bush and Cheung, Best Story, 2002). 

            This year 2002 also brought one of the most anticipated real time strategy games ever, WarCraft III:Reign of Chaos.  This game was the sequel to Blizzard’s WarCraft II, and essentially the next in line after 1998’s StarCraft.  The game carried on the story started in the original WarCraft games; however, it presented this story through modern technology that gave it new life.  Warcraft III has lots of great characters, and its fantasy-themed world has tons of personality” (Kasavin, “WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos”, 1, 2002).  In addition to a well thought out and designed story and universe, the execution of the story was advanced.  Where Blizzard’s previous RTS, StarCraft used extensive amounts of FMVs and mission briefings to convey its story, WarCraft cut down on this, instead opting to primarily use game engine rendered sequences that were interlaced within the action. 

            Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided was one of two RPG games based on the Star Wars movie franchise to be released in 2003.  The game software is featured in the exhibition as well as several video clips that can be found in the interactive media section.  This game was the first MMORPG based on Star Wars, and the first based on any major movie franchise.  The Star Wars galaxy is arguably one of the richest fictional worlds in existence, and this game fully took advantage of that fact, allowing a variety of character types and storyline possibilities.  This game did even more than EverQuest to make MMORPGs more accessible to the general population due to the fact that Star Wars is massively popular and recognized.  Though the start of the game was somewhat rocky, it evolved nicely, and currently also offers an expansion based on space flight called Jump to Light Speed (Kasavin, “Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided”, 1, 2003)

            The second notable Star Wars related game of 2003 was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.  The interactive media section features several developer interviews focusing on some of the many development stages of the game.  Developed by the same folks who were responsible for Baldur’s Gate, this was also an RPG; however it was a single player RPG unlike Galaxies.  The thing that made KOTOR unique was that it firstly took all the elements that made Baldur’s Gate a great game and applied them to a game set in the Star Wars universe, but more importantly, while it took place in the Star Wars universe it did not feature any of the characters from the original films.  In fact, the game’s story takes place thousands of years before the events of the films.  This meant that the developers had to create a completely new set of characters and other environmental aspects while staying true to the franchise’s settings and overall feel.  Typically, Star Wars games tend to intentionally stray somewhat from the films, but run in parallel with the storylines of the films. This game followed a completely unique and original storyline.  Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is not only providing one of the very best interactive Star Wars experiences, but it has tapped into the very soul of the Star Wars universe that drew hundreds of millions of fans to the franchise in the first place” (Boulding, 1, 2003).  The game is very immersive, allowing the player to play as and interact with characters that have similar qualities to those found in the films.  The game presents its story brilliantly through an intuitive interface, countless cut scenes and hours of dialogue, so the game universe and the characters found in it are amazingly convincing.  At the time of the game’s release, some even argued that the plot was better than the two Star Wars prequels, as it encompassed more of the elements of the original Star Wars that made the films so appealing to the masses.  This once again solidified the idea that a game could have a storyline as compelling as or even more compelling than a film (Kasavin, “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic”, 1, 2003).

Within the past year we have seen one Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing games (MMORPG) that has been changing the genre: World of Warcraft (WOW), released by Blizzard Entertainment late in 2004. Similar to other games of its type, WOW is a virtual world and allows players to do whatever they want. Players choose their race and class and can go anywhere and do anything. In relation to story telling however, WOW makes a bigger leap than most games. Unlike other MMORPG’s of the years before it, WOW consists of over a thousand in-plot quests, all of which slowly unravel the story of the Warcraft universe. Evenly dispensed across pubs and inns are history books of Warcraft that players can read in-game. Combined with locations and heroes shown in previous Blizzard Warcraft titles, WOW makes MMORPG players feel immersed in a game world like never before, writing themselves into the story as they play (Kasavin, “World of Warcraft”, 1, 2004).