I’ve been playing a lot of Super Nintendo games recently. Most of which I played previously, but some for the first time thanks to them being freely available as a result of my Nintendo Online subscription. I may have started playing them because Earthbound was recently on it, but I’ve played more than just the one game. While many of them are nostalgia plays or simple, mindless enjoyment I don’t have anything interesting or useful to say about, I’ve been thinking about the approach to storytelling the games developers took in this early, limited medium.
If you look at old video games, the lack of adequate storage and the newness of the technology made them rather one-dimensional. Pong, though technically two-dimensional, was a simple video recreation of a well known game. Other games added complexity, such as Galaga, with shooting and multiple targets on the screen for you to track. The next generation added even more, but while Super Mario Brothers was a classic game that is getting remade in various forms to this day, the first game starts off with no explanation. Playing these games so far after the fact means players largely miss out on the booklets that came with these games when you bought them, where the general story and your character’s reason for action was explained.
Text-based games had the most story, followed shortly by point-and-click adventures, but a lot of the games we think about for the computer came out around the same time as the Super Nintendo. There are, of course, exceptions, because many things were done ahead of “their time” and collected either a cult following or were largely ignored until after their time had passed, but the era of the Super Nintendo and the PlayStation was were story games started to take off. Of course, aside from a few text-filled games, most of them were rather light on story. All of the elements that make up a story are there, but the modern idea of cinematics, detailed plots, and characters advocating for things within that story were largely unrealized in those days.
Having been raised playing those games and cutting my teeth on other relatively simple games like Pokémon and the Kirby series for the Game Boy family, I’m used to finding the story of a game in the world and environment of a game beyond the moments the plot rears its head. While that style of storytelling, of a living world that informs the players on a deeper level than just the main plot missions, has been carried into modern games, they aren’t as reliant on it. If you didn’t look for this kind of information, by talking to world NPCs in A Link To The Past, you might miss why the guards are attacking Link on sight, even when he isn’t invading the castle. Or why the world seems to be on the brink of collapse and filled with so many people who are missing someone important from their lives.
As I’ve reflected on this, and started playing old Kirby’s Dreamland games that have almost no text in them at all, I’ve realized why Breath of the Wild had such a monumental impact on me. I first experienced stories in video games as something I had to seek out if I wanted to understand them, and Breath of the Wild was written the same way. Sure, you can move from plot point to plot point, completing quests and filling your pockets with items and money as you grind your way toward the conclusion, but if you ignore all the people in the world and the world itself, you miss out on most of the story. Some of the most powerful moments in that game happened because I stopped to look at the world around me or spoke to someone who drew my attention to a particular detail of the world.
Just like the thunderstorm at the start of A Link To The Past, that tells us how to feel about the game we’re playing, one of the first major encounters with the past in Breath of the Wild, the field of destroyed Guardians between the Dueling Peaks and Fort Hateno, where the Hylians made their last stand against the Guardians that had overrun almost the entirety of Hyrule, tells us just how much ruin visited the world 100 years ago. As you talk to people surviving in the world, as you pay attention to the shape of the ruins you pass through, as you catch glimpses of the past through easily ignored side plots, you get enough glimpses of the story the game is telling to put the full picture together.
At some point in the past (and I haven’t played enough different video games to even begin guessing where), talking to NPCs stopped being a way to gain useful information about not just how you should play the game, but why the story is playing out the way it is. Why the world exists in the state it does. Why it matters that you, specifically, are seeking to solve the world’s problems instead of anyone else. At some point, probably because developers were worried that players would miss out on important information or hints about how to proceed, most background NPCs started just offering largely useless commentary about their imagined lives. Some of that makes a world feel more lived-in, as characters reference things that have nothing to do with you, but if it all becomes set dressing and paint on the backdrop, it starts being seen as unessential and no longer a part of the story being told.
I honestly didn’t expect to start spending this much time thinking about video games and how stories are shaped to fit the form video games provide, but I’ve been playing them a lot lately since I have a difficult time enduring the silence of my apartment being constantly interrupted by my neighbors and I really love thinking about stories. It was inevitably, perhaps, but I can’t say I’m not enjoying it when I can finally say why I felt so comfortable playing Breath of the Wild.