Narrative in the video game medium generally rates from mediocre to awful. Besides the hackneyed writing, the weak voice acting, and the overabundance of cliché, even games that do narrative in a compelling way over-utilize cutscenes. The cutscene has become a crutch for game developers whose gameplay designs don’t reflect narrative in any meaningful way. Games like Uncharted 3 try to cover up weak core gameplay with highly polished non-interactive elements. While Naughty Dog did a fantastic job with those cutscenes, with beautiful graphics, excellent and top notch voice acting, they served as misdirection, as the actual gameplay consisted of weak shooting and poorly designed levels. It is a monstrous error when the greatest feature of a game is a portion where the player does not even get to participate.
Thankfully, not all games treat narrative in this manner. One of the advantages that strategy games have over other genres is that the narrative emerges dynamically through the gameplay. Players, instead of being confined within a canned story, direct and generate the narrative through their own actions. It’s a wonderful thing to save Sully with Nathan Drake. But frankly, it’s difficult to consider anything done in a game of Uncharted 3 more than reliving someone else’s accomplishment. In order to be truly captivated by a narrative, it is best that I live it and breathe it myself. It is here that the strategy genre shines brightest.
Europa Universalis 3 is the ultimate rewrite-history game. As you play, directing your country through war, revolts, and the turbulence of the 1399-1821 era, the game writes the narrative as you play. That massive war your Austria fought against France over its Italian holdings? The game keeps a ledger, noting the important battles (and the results), giving a recap for posterity of what happened during the war. As you play through several centuries, you can go back and read about the exploits of your nation. England lost 3 provinces during the reign of Henry VIII? Did he enact reforms that forever changed the nation? These are noted.
It’s not only the ledger that makes EU3 a narrative achievement. The gameplay itself is designed to give an epic feel. You fight massive, landscape changing wars, build dynasties that last through the ages (or, through a series of unfortunate events, end very quickly), and confront dynamically-occurring events. This last detail is my favorite. Previous EU games had scripted events that would be game-altering, forcing play down a more historical route. In EU3, this was altered, to allow events to occur in a manner that reflected the way the game was being played. That is- the gameplay narrative occurred in conjunction with how you played the game. Rewriting history according with your own actions is the ultimate form of narrative.
What better narrative then forcing a player to start with a small group of colonists, and conquer an unsuspecting world? The wide range of map types, sizes, and scenarios forces this to play out in a different way every time. Everyone seems to have their best formula for success in Civilization, but each game takes on its own flavor. Maybe your poor starting spot left you without oil. Maybe you were trapped on a continent all by your lonesome, letting you grow large but fall behind technologically. Maybe that city on your border with Germany changed hands 7 or 8 times. Each game feels unique no matter which Civilization you’re playing.
One of the best narrative features was the ability to relive your gameplay on its completion. You can watch history replay itself before your very eyes. Seeing all that wonderful expansion and conflict through gave the gameplay a life beyond a simple “playthrough.” It was unfortunate that 2K cut this feature from Civilization V: such a superb display of narrative achievement was missed by a lot of people. But, replay or no, Civilization stands the test of time as a game that offers a wonderful amount of personal narrative.
Galactic Civilizations 2
One of the best contributions a developer can make to a wonderful strategic gaming narrative is a fierce and unpredictable AI. No one does AI better than Stardock, and the experience in Galactic Civilizations 2 benefits greatly as a result. The AI is capable of well-timed strategic betrayals, hides its intentions extremely well, and generally makes every game an intense dogfight. The AI makes use of the game’s ship designer well, adjusting its production to account for weaknesses in the player’s fleet. It is tough on the player, and eventual victory in war will come at a high price. The fact is that the AI is tough and unpredictable, leaving each campaign to tell a story that reacts both the player and to the game.
In addition to the AI, random events add flavor to the experience, making each individual campaign’s universe exploration unique. Random events can be game changing, in some cases ripping allies apart or altering the entire balance of power in the galaxy. The United Planets (the intergalactic counterpart to The United Nations) and diplomacy are very well established and influential. A game of Galactic Civilizations provided a stimulating narrative experience like no other 4X game.
Narrative, as it has wormed its way more and more into games, should be an essential element of the gameplay. Thankfully, in the strategy genre, your actions are the story. Games use and display your actions in various ways, but the fact is your actions and your play dictate what happens, instead of it being dictated to you by an outside force. Gaming reaches its pinnacle when the entirety of the narrative experience is the result of the gamer’s experience. For this sort of transcendent occurrence, the melding of gameplay and story, strategy gaming is the ultimate vehicle, sacrificing nothing while providing incredible narrative.