The debate on whether or not that video games should have a story is an ongoing one for several decades. Original Witcher writer Andrzej Sapkowski notoriously has disdain for video games as a vehicle for storytelling. Ian Bogost poured gasoline over the smoldering topic at the Atlantic with his article “Video Games are Better Without Stories”. With his emphasis on first person perspective games, he left out a lot of video games that do have compelling stories, even if the player can choose to ignore what is happening and wreck shit.
It is true that video games have often strived to be like Hollywood; beloved by all and understood by everyone. Trying to shoehorn what works for film into what works for video games is where a lot of issues arise. Why bother making a video game if you can tell the story in a book or a play or a film? Because video games offer a unique platform to tell stories even if the execution is less than perfect. One unique way that video games have to tell stories is through choices.
Bogost fails to even mention role playing games in his article about video game narratives. The very genre itself is typically held up as an example of good storytelling in video games. The roots of RPGs can be traced back to J.R.R. Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons. Some of the more well known games like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment are praised for their storylines and player agency. In Planescape: Torment, the player has the ability to converse with an enemy in order to get out of conflict. Just about every action in the game has as a player dictated choice that can lead to surprising and sometimes mundane outcomes. If there was not a narrative attached to the game then the player will more than likely not be motivated to progress.
Even with a game as light on the narrative like Doom, pulls influence from its own narrative. The influential game is about a space marine, alone on Mars, to slaughter thousands of demons from Hell. The game could easily have been something else and it could have been just as influential. What if Doom did not have a narrative at all? It would just be a game about raytraced geometric shapes that explode when clicked on. Through the narrative that Doom has established we can follow what is going and why we are motivated to mow down demons. It is a very simple story but it is one that gives Doom its personality and aides in its influence on video games and pop culture.
What if we strip away the narrative from a game like Mass Effect? Would it be better. I do not think it would be better. You would be left with the core elements of a corridor shooter and able to explore a landscape that would be meaningless. The science fiction space opera like Mass Effect benefits greatly from having a narrative. It informs the setting, the characters, the motivation of the characters, and the theme. Without it, you might as well just play with gray geometric shapes.
Are video games better without stories? They are not. However, it is not necessary for all video games to have a story. A game like Pong or Tetris functions well without a story. Players are welcome, however, to craft their own narrative. In the absence of a story or even a thin story, players will come up with something for their own amusement.
That can be seen as a knock against stories in video games but I think that it shows that people want a story regardless of the medium that it is in. There will be video games with terrible stories and stories that can be told in mediums. But there will be video games that utilize the strength of their medium to tell compelling stories that players can help drive or through something else that is unique to video games.