The narrative shift: from arcades to Nintendo Switch


Niamh Fleur McKell-Redwood (She/her) explores the development of video game narratives over time

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By Niamh McKell-Redwood

Narratives have vastly evolved since the arcade days of video games, but in what way? From Pac-Man to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the story-telling elements of narratives have evolved to serve different purposes with the change of time and technology. The narrative of arcade games serves its play style, games such as Space Invaders and Pac-Man have no story-telling depth beside the binary fight between good and evil. Designed to feel infinite (or to be infinite in the case of Space Invaders), there is no ending to the story. This concept works to compel players to spend money, enticed to buy just one more turn. This game can be played Ad Infinitum, playing on the desire to continuously beat a high-score.

As gaming moved from arcade machines to consoles, the narratives also changed. Nintendo’s most iconic figure: Mario, allows players to examine a new kind of narrative in the Super Mario franchise. Mario’s quest to save Peach is told in the form of a two-dimensional platform game, allowing for a next exploration of ‘good versus evil’. The two-dimensionality of the game translates not only visually but thematically; the narrative provides the possibility of an ending. Super Mario allows exploration of different environments and levels, allowing players the satisfaction of progressing level by level, until completion. While not the first game to include easter eggs, Super Mario’s discoverable secret sections create a new level of depth, exploration and storytelling. Super Mario uses secrecy and progress to make Mario’s world come to life, creating another narrative and exploring the satisfaction of knowing a secret. Super Mario also only explores the superficial theme of ‘good versus evil’, leaving no room for deeper conceptual narrative in this franchise.

Another Nintendo game, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, explores a similar storyline, but the narrative branches out beyond the two-dimensionality of Super Mario. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess explores the three-dimensionality of the world of Hyrule. Link (the playable hero) fights to save his world from calamity, while balancing both the light and dark elements of his world. Link explores a complex narrative, involving different challenges, cultures and mythology of his world. Twilight Princess journeys through the chaos and culture of Hyrule, compelling players to continue through this engaging world, allowing them to overcome a variety of problems. This new narrative allows players to explore morality, questions of right and wrong; It is complex, but still linear. In other Zelda games, such as, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, linearity is removed and player freedom is vastly expanded. Open world games such as: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, allows players to choose their own narrative. The choice of what comes first, what knowledge to pursue, what side quests to explore, which characters to talk to, is completely up to them. Developing narratives in such a fashion allows for an immersive experience; players are responsible for the speed and direction of narrative progression. Link’s amnesia allows players to discover his history through flashbacks, creating an immersive, interactive narrative history. The world of adventure and quests allow Breath of the Wild to burst with life. The freedom players are granted, allows for fluidity within the narrative, making each playthrough unique.

However, other games, like Little Nightmares, restrict narrative freedom and use these restrictions to structure terrifying narratives. Little Nightmares is a horror game told from a doll-house-like perspective, placing players into a restrictive society and role, forced to avoid monsters of this world by slipping through cracks. This world can be navigated in a 3D manner, but only within the limits of the individual room. Manipulating this separation; specifically in the horror genre allows for narratives to explore new roles for the player. Players cannot place themselves into the character’s shoes, rather they are placed in a parental role, the game exploits the player’s protective instinct and creates a sense of responsibility within them. Forcing players to watch ‘their’ child lose humanity, while navigating an infanticidal world, leaves players morally confused, horrified by the realities the character must face.

These narratives allow for complex psychological dilemmas not possible in games like Pac-Man. Little Nightmares’ narrative permeates the player’s soul, keeping their hearts racing on and on. Narratives in video games have shifted over time, not only to fit the different profit needs of games, but to fulfil more complex roles and storylines as technology has changed. These individual narratives build on human desire, desire to be the hero, to solve a puzzle or to protect the innocent. Narratives build on humanity, each having unique elements serving to fulfil the individual needs of the games.