Certainly games don't need a story, but what about when the story is the entire point?
Doing a complete 180 from yesterday today I want to talk about cases where the story is the premise, rather than something that enhances it. There are few examples of this given the highly experimental nature of this type of game. Perhaps the most basic examples are the Japanese visual novel games like Higurashi no Naku Koro ni and Tsukihime: these games play out with the player making choices for how the narrative is to proceed by selecting potential dialogue or responses characters can have to situations. There are, generally speaking, little to no situations where things like reflexes or endurance or other facets of regular gaming will be called upon. Despite this though the games are challenging, requiring keen observational skills in order to avoid unfavourable scenarios. These games do have a following in the West, but are generally still most popular and prominent in Japan.
As for Western examples, there are few in number, but two recent games do come to mind one more compellingly than the other. The first game is L.A. Noire, wherein the thrust of the game seems to be about the drama of finding out who is lying and exactly how and why they are doing so. Rockstar took a somewhat unprecedented step in allowing the player to skip the more action oriented scenes if they proved too difficult or frustrating, allowing for more of a focus on the plot and interrogation based mechanics. Still, it would be hard to argue that L.A. Noire is a completely narrative driven game, given that there are action sequences and that in order to have fully played the game they must be engaged with. This brings me to the other game, which I feel is much more fitting: Heavy Rain.
Heavy Rain in some ways does play out like a visual novel: there are chapters told from the perspectives of different characters. Unlike with the majority of visual novels though there are action oriented sequences in which the player can intervene to alter the outcome. These scenes play out like quick time events in terms of being asked to input certain combinations within a set amount of time. Sometimes the consequences for failure are minimal, but other times a character may become incapacitated or even die from failure to properly complete an event. The interesting thing here is that the death of a character does not lead to game over, rather it changes the way the remaining narrative plays out and culminates.
The fact that the narrative continues even if/when failure occurs is what really sets things apart (in my eyes at least). Sure, if you fail a lot then you're bound to get an ending that is less than stellar, but there isn't an overt sense of "Well, I did this wrong so now I have to go and do it again" present. There are multiple ways that events can play out, and not all of them are right or wrong. The game compels the the player to keep playing by making them want to complete the narrative, as opposed to completing the narrative because the player wants to continue playing a game that has excellent gameplay.
Heavy Rain was quite well received by the critical community, and surely it will lead to other games trying the same approach. Using the story as the crux of the game, rather than as a set piece, extra, or reward to the player poses an interesting scenario. One can only really imagine where the genre might lead if given enough time.
Most games however, end up trying to strike a balance between story and gameplay. That's why tomorrow I'll be talking about that line, and the merits and faults of the various ways that it can be blurred.