The Allure of Compelling Storytelling in Arcade Games


I recently wrote an article on the value of pretty graphics in arcade games, conceding that gameplay is still a top priority to me. Consider this article a follow-up piece in that I’m once again taking on an ancillary aspect of the gaming experience for the sake of discussion.

For better or worse, storytelling is an oft-overlooked aspect in arcade game design. This is for good reason, too. The fact of the matter is that it’s a tad more difficult to make this approach work in coin-op, at least when contrasted with the long-form and nuanced nature of home consoles titles.

However, I’d like to use my platform today to speak to the merit of a good story in an out-of-home video game. Even if it’s not the most common or conventional approach, I think a hearty dose of narrative is exactly what many arcade games could use to reel more players in.

Two of my favorite series of arcade games are Time Crisis and The House of the Dead. You might be surprised to learn that I appreciate them not just for their tight rail shooter gameplay but for their relatively engaging plots, as well.

The House of the Dead series in particular presents an overarching conflict that began with the first game in 1996 and continues to this very day. As truly impeccable as the gameplay may be, I’ll gladly admit that the drive to unravel the ongoing mystery motivates me to seek out all five entries. I felt a real sense of urgency to play House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn at Dave & Buster’s when it came out for this very reason.

Although Time Crisis doesn’t lean quite as heavily into an overarching plot, each installment’s episodic adventures are awesome enough to encourage playing on their own—disregarding the enticing callbacks and recurring elements sprinkled in for fans. Without delving into spoilers, I absolutely adored the way the series writers tied the plot of 2015’s Time Crisis 5 into that of 1997’s Time Crisis 2. That kind of payoff is what brings me back to the games every time.

As for a series I haven’t played, it seems to me that the first four Mortal Kombats should be credited with bringing to light the importance of storytelling in arcade games. Never before did a group of coin-operated machines feel so much like an ever-expanding universe of characters, backstories, themes, and locales—but co-creators Ed Boon and John Tobias made it happen. I’m very convinced that the lore is a big part of what brings players back to MK to this very day.

While not every arcade game needs a more than a simple premise to be fun—just look at classics like Pac-Man, for instance—I still very much believe that a full-on narrative can elevate an already awesome experience into the gosh darned stratosphere. Hopefully, the aforementioned examples are telling of such.

It’s my opinion that writers will flourish most when permitted to craft original IPs, but that doesn’t mean this discussion can’t be extended to licensed games, too. I think it’s very possible for arcade games to provide an expanded take on an existing franchise’s universe when done right.

All in all, I’m crossing my fingers that we arcade gamers will be privy to an even greater breadth of narratives as the industry moves forward. Given how important storytelling is in home console titles, I don’t feel that it’s too much of stretch. You know what I mean?

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