I was an arsehole of a child, so I ended up with my copy of Super Metroid after my dad blackmailed me, saying I could have it provided I didn’t get sent home from the school’s residential trip to Wales. He didn’t fancy having to drive to Snowdonia to pick me up and decided that this was the best way to ensure my co-operation. He was right. I returned home to receive that brilliant, giant sized red box (which actually also contained Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past in what must be the best double pack of all-time. Cheers, Dad!)
There’s only one bit of traditional storytelling in Super Metroid. The introduction sequence, with its legendary spoken opening ‘The last Metroid is in captivity. The galaxy is at peace.’ A few words filling in the events of the previous game and that’s it! You’re in.
After that, the story is told in silence. Through exploration, discovery of lore and your own piecing together of what you’ve found, rather than through some frankly quite patronising ‘debriefs’ between sections, such is the way with most other games. Less than a minute in, when you stumble across the screen that is used as the title screen, albeit with a load of dead scientists scattered around and a smashed test container where the ‘last Metroid’ was once stored, Samus doesn’t stop to inform you “Oh my! Someone must have killed the scientists and stole the last Metroid!”, with a waypoint telling you where to go next. When you touch down on the Metroid homeworld and find yourself in the very same area where Samus did battle with Mother Brain at the end of the NES original, there’s no ham-fisted flashback to remind you of what took place. Instead, there’s no music, the room has all the colour washed out and there’s animals settled on the broken bits of machinery - a place that was destroyed and then left to rot. All stuff you’re left to figure out for yourself and all the more rewarding for it. Then there’s the Wrecked Ship area. There’s no audio or text logs for you to find that will tell you of the ship’s final moments before it crashed onto the planet. You’re just left to figure out what happened for yourself - why is the power being drained? Perhaps that has something to do with it?
I first finished Super Metroid when I was like, eleven or something, on holiday in France. I was a week into a two week stay out there with my parents in some gite in the middle of fucking nowhere. There was nothing to do. The most exciting thing that took place is that Terminator 2’s fictional Judgement Day took place while I was there and passed without incident, although I spent the day around a swimming pool, just in case. It was hot as hell and I was holed up in the front room in front of some shitty old TV with my SNES, rather than enjoying the great outdoors with my family. I made it to Mother Brain and, as part of the story, she beats the hell out of you with some unavoidable laser attack. Samus appeared to be doomed, when suddenly, the last Metroid flies in from off screen and saves her from the finishing blow, wounding Mother Brain and passing Samus the super laser attack, before being killed off. This blew my stupid little mind.
Again, there was no additional exposition. The game didn’t feel like it needed to show me a replay of the footage from the introduction sequence, showing the last Metroid hatching in front of Samus. The game didn’t tell me ‘LOOK, IT IS BECAUSE IT THINKS OF SAMUS AS A MOTHER FIGURE LOOK!’. It trusted me. I put all these things together myself and I genuinely felt like the game had treated me like a grown up. It stuck with me and is a big part of why Super Metroid remains one of my favourite ever video games. Twenty years on, I still find myself drawn to games that allow me to draw my own conclusions from pieces of information fed to me through locations or items - anything but a cutscene telling me exactly what has happened.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with the old cinematic cutscene. Most of the games I play take that approach to telling a story. Some are good at it and some aren’t, but it doesn’t really play to what makes games unique as a genre. You can’t get inside a movie and discover more about a certain character by searching through their room. You can’t be shown a location inside a book that has objects and features that allude to other parts of the story without being deliberately told of them. The Order 1886 has undeniably amazing graphics and cinematic sequences, but they’re hardly playing to the medium’s strengths. The ‘nuclear bomb’ sequence in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was a noteworthy gut punch of a cutscene but I personally felt it was nowhere near as brutal as the time I was playing the oft-maligned Far Cry 2 and I spotted a small patch of unmarked graves outside of a settlement that had been taken by rebels. The ‘Would You Kindly’ reveal in Bioshock remains one of gaming’s greatest twists, but did it really affect me more than - in the same game - the remains of that couple I found locked away in their room, empty bottles of pills and booze scattered around the place?
In the Batman: Arkham games this idea of allowing you to discover things for yourself is not only bits of locational storytelling - items scattered around an area that imply that a character from the Batman mythology has been there at some point is a common one - but also to the actual gameplay. All of the button presses and prompts are consistent throughout the entire game, no matter what the status of Batman is - stealth mode, combat or - in the most recent game - with the Batmobile, so developers Rocksteady play with your knowledge of these gameplay rules. For instance, should you discover a Riddler informant during a fight, indicated by a green highlight, you can press triangle/Y to interrogate them. Later in the game, when walking around the Gotham City Police department - a place that is threat free for the most part, a safe place - you notice that one of the cops has that familiar green highlight. You can’t start a ruck with him, he interacts with you in the same way as you pass him by, but even in this area primarily designed to push the story along, if you press triangle/Y, Batman will grab him and interrogate him, same as any other green highlighted thug. It never prompts you to do this. It lets you figure it out for yourself from learned skills. Makes you feel like it was all you - you’re Batman. You’re cutting about Gotham saving the day from a bunch of supervillains. It isn’t dynamic or unscripted, but it allows you to figure something out in the same way the master detective would, bringing you closer to the character and the story.
The big one, of course, is Dark Souls. Not a single character, environment or item is placed in that game without having a reason for being there. The lore of the game is delivered to you through broken conversations with the few NPCs and the descriptions of every single object you pick up and add to your inventory. Through this and through your own exploration and discovery, slowly but surely, Lordran becomes a living, breathing, REAL place, full of history. Characters motivations are revealed through the weapons they wield and the places they show up, rather than through some sloppy piece of exposition. Much like Super Metroid, there’s only really an introductory cutscene to set the stage and from there on in, everything you find out is entirely down to your own interpretation of the things you find and see and read. Dark Souls has some truly heartbreaking moments in it, if you’re looking for them.
There’s definitely something to allowing the player to shape the story of a video game through their own experience of it, rather than through some ‘choose your own adventure’ style decision making. Allowing the player to discover things for themselves helps to add immersion and allows easier investment in the world presented before them. Simply jumping to a cutscene whenever a game is trying to convey something to the player remains an effective way of simply getting it done, but at the cost of making them feel somewhat detached from the actual experience. Sometimes, with storytelling, things are best left unsaid.