When I first remember encountering video games, they were simple. I found myself as a small American child right as the original Nintendo Entertainment System craze began, and for Christmas in the year of 1987 I did in fact receive my very own electronic input/output recreational implement.
It came with a game called 'Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt.' It was easy to understand, especially Duck Hunt. As all good hunting dogs do, your trusty pooch would duck into the grass, urging you to be quiet. Then, suddenly, an explosion of two to three ducks would burst out from the grass and you would have about six seconds to shoot them with your orange plastic gun. Or you could point the gun at a lightbulb and squeeze the trigger and win. That was actually preferable, because the faithful canine would laugh at you every time you failed. The sound of his laughter was like electronic bugs being squished with a still-hot frying pan.
If you were a child in the 80's, there's a good chance the sound of that dog laughing while he tried to cover his smirk with his paw has haunted every failure in your life for the last 25 years.
The story to this game was pretty good: have fun. Even still, it had a few plot holes.
Why was a dog laughing at our every failure supposed to be fun? The answer is that having such high stakes for failure made the thrill of the paltry success elevenfold greater. Unless you adhered to the lightbulb technique of gameplay, in which case you never really enjoyed anything in your life anyway.
Also, why didn't the ducks just strike out across land through the tall grass and avoid entering the line of fire? Why were so many ducks sitting in that grass (You could play up to at least 99 rounds, which is nearly 300 ducks) for so long? Why did only two or three of them fly away at a time? Why didn't the gunfire scare off the other ducks, who sat nobly by waiting for the next 97 groups of three to take off so it would be their turn?
Still, though the plot was full of holes, so were the ducks. The only thing that really kept this from being the best example of video game storytelling to date was that you couldn't kill the dog. Ahh, well it just gave us more hope for the sequel.
Yet the real star of that first cartridge was Mario. Mario was a game that was a lot like a book - you went from left to right until you got to the end. Like a lot of books, there were a lot of pits you could fall into that would make you want to stop, and one constantly encountered lots of things that just crawled back and forth on the lines repetitively, waiting to hurt you.
The story of this game was a real tangle of plot points compared to Duck Hunt - Don't fail to move from left to right. If you get all the way to the end, you won't have to go any more. You will reach a screen that says 'The End' and know you have finished.
To prove that this was a viable, meaningful goal, they made it so that the 'Princess' was at the end. This made total sense! Eight worlds, each with the same dragon monster at the end, who you kill eight times. The first seven times, our tiny hero must continue from Left to Right because he had gone, rather shortsightedly, to the wrong castle.
One would think that by the sixth time this had happened, he would make sure he was storming the right castle before risking his life. Maybe he was just a daredevil.
Finally, the eighth time you kill the dragon monster in the same manner as the previous occasions, the fates have decided you have proven your steadfastness beyond a shadow of a doubt, and we are mercifully revealed that we have gone to the right castle. Thank God.
Imagine this in book form. You read chapter one, defeat the primary antagonist and think you are about to set right the conditions which have so disrupted the protagonist's normal routine - only to find out that 'Sorry, reader: your plot resolution is in another chapter!'
Don't worry - there's seven more chapters in which we get to defeat the antagonist in an identical fashion! Maybe one of these times, something different will happen when we do the same thing.
After all, isn't that the definition of sanity? Do the same thing over and over again until it produces different results?
So we can see that the 'narrative' structure of early video games (i.e. 'ones that everybody knows about and have sold twenty times more than anything newer') is rather basic. It is like the 'narrative structure' of Tic Tac Toe or Boxing - try to win! The story came from the game itself - things would happen differently each time. It wasn't a story in the sense of having read War & Peace, it was just a narrative of an experience.
Nowadays we have problems. The problem can be best summed up this way: games are being made with 'high production values' and 'cinematic sequences' that in fact are nothing more than computer animated movies created by people who would not be able to find any degree of success in the movie field. If these video game 'scripts' were submitted as novels, shows, cartoons, or movies, their presentations would have exerpts on 'SlushPileHell' to the tune of gems like 'My silent protagonist is a stern warrior, but with a twist-his arm IS his gun!'
We have a field filled with 'visonaries' who fancy themselves 'master storytellers' - when really they are 'Masters of Making Game Budgets Larger,' and 'Experts at Getting you to Push 'A' to Skip Over Their Awkward Movie.'
When I am in the middle of reading 'The Dead Zone,' Uncle Stevie doesn't ask that I indulge him in listening to one of his acoustic renditions before finding out what Frank Dodd is doing in the bathroom. He doesn't ask me to draw a tiny picture of a clown with a puppy before I can finish the paragraph nor do I have to sit through five minutes of vacation footage from their first trip to the Florida Keys.
When I am in the middle of a classic game like 'Tetris,' it doesn't suddenly freeze and show me scores of dour faced dwarves laboring in mines under the earth to make the tiny blocks, nor the pelicans of the dawn bringing them in their beaks and letting them rain down like breadcrumbs above me for me to stick in place. I just play the goddamn blocks down and, when I'm ready for a story, I go read a book.
And if you simply must have a story in your games, pop in a book on tape (ha! like its actually on a tape) and start shooting those zombies.
If you can't shoot and think at the same time, don't become a cop or join the Army.
Hope this helps!