The narrative of a game should exist only to make the act of playing feel more meaningful, by giving context to the game's systems and scenarios. Even a simple narrative implementation can make a game feel more significant. The simplest and best example I can think of is Space Invaders, the iconic 1978 arcade game whose entire narrative is so conservative, it's limited to the two words of its title. The high concept of defending Earth from evil aliens combined with those expressive-yet-abstract shapes encroaching toward the bottom of the screen to create what's probably the world's first "epic" videogame. But if you took Space Invaders and changed only the name, maybe to something more literal like "Shoot the Sprites", the high stakes wouldn't have been there and players' imaginations wouldn't have run wild from it. The mechanics would have still been great for their time, but I think the narrative is what brought them to life. Space Invaders isn't a typical example of a game narrative, though there's at least some fictional context there, whereas a lot of games have none. It's OK for a game to have little to no narrative, it just better have some truly outstanding mechanics. Tetris might not have needed narrative, but Myst and Puzzle Quest did.
For these and other games that choose to provide the player with a fictional context, one of the best techniques they can use to draw the player into the experience in a profound and memorable way is to anticipate the player's emotions and expectations about the play experience itself, and recognize them at appropriate times through narrative feedback. 'Narrative recognition' is the shortest term I could come up with to describe this simple and practical technique. It does require some daring on a writer's and designer's part, though like everything else we do to avoid mediocrity, it's worth chancing. Today, as many games have grown more literal in their presentations, the minimum requirement for the player's imagination has diminished. However, for anyone responsible for crafting game content, the ability to imagine what's going on inside the player's head at any given time, and use this to spark the player's own imagination, continues to be key. Autoaim systems and other adaptive-difficulty tricks can make up for players' skill differentials, but I'm referring to the skill of interpreting a player's feelings beyond those of pleasure or frustration, which cannot be gauged as easily as how many health packs he's used or how many headshots he's scored. This is a skill that can only be cultivated from playing a lot of games, observing a lot of players playing games, or preferably both. And I think it's essential to crafting well paced experiences in a certain tone, especially if wit or humor is integral to that tone.
Think of a game that felt deeply personal to you. I bet you're either thinking of an incredibly time-consuming or competitive game with social elements like World of Warcraft or Counter-Strike, or the sort of game I'm writing about here -- the kind that recognized your expectations as a player and fed them back to you in a surprising, insightful way. The feeling you get from this is the videogame equivalent of meeting someone with the same favorite band as you.
Sometimes you're lucky to get this feeling early on in a game, such as in Half-Life 2, when in the opening scene, a professor is hammering you with exposition, leaving you free to explore his office... where you'll more than likely knock over one of his computer monitors, causing him to interrupt his speech and chew you out for not paying attention. It's a great little moment. The designers knew you were gonna screw around in there, and placed that little trap for you. In almost every shooter before Half-Life 2, you can bunnyhop like a moron in the middle of even the gravest of monologues. But in Half-Life 2, this opening scene informs you that you have a real presence in this world beyond just the presence of your guns. The rest of the game didn't have such moments in it but the placement of this very first one was important to quickly immersing the player in a world rich with detail, and setting an expectation for bits of comic relief amid all the sci-fi seriousness.
There are dozens of other examples, though on some level it's surprising there aren't more. In Uncharted 2, relatively early on there's a sequence in which you're introduced to the grenade-throwing mechanics. Nate Drake is well-positioned behind cover as a bunch of thugs bear down on him. Fortunately, a box of grenades happens to be in arm's reach. So of course Drake, speaking for the player, quips something like "well isn't this convenient", referring to the unlimited grenade box while acknowledging the cliché, subverting it, and turning it into one of the game's great self-referential moments. Without that little bit of nudging-and-winking dialogue, the scene would have been just another grenade-throwing tutorial.
Minor cases like that can be surprisingly poignant. In the classic SNES role-playing game Chrono Trigger, someone at some point makes the joke about how the protagonist doesn't talk much, a profound moment that for the first time points the spotlight at the silent-protagonist trope common to so many games. This same joke then appeared seemingly in almost every other game with a silent protagonist (including Half-Life 2), so it lost its impact after the umpteenth time, but the first few times it was great.
On the other hand, Saints Row does a brilliant job of subverting the silent protagonist cliché by having the protagonist blurt out some sort of ultra-offensive Silent Bob-style one-liner when you least expect it, just when the story has convinced you to start taking it seriously. It's legitimately funny stuff.
Then there's Max Payne, in which the hero once dreams he's a killer inside a videogame, in one of the game's most surreal and memorable moments. This too became a tired idea as more and more games fed you the line about how "this isn't a game", hoping you'd never heard it before. No More Heroes gets it right, by breaking the fourth wall on several occasions towards the end, conceding its own ridiculousness in moments that drive the game's self-effacing charm through the roof. 'This is a game' is No More Heroes' message, delivered playfully and perversely, at the height of the player's investment in the story.
Narrative recognition doesn't require breaking the fourth wall. Another one of my favorite examples is in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, in the excellent Dark Brotherhood quest line, where you've decided to become a contract killer and work among a surly bunch of assassins who don't take kindly to newcomers. Just as you finally grow to like them and earn their respect, you receive a secret mission to kill them all. It's timed perfectly. You kill scores of things in this game but none are tougher to put down than those guys in the assassin's guild, because the designers made you work for their affection, made you feel attached to them, and only then asked that you turn on them -- a move that's made less despicable knowing that you're all following the same strict code of conduct.
There are simpler and cleaner examples than this. In the original Halo, the option to invert the controls for looking up and down is couched as part of a diagnostics test at the beginning of the game, when you're learning about your special armor. A lesser game would have thrown this option into a menu and not integrated it into the narrative. But the makers of Halo figured correctly that the last thing a guy like me would expect was a fictional justification for inverting the Y-axis on my controller. All I expected was to be bored by a tutorial.
What do all these games have in common? They have in common these crafted moments designed to anticipate exactly what the audience is feeling about the game at a particular time, and feed back on those feelings, sometimes merely by acknowledging them. I know you're frustrated. I know you've done this before. I know you don't think you care about these characters. These types of concessions can have a real impact. Narrative reversals are integral to storytelling -- I'm referring specifically to when the game narrative is used to reference the act of playing, not the story itself. Such acts of recognition are at the center of effective game narrative. They're among the most meaningful ways for a game to communicate with a player. One of the best feelings in life is getting what you want without having to ask -- at a restaurant, at work, in a relationship, you name it. Games have the ability to provide this exhilarating feeling using narrative techniques.
Characters and gameworlds that tend to correctly guess at the player's feelings and feed back on them are the best kinds. They're typically bound to games that don't break when you push at their boundaries, as when you knock over that monitor in Half-Life 2, realizing you can knock over all sorts of shit throughout the entire game. Games like that let you explore the upper limits of the constraints of their rules. In last year's Demon's Souls, one of the first characters you meet in that oppressive and bleak gameworld is a cynical ghost of a man who's given up trying to escape. He more or less calls you a fool for attempting to do better. It's straight-up reverse psychology, and it's fantastic. Here's a game that knows it's challenging. Why shouldn't the world have characters in it who've become frustrated by those challenges? Not only does it fit the fiction, it affirms the player's own first impressions about the game. That ghost is a pretty sympathetic character. But then, if you want to kill him for being such a noob, you can go right ahead and do that too, says Demon's Souls. That game covers its bases, which is partly why its audience likes it so much. Those who gave it a chance tend to make a deep connection with it, because its designers knew you were going to have to fight for every inch in that game, and anticipated and fed back on the range of emotions you'd feel along the way.
Most games with a narrative component can and should have moments like the ones I've mentioned here, because their designers ought to be concerned with what gives their game its distinct tone, as well as the likeliest emotional dispositions with which their players will approach any given scenario. This happens when designers think of players as individuals rather than as groups. When games speak to you on a personal level, when you experience one of those rare but great moments of recognition and reflection while playing, that's not coming from some guy following up on data from a focus test or gunning for the sci-fi shooter market. Instead, it's coming from someone trying to reach you, with the confidence -- the presumptuous authorial arrogance -- that he knows what you must be thinking at a certain time. How dare he? And yet he really is speaking to you in that moment, through his game.