Can you remember one of the first times a story in a game really struck you?
Chris Avellone: Well, there were two moments (spoiler alert, although I doubt anyone would mind now)--one was in Ultima Underworld I: The Stygian Abyss, and the other was Wasteland (no subtitle, thank god--I am so sick of subtitles for games, and no marketing person can convince me they're necessary).
Anyway, in Ultima Underworld the moment occurred when I got to the end, resurrected Garamons in the hopes of getting him to tell me what I need to do to save my ass and the rest of the world, and when I ask him the question he says--get this--"he has no idea." Then he asks you if you have any ideas. I stared at the screen for five minutes in disbelief--this game was asking me how to solve it, which I thought was brilliant. It also scared the hell out of me.
The other moment was in Wasteland, when I went inside Finster's android brain and was facing my childhood fears and enemies. I thought the presentation was amazing, and the way you used your intelligence and skills to fight back against your opponents--it was just evidence that even "low-tech" games could pull off some cool ideas without much resources at their disposal.
Again, these games are pretty old-school, which should give you a clue as to how old I'm getting to be. Also, I didn't get started into Japanese RPG console games yet, otherwise there's a ton of those that have excellent story moments, if I'd only been playing them at the time (Final Fantasy III comes to mind). Also, some of the early Infocom games also scared me (The Lurking Horror), made me feel loss for a buddy (Planetfall), and creeped me out with a doomed ending (Infidel).
"I really have never been blown away or struck by a story in any game that I can remember."-- Tim Schafer
Ken Levine: Let me say this: With few exceptions, I've always hated cutscenes. I hate sitting through them. I hate the generally terrible writing. I hate the notion that most game developers want nothing more than to make public the dramatic machinations of their D&D characters from high school.
I'm a big fan of emergent storyline. I remember growing my squad of beloved characters (who never had a single line of dialogue) in X-COM and watching with bated breath as they entered the treacherous corridors of the final boss with only a single blaster launcher missile left. Why? Because it was a scenario conceived by a partnership between myself and the game. It was a moment that existed uniquely in my gaming experience and not shared the same way by any other soul on earth.
But as a designer, it's hard to give up that control. We want to craft moments of gameplay. I've done it myself---hey, I've written my share of cutscenes. But what we conceive as designers is never going to be as good as what the partnership of gamer and game creates.
Again, for me it's rarely story per se, but the unique moments of gameplay storytelling. I loved the beginning of Beyond Good and Evil and how they defined Jade's character. You meet her by seeing her environment. She's living under an alien dictatorship, and she's built her home into a makeshift orphanage. As you walk around her house you see why she's a hero, how much the kids love her and why her life is important. By the time any real gameplay happens, you want to protect her, you want to help her succeed.
And the whole thing is done with almost no actual dialogue.
Hideo Kojima: It was when I played Portopia Murder Case (Famicom) by Yuji Horii (Dragon Quest). Along with my encountering Super Mario Bros., experiencing this game led to my working in this industry. The player is a detective and tries to solve this murder case with his colleague called Yasu. There's mystery, a 3D dungeon, humor, and a proper background and explanation of why the murderer committed the crime. That is why there was drama in this game. My encountering this game expanded the potential of video games in my mind.
Tim Schafer: Not really. I really have never been blown away or struck by a story in any game that I can remember.
Ragnar Tørnquist: Pong! Good God, the festering bitterness between the left paddle and the right paddle tore my heart in two. Where was the love?
It's an obvious answer, perhaps, but the ones that have really stuck with me are the old-school adventure games: Loom, Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island, the first Gabriel Knight. There were stories before that--good ones, too--but they didn't have the emotional resonance of those early-'90s graphic adventures. They weren't just great game stories; they were great stories, period.