I don't always put narrative in games,
but when I do, it's to tell a story...
This can be as simple as conveying a single series of events that mean something to me, and I want to share with the player. For example, the story of a puzzle game can be quite linear: short blurbs or scripted events that relate some narrative to the level's solution and hint at the new obstacle or mechanic to employ. Wik and the Fable of Souls
employed this techinque, but they were a bit over wordy, IMO. World of Goo's sign painter is a great example, and it has great writing -- The bare minimum game mechanics are fine, but with just a bit of story you can add a lot of interest. With a weird universe like those I kind of wanted to know why I was swinging with my tongue, spitting honey at the beast, or why the goo was going into the pipe, why the world went digital all of a sudden... Without a story these would have still been good games, but the weirdness would be nonsensical Just being weird for weird's sake is fine, but it's usually better received if there's some reason.
Humans seem good at picking up on the story that's embedded in events that they can (somewhat) understand. You can understand why killing a child would cause the adults near-by to fight you to the death, but in more abstract or alien worlds narrative can serve to explain events that would otherwise be meaningless.
When I first started playing games they didn't have any graphics. You had a dialog with the game itself, in text. You could type "look door" to get a description of the door, or "hit monster" to fight something. Walking around was usually something like "go west" and then you'd get an overview description of the surroundings you were now in. You could even move in 3D in my favorite multi-player text-based games (see: MUDs, like Crossroads
Now, lots of people seem to miss out on the important things that we learned back in the era of text based gaming, despite nearly all other games, from Adventure to puzzle, from RPG to MMORPG, being direct descendent's of the genre.
Firstly: You can give the player narrative overload. Say what's important. The trick is to be clever and funny with the least amount of words, and not to be too repetitive / annoying -- Jokes get old FAST in games. E.g., no matter how funny the 1st time, by the 3rd time hearing it I was sick of the Psychonauts voice actors, especially for needlessly lengthy explanations of inventory items you have to frequently and repeatedly purchase, "you take that psi-core there, and you put it together with... blah, blah, blah" I wanted to kill that old bastard more than any boss.
Secondly: Just like you can get lost in a book, narrative can actually be quite immersive, even if it's just text. Story isn't just about the story arc.
Thirdly: In a text based game EVERYTHING is made of words, but there are many different ways to use words! Words don't always mean "narrative". The description of a Gun in a menu, can tie into the story, but it can just as well be part of the world's setting. It's important to make the distinction between linear narrative, essential informative data, and world crafting.
It's easy as a writer to make the mistake of lumping all that together and overloading the main narrative with too many descriptions of things and explanations of stuff. It's also easy to not include enough narrative and leave players feeling that there's no meaning to their actions.
Now that we have graphics we don't have to use words for everything, but the lessons of writing in these old non-graphical games still apply. For instance in a text based game it's easy to tell a story using only world crafting:
You're at the edge of a small sunny clearing in the trees. Dense forest surrounds you in every direction but east.
> go east
Many blackened tree stumps dot the lonely clearing of the surrounding canopy.
Charred earth crunches loudly beneath the young grass with each step.
The sun glints from a tiny spot on the ground nearby.
> look ground
You've uncovered the skeletal remains of a fallen warrior.
There is a round steel shield, iron sword, and skull on the ground.
> get shield
You pickup the round steel shield. It reeks of brimstone.
These descriptions use world crafting techniques to tell the fateful story of a brave knight's last fight with a dragon. Some would call this "telling a story with gameplay", but the gameplay had nothing to do with the story. The player could have easily left the remains, or passed through the clearing without discovering the dead knight. The game plays the same if there were just a sword and shield left in the middle of the forest. The player may or may not discover similar clearings in the forest with signs of other battles: magical dragon scales, lost supplies, the knights dead horse. (>kick dead horse. "You find this strangely satisfying.") We can incorporate the writing into gameplay by having nearby townsfolk reward you if you give back the family shield, or send you on a quest to get revenge on the dragon. We can just as easily leave the dead knight's story as is, just adding a bit of interesting historical detail to the world.
I write all sorts of little stories to flesh out the history of each part of a game world. This adds richness and depth -- What makes the real world feel so real is all of the history behind everything you see... To me a game's narrative is simply the top slice of the game world's history: what's happening "now".
I don't have to tell all of the story via direct narrative, and not all writing detracts from gameplay: "There was a fierce battle in this clearing between a knight and a dragon, blah blah blah" (ugh). Much better to weave that little story into the world and let the player decide how much to experience of the game's narrative.
In a visual game these same world crafting techniques can be employed -- You would make the actual clearings and place the items, trigger the sound effects instead of describing them, but why the world looks the way it does IS a result of "writing" the history of that place. Not all games need writing: Tetris doesn't need it -- However, Tetris Worlds does have writing, you beat levels to make worlds inhabitable for the Minos because their star is dying. The settings and cute customizable cube characters add atmosphere to an otherwise very abstract game where completing different objectives with blocks changes the look of the world for some reason. The sparse narrative in Tetris Worlds gives meaning to why the worlds start out desolate and end up lush (besides rewarding the player with visual interests).
There are many different ways to communicate events and weave a story. The non-linear narrative of world crafting can be used to weave a thousand stories into the game, and give the player the freedom to go out into the world you've made and discover their own story.
This is sort of an aside, but one thing I've noticed is that with the advent of graphics and sound and voice actors game assets got MUCH more expensive to make than in the old text-based game days. As a result the worlds are typically more sparse, there is less world crafting, and every asset is sort of thrown in your face over the course of the game. Thus, the games lose replay value, and feel less real. For example, in that text based BBS MUD I even detailed the inside of the knight's skull's eye sockets. It took me less than 30 seconds to do so, and I didn't care if the asset actually contributed to the story or gameplay, it was for atmosphere and a nice place to put a little non-intrusive comedic relief.
I'm not saying that writing based games are better, just that we should reflect back on them because much like an old timer, these old games still have lots to teach about game design. The next time you're pixel arting a wall do some writing and give it a bit of character -- You don't have to use words to tell the player the story of how that brick got cracked -- it doesn't matter whom the blood that now stains it belonged to; The world tells tiny tales of forgotten history to create character.