At some point in my so-called career as a gamer, I stopped being interested in games. For a few years, the TV captured all of my attention instead - I was young, and MTV seemed big and shiny and terribly attractive. I floated back some time later, but found that I had missed out on a great deal of important titles, and I was reluctant to make up for it.
Was being the key word. I am as we speak knee-deep in a game of Thief 2, a stealth classic I have fuzzy memories of reading about in the magazines as I was starting to lose my interest in gaming. It's been an interesting experience leaping back to this game after several months of focusing primarily on modern AAA games. Not that the gameplay is necessarily that different (there's a distinct lack of chest-high walls, I'll give them that) but the way the story is told most certainly is.
As far as I've heard, Thief 2 approached its story by creating the levels first, and then winding the various missions around them. It shows: it takes a few moments before the set-up of every mission sinks in when you start, with context being given primarily in text, a relic of gaming's earlier days. At the same time, there's a modern edge to it: key story elements can be found as you play, outside of the main framing device, such as scrolls and scripted conversation between NPCs.
It's exemplary for 90s games that were trying to figure out how to fuse storytelling and gameplay together. Another example would be the original StarCraft, which used a few fumbling CG videos and a lot of small, repetitive character icons accompanied by text and voice to tell its story. Occasionally these icons would pop up again during gameplay, usually to exposition on a change in the level's parameters. Inevitably, though, these icons would fade away and leave you to the business of gaming, as if patting you on the shoulder and saying, okay, it's your turn again.
I remember being quite impressed by Half-Life in that respect when it first came out: to my young self, it was 'the game where the story actually happens in the game'. Sure, a lot of it looks clumsy now to our eyes, but it dragged the model from story-then-game to story-and-game. The famous opening sequences, where your avatar goes through the Black Mesa facility and physically pushes a cart into a beam, causing the story's catalyst (the resonance cascade) is exemplary of that.
Of course, that does generate this strange sense that the story should be manipulable, but isn't. I've played several games where I'd grow frustrated with my character's seeming inability to do something that seemed like it made sense, either because the game had already established that I could cause certain story flags to happen myself, or because it asked me for a solution that seemed so much dumber than the far more creative one I'd come up with.
It's that same effect that made parts of Mass Effect 3 so frustrating to some players: you're so used to some parts being interactive that the thought of another part not being interactive or malleable seems ridiculous. After all, if killing Wrex means you don't run into him in the sequel, then why does telling Garrus to fuck off in the first game have no real impact on his dialogue trees in the later games? As I discussed earlier, the more options you offer, the more consequences gamers feel they are entitled to cause or get.
I haven't finished Bastion yet, but so far it's offered me an interesting solution to this problem. The game's narrator talks about your adventures as you have them-- in past tense. Rather than just describing the key scripted points that your character can't avoid, though, the narrator seems to be intimately familiar with the details of your particular playthrough. For example: if you run around smashing everything, he makes a comment to that effect. It's a terribly effective way of offering the player the illusion of consequence, because everything they do matters to the story that is being told.
Of course, it is only an illusion, and that's the problem with our increasing assumption that everything in a game is, or should be, malleable. A game can only respond to actions that the devs have anticipated and programmed towards, and that means in a practical sense there's always a struggle with resources. Eventually, they'll stumble upon the ancient issue of depth versus width-- but I'll talk about Mass Effect versus Skyrim later.
Thief 2 is an interesting artifact. It's a game in which the story is mostly rigid, but you can determine a certain amount of the information that reaches you throughout the game-- by which objects the player chooses to interact with. At the same time, it doesn't really let you touch the story itself yet: it still gives you the story and then the game. But you can see the bleed starting to happen, the way the relatively simplistic story is given more detail via in-game elements-- probably Half-Life's influence-- and attempts to give you a sense that you're actually part of the world.