Note: This article contains spoilers. Lots of them.
A stoic reflection on the futility of existence, Samuel Beckett's famously dull tragicomedy Waiting for Godot - in which two men wait endlessly for someone that never arrives - shares something in common with videogame stories that, as an industry, we never seem to address: The characters don't change.
Sure, they change appearance, gun, location, allegiance, job, and, more often than not, from being alive to being dead. They modify everything except the one thing that counts, the one thing we might remember them for long after the credits have rolled: themselves. They may have thwarted the apocalypse, but so what? What have they learned from the experience, what about their attitude, outlook, or personality has changed and in what way have we been inspired to change also? Besides a few hours of entertainment, what has the player actually gained?
Narrative isn't "stuff that happens." It's a carefully constructed sequence leading to a satisfying resolution. Similarly, good storytelling isn't measured by complexity or plausibility but emotional gratification. And no matter what form they take - whether a fish, robot, rat, or toy - the hero must experience inner conflict and develop as a character. To illustrate, we'll need a crash course in narrative theory. Hold your breath.
Based on Joseph Campbell's concept of the "monomyth" (literally "one myth") described in his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey describes twelve common structural elements to which all stories adhere in some form. Vogler called the precise moment of change the "Resurrection," the moment the hero is reborn having accepted and absorbed the lessons of the journey, either through - or enabling them to resolve - the wider conflict:
"The higher dramatic purpose of Resurrection is to give an outward sign the hero has really changed. The old Self must be proven to be completely dead, and the new Self immune to temptations and addictions that trapped the old form." (Vogler, 1992)
This is the moment Luke turns off his targeting computer to instead "use the force" in Star Wars, the moment Batman bears the brunt of Harvey's misdeeds to save Gotham's collective soul in The Dark Knight, the moment that categorically proves the hero has accepted the lessons of everything that has come before. In other words, the point of the thing.
Now, to briefly explain conflict: External conflicts are physical obstacles or challenges that games rely on to carry the action: battles, races, puzzles, arguments, and so forth. Internal conflicts, meanwhile, are the hero's emotional barriers or personality flaws: insecurity, egotism, anxiety, moral uncertainty, etc. They are the part of the hero that makes the audience truly question the hero's worth, the conquest of which is demonstrated progressively as the story unfolds, culminating in a single decisive moment: the Resurrection.