NOTE: The following contains a fair bit of spoilers. You’ve been warned.
“Video games are for children”, your parents say. “They’re mindless entertainment”. How dare they ridicule your hobby? Well, they’re not wrong. A lot of video game narratives simply exist to shovel out exposition and establish context for blowing away bad guys. Their plots exist in service of their mechanics, not the other way around. But the same was said of the moving pictures when that medium was still in its infancy -and just look at how highly that artform is regarded today. There are plenty of releases that challenge the outdated notion that video games are for kids by addressing some of the biggest tropes that plague game storytelling. Here are a few postmodern games that acknowledge the problems with gaming and offer fresh commentary on the interaction between player and game.
1) SPEC OPS: THE LINE (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)
Chances are you missed out on Yager Interactive’s Spec Ops: The Line more from a lack of interest than awareness. It was the first game released in the budget-shooter Spec Ops series in over ten years, and had very little in common with those titles beyond its name. The game’s marketing and gameplay gave the impression that this was yet another cookie-cutter, modern-military Gears of War clone. But hidden under the generic gameplay and setting is one of the most scathing indictments of violence in media that can be found. To write off The Line is one of the biggest mistakes a gamer can make.
After Dubai is buried by a sandstorm, Captain Walker (PC and no-nonsense military man) and his squad are sent to investigate the fate of a US Army battalion stationed there. Of course, nothing goes as planned and a series of misunderstandings see you fighting the very people you were sent to rescue. Self-admittedly influenced by Hearts of Darkness, the story is surprisingly dark and engaging, but this isn’t what sets The Line apart from the likes of Call of Duty.
As the story progresses, the gameplay itself becomes more and more unnerving. The previously gung-ho commandos you face now plead for mercy as you mow them down. The generic loading screen tooltips begin to ask you if killing your comrades makes you feel like a hero. Walker himself becomes more animalistic, with his execution animations becoming more sadistic and his professional in-game orders devolving into monosyllabic grunts for blood.
By The Line’s final act, the player no longer sympathizes with Walker at all. His commanding officer chews him out, and by extension, the player, for enjoying violence and the feeling of power that comes with it. The game asks the player to consider if there is a difference between simulated atrocities and real ones. By embodying some of the worst aspects of the shooter genre, The Line manages to deliver a biting critique of the entire action genre.
2) THE STANLEY PARABLE (PC)
Choice is integral in games, as the medium relies on audience interaction more than any other art form. As game technology progresses, so has the prominence of player interaction in video game storylines. Galactic Cafe’s 2013 experimental title The Stanley Parable is all too aware of this growing inclusion and lampoons the concept of choice by making it its only gameplay mechanism.
The Stanley Parable is an odd bird, and is better experienced than explained. Each playthrough opens with disoriented office worker Stanley leaving his cubicle only to find his building devoid of life. A narrator, whom you can obey or ignore, tells you what to do next. Only one of the game’s endings involves following the narrator’s instructions verbatim, while the dozen or so other ones involve overruling them. All of the endings, however, take control away from the player in one way or another, whether by forcing players down a certain path or by teleporting them into a room with no exit, to remind them of the narrator’s omnipotence.
In making the “canon” narrative optional, The Stanley Parable creates only the illusion of choice. Every plotline, whether it involves following directions or going off the rails in an entirely new one, was intentionally written into the game with a predetermined ending. The narrator will “win” no matter what the player does, reinforcing the notion that even when players are given a choice, they are still subject to the will of the script.
3) METAL GEAR SOLID 2: SONS OF LIBERTY (PS2, PS3, Xbox, Xbox 360, PC, Vita)
When Hideo Kojima unleashed Metal Gear Solid in 1998, he intended it to be a stand alone stealth game. Unfortunately for Kojima, MGS was a massive success, and consumer demands led Konami to order a sequel from him. Sons of Liberty was released in 2001 following incredible levels of hype…followed by one of the strongest backlashes from fans in gaming history.
After a brief prologue segment, MGS hero Solid Snake is seemingly killed in an explosion and players spend the remainder of the game as Raiden. Raiden is the antithesis of Snake -a whiny, effeminate rookie whose only experience comes from simulated VR missions. Fans were outraged at being stuck with a joke character when all of MGS2’s marketing led them to believe they’d be returning as Snake. This was exactly the reaction Kojima was gunning for. By mocking his own fans, Kojima tears down the player’s internalized hero complexes. When Raiden tries to measure up to Snake, the other characters laugh him off, just as anyone would if you tried to equate yourself to the legendary soldier.
In addition to the satirical main character, the narrative itself rears its head to bite players in the butt. What is presented as a rescue mission to save the US president from Russian mercenaries is actually a massive ruse orchestrated by an Illuminate-like organization to recreate the events of the original MGS, for the purpose of “data-gathering.” The exorbitantly expensive ploy ends with the president assassinated, several blocks of Manhattan flattened, and a death toll in the thousands. It’s all very unnecessary…kind of how Kojima saw the sequel itself.
4) CATHERINE (Xbox 360, PS3)
Atlus’s Catherine is a 2011 puzzle game that revolves around Vincent, a slacker who is being pressured into marriage by his pregnant girlfriend, Katherine. Around the same time, Vincent meets Catherine, a mysterious, younger woman who also happens to be the girl of his dreams. And, speaking of dreams, Vincent and all the other unfaithful men of the town seem to be sharing the same nightmare, in which they climb a never-ending tower of blocks. But here’s the twist: one slip can lead to their deaths in real life.
The story follows Vincent over the course of a week, where he has to figure out the secret behind Catherine and his strange dreams, while also surviving the nightmarish puzzles he faces each night (which are modeled after his favorite video game). The catch here is that none of the events that transpire are real. Catherine opens with Trisha, a TV host, presenting the game’s plot as the weekly segment of an anthology series. The show’s watermark appears in the corner of the screen for the entire game, and the relationship drama plays out like a soap opera.
There are a multitude of endings, but the “true” ending only unlocks when all of the bonus challenge stages are cleared. Trisha reveals that story mode of Catherine was merely a test for you, yes, you, to take over as the architect of the nightmare. While not as scathing as the previous examples, Catherine’s conclusion reminds the player not to get too caught up in fictional realities when your own life is the one that truly matters.
5) BIOSHOCK INFINITE (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)
For the uninitiated, Irrational Games’s Bioshock Infinite places you in the boots of Booker, a Pinkerton hired to find a girl named Elizabeth on the floating city of Columbia. Elizabeth is no ordinary girl, as it turns out, as she can open up portals into alternate realities. This ability functions as the game’s method for ammo pickups and level transitions, but is also a driving force in the narrative.
In Infinite’s finale, Elizabeth guides Booker through the multiverse. In every reality, Booker is sent on the same mission to save Elizabeth and meets the same fate. As Elizabeth explains, the realities are separated by constants that define all of them and the small variables that differentiate them. The constants can be equated to Infinite’s script, while the variables represent different playstyles. How Booker goes about rescuing Elizabeth is irrelevant- the game will always end the same way.
At several points in Infinite, the player is given unduly obvious “moments of decision” that have no impact on the narrative. One involves whether or not to participate in the stoning of an interracial couple. Even if the player decides to go along with it, Booker won’t. Another instance has you choosing a brooch for Elizabeth to wear- the differences are only aesthetic. Meanwhile, significant story events, such as when Booker or other NPC’s kill a central character, are scripted and entirely out of the player’s control. Infinite’s plot delivery serves as yet another tongue-in-cheek refutation of the value placed on player choice in games.
By putting players in the director’s chair, video games can give players an unrivaled storytelling experience. Pacing the plot through the audience’s own interactions and experiences can let a game create a custom-tailored narrative experience that can offer as much insight into the person holding the controller as the genre it exists in. If there’s some old-timer you know that still won’t acknowledge the merits of the medium, shoot these titles his way and see if he doesn’t change his mind.
Any other titles I didn’t mention that reached out to you? Have any thoughts of your own on storytelling in games? Let me know in the comments below!