Storytelling in Video Games

If you have come here looking for an argument that explains why video games are objectively better than books or movies, move along. I have something of an addiction to collecting books (I have like three different books about bees; it’s a problem) and I’m a student at a film school, so I’m very fond of both of these mediums. However, video games, compared to the other two, are certainly the underdog of the storytelling mediums. The vast majority of people remember video games as ruthless thieves who stole countless quarters of their allowance in the 1980’s or the corrupting machines that caused their children to create a NES controller-shaped hole in the drywall of their living room. These things considered, it’s understandable that mainstream culture is hesitant to accept video games as a unique art form and vehicle for storytelling. So, if you fit into either of these categories, this article is for you!

Video games have a come a long way since the days of Pong, in more ways than just graphics. People are always surprised or even skeptical when I tell them that my favorite story of all time is found not in a movie or a novel but in a GameCube game called Skies of Arcadia. Play it. It’s the best game ever. Many people simply don’t understand how this can be because they have never played a video game that blew them away with a deep and compelling story. In response to this inquiry, most gamers will simply hand you a copy of Final Fantasy VII and hope that you’ll figure it out yourself. But in this article I’m assuming that you’re not the kind of person who has 80+ hours of spare time to spend on a video game. I believe that video games provide unique opportunities for storytellers that are simply not possible in movies, TV shows, or even books. So here are three concrete ways in which video games, as a storytelling medium, stand alone.

1. Interactivity

The most obvious obvious difference between video games and their media counterparts is interactivity. Somebody who watches a movie is called a viewer or an audience member. Somebody who reads a book is called a reader. Somebody who plays video games is called a player. While a viewer or a reader is a passive participant, a player is an active participant. This provides consumers of the medium with an entirely different experience. You can watch a movie about a space marine who fights aliens, but in video games you can be a space marine who fights aliens. This is significant for a few different reasons.

Would you rather watch Batman or BE Batman? I thought so.

First of all, video games are by far the most immersive medium. Books are more immersive than movies because they require the reader to construct the world with the author in their imagination, but, even still, the reader has no control over the story’s outcome, (for the purpose of this article, indulge me by pretending that “Choose Your Own Adventure” books don’t exist), but in video games, you do. Some might argue that not at all video games are open world and therefore do not fit this category, but this trait is still exhibited in any game regardless of genre. Let’s look at Pac-Man as an example, not because it’s an especially good example of storytelling but a simple one.

In the beginning, Mr. and Mrs. Pac-Man meet. In Act II, they chase each other playfully. There’s an Act III, but I never witnessed it because I really suck at Mrs. Pac-Man. In order to complete the story, one has to beat a certain number of increasingly difficult levels to witness the ending. This concept of having to “earn” the story’s plot with your skill might seem more annoying than anything and, in Mrs. Pac-Man’s case, it kind of is, mostly because the gameplay doesn’t directly correlate with the story. But when you work for something, the result is that much more satisfying. Seeing the birth of Pac-Man Jr. is quite unimpressive to someone who simply watches a YouTube video of the clip but much more rewarding for someone who has toiled for hours on end. This idea might seem silly on principle, but it applies to mediums of all kinds. In my opinion, a short story with a truly great ending is satisfying, but an 800 page novel with a great ending is that much more satisfying. This is because my patience is aptly rewarded and, as a result, the experience of reading the lengthy book will stick with me longer than the reading of the short story.

Probably also the reason that this response is so insufferably annoying.

All video games that make any attempt at narrative capitalize on this concept of achievement and reward for hard work, but, in contrast to Mrs. Pac-Man, many newer games make the gameplay an integral part of the story rather than an afterthought or vice versa. Games like those in the Metal Gear Solid series, Silent Hill 2, and Portal (to name a few) are renowned for incorporating great stories with intriguing characters into gameplay that complements the storytelling experience rather than detracts from it. But all these games, despite their utilization of interactivity, are still quite linear, much like a movie or a book. They have a beginning, middle, and end, even if not necessarily presented in that order. However, video games, as a medium, are not bound by linearity at all.

Many video games in the last decade or so are “open-world.” This simply means that the player is given a number of goals or objectives to complete the story but is not forced to complete the game in one particular manner. For example, the Legend of Zelda series always provides the player with a clear objective (e.g. gather these three thingamabobs, rescue these seven people, vanquish these four monsters, etc.) but are also given additional goals unnecessary or even unrelated to finishing the game. These are called “sidequests” and offer the player a great deal of variety in their playthrough. These storytelling devices can be used to construct subplots, additional character development, and exposition on the world that the player inhabits. This structure is unique to video games as a medium and enables…

2. Subjectivity

In any game, no two players have an identical experience, which greatly affects the player’s interpretation of the game. In response, one could argue that this is the same of movies, books, and anything else. For example, Bob might hate a character in a book because he reminds them of that annoying kid, Jake, who asked too many questions in 8th grade Social Studies, while the adult version of Jake might love that character. However, video games still differ greatly. The readers of this book both experienced the same events in this fictional reality, even if they interpreted it in different ways. But, using Mrs. Pac-Man again as an example, Bob might have chosen to clear out the top-right quadrant on level one while Jake decided to clear out the bottom-left quadrant. Bob might have been cornered by Pinky and Inky while Jake ate Clyde four times in a row. Really, there are theoretically infinite possibilities for how a game of Mrs. Pac-Man can play out, and that’s just a narratively simplistic arcade game. A person who plays a particular video game might have a different opinion about a character than someone else, not only because of their personal bias but because they shared an entirely different experience with that character.

The games made by publisher Bethesda Softworks are a prime example of how totally subjective one game can be, namely The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Fallout 3. In both of these games, the former taking place in a medieval fantasy world and the latter in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland, the player is prompted to create an avatar. Everything from his/her face to race to size to even personality is customizable. Afterward, they are put in a massive world and… well, the rest is up to the player. Right from the beginning, they can go anywhere and do anything, and the odds that the two players have the same exact experience from that point on are nearly impossible. But of course these games still have writers and, in my opinion, very skilled ones at that. These writers create characters and locations for the player to interact with, but whether or not the protagonist ever talks to these characters or visits one of these locations is entirely up to the player.

Fallout 3’s world map is actually a replication of Washington D.C. In other words, it’s huge.

The storytellers who wrote these games work to create interesting narratives but, as soon as the controller falls into the player’s hands, they forfeit some of their creative power to the consumer. You, the player, become a creative collaborator, responsible for your character’s fate. But this is only one example of how storytellers can use video games as a medium. There are countless other ways because video games exhibit…

3. Diversity

This is a picture from Train Arrives At Station, a 1896 movie:


This is a picture of a movie from Singin’ in the Rain, a 1952 movie:

This one’s from Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, which came out earlier this year:

Movies have undergone quite a bit of change in the last century, but all of these examples function as a medium in roughly the same way. There are different genres that separate movies from each other, but no movie can escape the fact that it’s sole purpose is to be watched. Mechanically, there is no variation in this medium. Books are less rigid in their constraints, but are usually just meant to be read. The sheer amount of diversity found in video games makes them an entirely unique medium on their own.

This variety becomes evident when one considers how video games are categorized. While movies and books are categorized by their content, video games are often categorized not by what visual or narrative elements they contain, but by how they are played. There are platformers, shooters, adventure games, puzzle games, RPG’s, and countless others. Each genre provides a unique experience for the player and some stories that work flawlessly in a RPG, for example, could never in a million years work in a shooter and vice versa. Video games are not just a singular entertainment medium, but an umbrella category that encompasses many mediums.

God of War would probably make for a pretty crumby puzzle game.

Most impressively, diversity in video games is expanding at a rapid pace. While film has been around for a little over 100 years and books have been around for ages, video games are still a fairly young medium, but they have evolved at a much faster rate than their counterparts. Technological advancements in video games constantly change the way in which they are played while advancements in film, like 3D, or books, like eBooks, do not have a dramatic effect on the media’s method of consumption. For example, in Ed’s recent article, he discussed Classroom Aquatic, a VR game designed for the Oculus Rift in which the player subtly turns his or her head to cheat on an exam for dolphins. This premise would most likely be rather boring as an arcade game, but the level of immersion creates tension in ways previously impossible.

Shannon’s recent article deals with alternative methods in constructing gaming narratives by creating interactive experiences that foster empathy for racial, sexual, and other minorities. These are just a few examples of gaming’s nearly limitless narrative potential. So if you are a person who has never picked up a video game because you find a book or a movie to a more valuable use of your time, pick up a Zelda game, or any number of narratively strong alternatives, and brace yourself for an entirely different and rewarding experience.
So what do you think? Do you have any video favorite video game stories? Can you think of any that would never work in a film or a book? Let us know in the comments section below! And don’t forget to stop by Top Shelf Gaming for brand new articles every week!

Written by Jesse Cupp

Jesse Cupp is a sophomore at Chapman University, double-majoring in Screenwriting and English. Outside of writing scripts and papers, he spends a great deal of time playing his PS3 and GameCube. He has a long and complicated relationship with Nintendo.

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