September 5, 2019

Video Games as Textual, Audiovisual, Spatial Storytelling

Video games are worth your while and are a unique form of storytelling. Games combine the best aspects of books, movies, and comics, while offering one other element, which we’ll get to later. First, let’s talk about games’ use of textual, audiovisual, and spatial storytelling.

Text and Subtext

Like a book, many games use text to tell their story. Older games rarely had voice acting, instead having each character’s words written or typed out on the screen. Games that now have voice acting still usually reserve it for cutscenes and use text for the majority of encounters in the game. This is somewhat equivalent to a comic’s use of speech balloons.

Some games, however, use text in a way unique from comics or books, and that is by using it in the descriptions of creatures and items. Okami is but one example of this; each time you fight an enemy, a description of it is added to your bestiary. These descriptions reveal new information that the player wouldn’t know simply from fighting each creature: that’s not just a flying fish, but the soul of a drowned woman; that electric mirror was struck by lightning, became a tsukumogami, and holds some of the theatrical feelings of it’s former owner; that scarecrow monster is the physical embodiment of loneliness felt in wintery lands. Although these descriptions don’t affect the main storyline, they add to the player's understanding of the world of the game. Similar encyclopedic items are found in other games, such as Pokemon’s Pok√©dex or Breath of the Wild's Sheikah Slate camera.

Certain games rely more heavily, if not entirely, on such descriptions to tell their story. Dark Souls is a hands-off game that gives players only the barest minimum information: in order to light the First Flame and stop everyone from going undead, ring two bells, fight four guys, get their souls and dump them into the Flame. That’s it. Not a lot to go on, and if that were it, I can’t see Darks Souls ever having become as popular as it is (especially considering how punishingly difficult it is). But beneath the surface lies a trail of breadcrumbs to follow; in the descriptions of each article of clothing, piece of armor, or weapon lie an intricate story and world building. If the player takes the time to pay attention to what is said, what items look like, and how they are described and then connects the dots, they are rewarded with a totally fleshed out story. Before I watched my brother play Dark Souls (It’s way too hard for me to play myself), I thought I hated dark fantasy, but Dark Souls sold me on it, and it did that with its subtle yet complex storytelling technique.

Art Style and Sound Effects

Games utilize visuals and sound in a way similar to movies, in that they present their story with specific camera angles and blocking (in cutscenes, at least) and use recurring theme music and sound effects. Games do, however, tend to be more stylized than movies. In terms of visuals, this was originally due to technological limitations; that is, graphics had to be simple because arcade machines and game cartridges didn’t have the capacity to handle more complicated data. Nowadays, the visual style of a game is a deliberate choice on the part of the developers.

As an aside, more realistic or better graphics do not necessarily equate to a better art style, in that “real” is not actually a style. There’s nothing wrong with games that choose realism, but I personally prefer those that present something more intentional: the painted scroll look of Okami, whose story is based on folklore; the lanky griminess of Dark Souls, which has themes of death and a world passing away; or the neon, middle-school-skater aesthetic of Splatoon, a paint-ball/skatepark simulator. Choosing a particular style and color scheme for a game can affect the way the player feels about it. Should they be scared, or amped up? Should it seem serious, or goofy and silly? Should the game feel artificial or realistic? Maybe it should be even more real than real, as in the detailed sci-fi sets of Halo and Destiny? These are things that good game developers ask and answer in the form of visual storytelling.

As far as the use of sound, the most stylized aspect of it is non-diegetic sound effects and the use of theme music. For non-diegetic sounds, I mean sounds that are meant to alert the player to something, but that are not part of the world of the game: the sound in the Metal Gear games that happens when someone notices Snake sneaking around, the beeping in Zelda games, and so on. Though such sounds function as alerts to the players, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them part of storytelling.

Music, on the other hand, absolutely serves the story. Games use recurring musical themes for specific characters  and situations. Ace Attorney, for example, uses the “Turnabout Sisters” theme for Mia and Maya, while other themes specify which phase of a trial you're in: cross-examination, a dangerous situation or new revelation, or the final confrontation with the guilty party. Many game series have music that span all games such as the Halo Theme, The Legend of Zelda Theme, and Zelda’s Lullaby. When these play, not only does the player get a sense of the import of whatever’s happening in that particular scene, but also feels connected to something larger, something that spans decades (in the real world) or even centuries (in the story setting). Music like this creates cohesion and immersion, and is a huge part of the emotional impact of games.

Two- and Three-Dimensional Space

While comics use two-dimensional space, in the form of panels and pages, games can use two- or use three-dimensional space. Side-scrollers (those games that feature the characters in profile, moving more or less left and right), top-down games (where the players views all action as if they were seeing it from above) and other such games generally use space either to simply let the character more from one location to another (whether that is from one event to another, to different random encounters or battle scenes, or even just the beginning of the level to its end), or as a way to introduce puzzles.

While oftentimes games include puzzles to make the games more challenging, certain games incorporate them into the story. Ghost Trick’s gameplay consists of building Rube Goldberg machines in order to save people from being killed, but that's because the main character is a ghost who can only possess and manipulate objects. A three-dimensional version of this is Portal, where the premise of the game is that you find yourself in a rather shady laboratory that is running tests using a gun that can shoot portals, allowing you to teleport around the test chambers. The gameplay involves strategy and puzzle-solving skills, and the in-game setting literally involves the same thing (incidentally, while Portal would be a fun puzzle game on it’s own, the audio from GlaDos, the AI who runs the test, is what makes that game an unforgettable classic!). While comics require that the artist use space to tell their story, games like Ghost Trick and Portal require the player to utilize and interact with the space in order to become a part of the world and advance the plot.

Since we’re talking about three-dimensional games, which obviously include puzzles and getting from point A to B, I’ll mention that games have the addition of a sense of distance. That is, you might be able to see a volcano on the horizon, or know on your map where the next town lies, but you actually have to take the time to journey there. Thus, many a game includes a quest element. You, the player, take a journey and spend time in the spacethe worldof the game. Not only do many games require you to complete a quest, many allow you to go off the beaten path, in the form of side quests, exploration, and choices.

But this post is getting long, and I have a lot to say regarding how that exploration and choice factors into what makes games truly unique. For now, I think I have shown that video games are worthwhile. Next time, dear readers—and gamers—I’ll share more thoughts on video games and why they are a totally unique form of storytelling.

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