October 16, 2019

Video Games as Interactive Storytelling

As previously established, video games are a worthwhile form of storytelling, combining the best aspects of books, movies, and comics. They are unique among mediums, however, for being a truly interactive form of media. They are games, after all, and thus incorporate aspects play and choice.


Because you, the player, control the character, you experience the world as if you were in it, much more than in any other medium. You explore the environment. You fight the boss, and experience the struggle of battle. You help various NPCs, or non-player characters, with tasks. You make friends and allies, and fight alongside them. Although I never like my favorite characters getting hurt in any medium, when people attack my allies in video games, it's personal.

And that's what video games do: offer an incredibly personal experience. Unlike books, movies and comics, where you have to read from start to finish, video games let you meander and spend time in the setting. In games like Zelda, Okami, or Dark Souls, you can discover secrets that aren't necessarily part of the main plot. These can include hidden areas or side quests. Sometimes these add to your understanding of the story or make the main plot more emotionally impactful. For instance, I actually did all those side quests for people in Okami, so the cutscene during the final boss fight was personal to me. helped those people; they were lending their strength to me.

You can also gawk at the extra details of the world. One of my favorite examples of this is in Skyrim, where you can read books of short stories or admire intricately carved Nordic architecture, neither of which are important to the story or gameplay, but which make the experience more complete and immersive. I like to wonder at the fact that some person was paid to write those stories and design those carvings; they’re neat little details that someone at the studio thought were important enough to put into the game.

Even a game as linear and straightforward as the Ace Attorney series allows for a sort of exploration. Though you can only "move" through a series of set-like locations during the investigation stages, you can click on almost every object in order to hear banter between you and your assistant. While this doesn't generally offer much in the way of world or story building (unless the object turns out to be a crucial piece of evidence) it does let us experience more chemistry between the characters, endearing them to us even more.


Games in which the player’s choices effect the story obviously offer an interesting experience. Certain games have binary choices—send this character to the safety of the cathedral, or to be experimented on in a laboratory!—while others have branching trees and dozens or hundreds of possible endings. Many games incorporate a morality system, where the more bad choices one makes make for a darker ending, with the best result being the “Good ending” and the worst result, the “Bad ending”; many games opt for multiple bittersweet conclusions.

While some such games have fairly blank-slate, player-insert characters as protagonists (that is, they don’t have too much personality, because the player can fill that in), others have very specific motivations, while still offering choice. My sister was describing her initial frustration, in Red Dead Redemption 2, that she could only make not-so-good choices in some of the side quests. This makes sense, given that you are playing as an outlaw in a gang, but was still annoying in a game that claimed to give one choices. She was later delighted, though, after something important happens to the character (spoiler: they find out they have tuberculosis, which not only makes them sympathize with one of their former victims of the same condition, but also forces them to come to terms with their decisions, as time is running out), and good options start opening up. The way the game presented choices made sense for that individual character while still giving the player the freedom to reject certain choices if they want. Masterful!


I will say, however, that player choice is not totally unique to games, as Choose Your Own Adventure books were and occasionally still are a thing. Programmers can program in more possible choices than can be contained in a physical book, but the storytelling principal is the same. More interesting, I think, is video games’ ability to create random happenstance. What do I mean? Depending on what the player does when, they might stumble onto a part of a game in a different way than other players. 

For example, in Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time, musical themes for each location play during the day, while nighttime has only sound effects. As anyone who has played Ocarina can tell you, the Gerudo Valley theme is some of the coolest, most adventurous music in the franchise, and it starts playing in the canyon, before you arrive at the desert. In order to get to the desert the first time, you jump your horse over a broken bridge, which feels pretty awesome to a first time player. But for me, it was more. I arrived on horseback at the canyon at dawn, rode to the edge as the castanets of the Gerudo Valley theme started playing. Just as I jumped, the sun came over the horizon and the guitar began! I could have sworn there was even a lens flare, but that might have been my imagination reacting to the epicness of what was happening. It was a totally random, unrepeatable event, and I’ll never forget it.

In Okami, I never knew that going through some torii gates led into mystical areas while going around them led to ordinary shrines, because I always went a certain way. Thus, my mind was blown when I discovered, after following a little sparrow girl through a gate, that what had once been a solid wall was actually a pathway. It wasn't until my second play through that I went around the gate of the first shrine, which led to a glowing portal to a celestial world, and discovered nothing but an ordinary statue in a moss-covered cave. I never knew!

In another Zelda example, every player had a different experience of their first Blood Moon in Breath of the Wild. Blood Moons are events that serve to replenish the enemies in the area, but in-game are meant to be the malice of the main enemy infecting the environment and causing monsters to resurrect. They happen at random, and are preceded by the music changing, the light dimming, black wisps issuing out of the ground, and, of course, the full moon turning red. My brother first experienced it while looking at some goats in a pasture outside an inn, while my sister experienced it after climbing up a tower to reach a treasure chest. Never having heard that Blood Moons were a thing, their thoughts, respectively, were, “What the HECK is wrong with these goats!?” and “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry! I’ll put it back!” I’m sure others have their own fun stories of their initial horror at what was happening.

Social Interaction

Cast your mind back to when this whole diatribe of mine began, when I mentioned a coworker of mine saying that video games don’t inspire social interaction. Just the opposite is true, and it always has been.

One of the first, if not the first video games was the two-player game, pong. Though not actually a story game, this led the way for more two player, and then multiplayer games. Kids used to go to each other's houses and play Mario Brothers or Bubble Bobble; now, they interact with friends and strangers across the country in online, multiplayer games. There are even games that have “emotes”, special moves you can do to communicate with other players without voice chat. Others let you vote for another player as the MVP of each round to show your appreciation. Lest you think it’s all online, Nintendo is keeping in-person multiplay alive and well with games like Mario Kart, Mario Party, and Smash Brothers.

Single player games, too, invite interaction. Pre-internet, people would spread hints and strategy and cheat codes by word of mouth. “How did we know how to do that move without reading the manual?” my sister asked, recalling some odd special move in an older game. “I think a friend must have told me, and they probably heard it from one of their friends.” Nowadays, internet forums and Let’s Play videos serve the same purpose: a community of gamers helping each other out and spreading information about games.

I myself have talked repeatedly about what my brothers and sister experienced in their playthroughs. Some of this is because some games are too hard for me (like, every game FromSoft will ever make), but a lot of it is just because there was one TV and not enough time for me to start my own game. I’ve never actually played Sekiro or Bloodborne or Last Guardian, but I’ve watched people play all of them from start to finish, so I still have that experience. My brother and I both gasped when we first encountered a Mist Noble and its enchantment in Sekiro (and my advice, “Kill it with fire!” worked like a charm). My sister and I squeed over the griffin-dog-thing’s cute antics in Last Guardian. Unlike books, comics, and movies, which are best enjoyed in silence, video games invite conversation during play.

Online streams offer a similar experience. Even here, choice rears its head. Some streamers play it straight, from start-to-finish, with little editorializing. Others derp around doing a lot of nonsense, or add hilarious commentary, often adding their own layer of storytelling to the mix. Viewers of said streams can type comments in real-time, so that the streamer interacts not only with the game but with his viewers, and the entire experience is like one big conversation. Who said video games don’t inspire social interaction?


Right about now is when I connect this new form of storytelling to something ancient. Books are the new songs and poems, movies are the new plays, and comics are the new tapestries and hieroglyphics. What, then, are video games? As I said before, they take elements from all of these other mediums: video games are the new bard adding their own lyric to a song, or the actor playing a well-known role a different way, perhaps due to choice or happenstance.

But mostly, video games are the new play, that most primal and primordial of all human storytelling. We play as soon as we can think, and play act as soon as we can walk. Children assign themselves roles and act them out together. Humans are communal creatures, after all, who process narratives by interacting with other humans.

To some extent, all storytelling is like this, as it is one human telling something to another rather than keeping it in their head. Video games, though, bring back the communal aspect of storytelling. Wanting to take part in stories—whether as a child going on adventures with friends, or an adult participating in a narrative ceremony, or anyone telling a story around a fire to a group of rapt and responding listeners—is part of being human.

At some point, however, that part of life got chopped off and shunted to the corner, as if adults shouldn’t desire narrative play unless they are writers. Thus, video games are put down as childish, or geeky, or not as valid as books. Oddly, they are stereotyped as being something beloved by loners, which ignores the vibrant and vocal gaming community.

I’m not sure where the animus towards gaming comes from. Why is immersing oneself in an imaginary world while staring at a book is considered high-brow, but doing the same while staring at a screen considered low? I don’t know, nor do I want to. What I do know is that some of the most unique, innovative, and emotional, stories I’ve ever seen have been those in video games, and I hope that in the future, more people give them a chance.

And those, dear readers, gamers, viewers, and story lovers of all stripes, are my thoughts on video games.

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