Video Games as a Storytelling Medium

I wanted to take a break from my usual ranting to talk about something quite close to my heart. As part of the argument that games are (or at least can be) art, I’d like to look at something that I find particularly interesting: storytelling. In particular I want to try and explain why video games have the potential to be the greatest storytelling medium of them all…

Did he really just say that?

Don’t get me wrong. I love to read a good book: nothing can give you the same connection to the mind of the author or tap into that greatest of rendering engines, the human imagination, quite like the written word. I also love a good movie; its great to be able to sit down, switch off and watch a story play out in front of you.

But gaming is different. If you have never played video games, or have only played simple, casual games, then you might not appreciate why they are such powerful storytelling tools, so I’m going to try and explain why I get so excited about them.

Different Media

Hopefully you can already see that movies and books are two different types of media that have their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to storytelling. Lots of people complain when a director changes something from the Harry Potter books to adapt it to the big screen, but the reality is that you need to tell the story differently if you are telling it via a different medium.

Gaming is a different medium again, and we are still learning how to use it to best effect. Some games like the Elder Scrolls series create a sprawling, open-world where the player can explore the setting in any order and at their own pace, but these games tend to lack the depth and focus of a more linear story. Other developers, such as David Cage, tend to tell more focused, linear narratives, but they lack the breadth and replayability of the more open games.

Half Life 2 (c) Valve

Half Life 2 (c) Valve

Its a hard balance to achieve. Personally, I like games like Half-Life 2 or Starcraft that manage to marry gameplay and storyline together. I feel that games like Oblivion or Fallout 3 are too unfocussed and I find myself losing interest, while games like Heavy Rain are too linear and seem to be forsaking the key interactive element that is what separates video games from other forms of entertainment. I suppose I could enjoy such linearity if the storyline wasn’t so convoluted, obtuse and not particularly well-written, but I’m straying into ranting territory again and getting off topic!

Interactivity and Immersion

The key element that sets video games apart is the interactivity and the potential for immersion in the game world. A book can immerse you quite well in a story, even telling the story from the hero’s perspective to let you get into their head. Meanwhile being able to see the characters and watch their interactions and body language in a movie can make you appreciate them and care for them as if they were real people. However, in both books and films you are merely an observer and it can be easy to feel detached from what is going on.

People often laugh at me when I say “*I* just defeated such-and-such” or “*I* just saved the world” when talking about a game. I admit that this might seem weird at first but, like with any story, you have to let yourself be drawn in and become invested and this is where gaming has the potential to excel as a storytelling medium.

Choice is an important factor. The player might choose to handle certain situations differently, which can make them feel more like part of the story. For example in the Deus Ex games the player often has the choice of whether to stealth through an area or run in guns blazing, to kill people to take them out non-fatally. They can also make choices, such as whether to kill or spare particular a character, that can have repercussions later in the story, adding to the feeling that they are contributing to the story, as well as adding some replay value to the game.

They can also have a choice as to how deeply they dive into the story. They could choose not to talk to characters between missions or take side quests but just focus on the action. They could also choose to find out more about their companions and explore for hidden areas for extra toys and rewards. This is good particularly in subsequent playthroughs of a game where you might want to skip over the story. This is, of course, not true for all games; games like Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid tend to drown you in story and exposition, often in lengthy and unskippable cutscenes… and yes, I know I’m ranting again, but it seems I can’t help myself!

Mass Effect (c) Bioware

Mass Effect (c) Bioware

But, for me, its the fact that you are interacting with the game, rather than being a passive observer, that can make video games so (potentially) powerful. You are choosing to talk to the characters in Mass Effect, asking them questions about their lives and getting closer to them, as you do when you spend time with someone in real life. You are also fighting alongside them in battle, watching each other’s backs and working together to achieve your goals (except when the AI is badly designed or buggy, of course!).

You are an active participant and this really helps to draw you in. You can develop more of an emotional attachment to the characters and are able to smile when good things happen to them and cry when bad things happen. Your actions can  even change how the game ends. All of this adds up to a much more captivating and emotional experience than other forms of entertainment can provide.

Final Thoughts

Gaming, as an interactive medium, has great potential to tell immersive and compelling stories. This, of course, assumes that the game is well designed and well written, with well-rounded characters and an interesting world, which is not always the case. But then you are just as likely to come across a badly-written book or a badly-made film as you are to find a badly-designed or badly-implemented game.

Gaming is still a relatively young medium and people are still experimenting and that is good, but already we can see how gaming franchises build up a fan following who love their world and characters. I hope that people will come to appreciate how powerful these interactive experiences can be for telling stories and that games will one day be accepted, alongside literature and films, as an art form.