Storytelling in Games
Someone recently asked me to list my top five games, a not uncommon discussion between nerdly types. I listed them and we talked about the choices a bit, as well as why I think John Marston is the greatest character of all time. Then they asked the following question:
What game would you love to play?
Now, I’m sure we’ve all had thoughts about an ideal game we’d love. For some it would be a long‐awaited sequel to a game they love. For others, it would be a reimagining of an older classic. For others still it would involve riding around on a T. rex, firing missiles made of corgis at various sportspeople. In any case, there’s an abundance of potential in the medium that hasn’t yet been realised simply because it’s a such a young artform. This got me thinking about the wealth of games yet to fall into my eager hands.
The development of video games as a way of telling a story has been reported as having reached its epitome in the last three years. Titles such as The Last of Us and The Walking Dead have been lauded as some of the finest examples of storytelling that video games have offered up, and with good reason. They are phenomenal games. I still remember to this day the reaction I had to the endings of both games. I was exhausted from everything I’d just witnessed but in a totally fantastic way. You know the moment after you finish a really great book when you just stare into the distance for a second to digest what you’ve been through? That’s exactly what I felt after playing those two games. However, games have been exploited for years as a medium for fantastic storytelling, regardless of graphical fidelity. I mean graphics in books are almost worse than a ZX Spectrum, but it doesn’t stop them from telling a good story. Let’s consider old text‐based adventure games, such as the utterly incredible Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984), written by Douglas Adams himself. These seem to get overlooked when discussing great games. Maybe people don’t consider them “real games,” but, as far as I’m concerned, if there’s an element of interaction with the narrative, it can be a game. Just replace shooting a monster in the face with a choice between taking two doors and BAM! Same thing.
If you think about it, games started like this solely as a means to convey a story. The machines they ran on weren’t advanced enough to have any real innovation in their game mechanics. Only with the onset of arcade machines and home consoles were the releases pushed in a less plot‐driven direction. And you know what? That’s fine. That’s more than fine: it should be encouraged. Just because you have a way of telling a story doesn’t mean you’re under any obligation to. Games being fun is pretty much their selling point. Many people dismiss video games because they’re shallow; the plots can be paper thin and serve purely the gameplay mechanic. I’d argue that even the most shallow games that have a fun or inventive gameplay system are equally as valid as the most intricate and nuanced narrative. They both fulfill a different need for the player.
I think that’s why my favourite games meet somewhere in the middle. This middle ground can be very hard to achieve, not only in games, but in any media. Movies are an example: balancing a great story with a fun experience is difficult to pull off, and the ones that succeed show the potential of the media. Just as with movies, anything and everything should be available for expression through a video game, no matter the content. That means, of course, we’re going to have some extreme examples, such as games that bore you to death or games that have a story that doesn’t make a lick of sense. But that’s fine. The wealth of potential and creativity for this medium is incredible, and I’m more than excited to play through these experiences. So what game would I love to play? Everything. I’m so excited for the future of video games, and you should be too.