Narrative in video games has become a subject of much discussion lately–and rightfully so. Video games can provide some of the most emotionally intense experiences in media because of their immersion into a world with rich experiences for players to discover. What makes video games/computer games unique is the sense of “agency” and control that the player is given–the power to shift the direction of the experience through gameplay.
Decisions have consequences. This is strongly felt in games such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Mass Effect (from Bioware). Characters remember your actions and the course of the story shifts based on the choices you make. It’s not uncommon to experience “regret” upon seeing the unintended consequences and impact your decision has upon a character in the story. Unlike the “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories from childhood, it’s not as simple as flipping back or forward a few pages to choose a different path. The game moves onward and the player is left to wonder about what might have been done differently.
Emotional resonance comes from characters in which you’ve invested either responding to, benefiting, or suffering from (sometimes dying because of) your actions. Controlling the protagonist of the story also places the player into the shoes of that central character as they make discoveries–sometimes awe-inspiring, joyous, or heartbreaking. Deciding which character to save can become an agonizing decision the player is left to face.
Backstory in games can be conveyed in interesting and unique ways. Discovering letters, audio logs, diary entries, memos, emails, videos, etc. can provide information about what has happened to the supporting characters in the story and the game world as it existed, prior to the player’s entry.
The player can also choose to linger in a particular environment as long as the game will allow–and sometimes indefinitely–soaking up all the rich sensory details of a unique, fantastic place. Signage, displays, advertising, graffiti, architecture, ambient noise, overhead conversations, and music (period music or lush game scores) can all help to create an incredibly vivid sense of place for the player. Game series such as Bioshock and Myst have especially excelled in this regard. Myst featured the tagline “The Surrealistic Adventure that Will Become Your World.” And appropriately so. Bioshock and Bioshock 2 showcased the failed 1950’s Art Deco undersea “Utopia” of the undersea city of Rapture and the 1912 floating city in the clouds–Columbia–was the setting of Bioshock Infinite. Worlds of great beauty can be seen in games such as Journey and Flower.
Games such as Dead Space, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill (among others) immerse players in dread-filled, sinister atmosphere-soaked worlds and environments where they are menaced by creatures in such a viscerally strong way that the experience can sometimes be “too much” for certain players. It’s too nerve wracking to continue on for some. Unlike in a traditional horror story, the player is responsible for surviving the onslaught and has to fend off the dark forces–perhaps single-handedly. Hiding one’s eyes from a jump scare or scary image in a game at the wrong moment can lead to the death of the player, whereas a film continues on without consequence.
Some games feature open worlds for the player to discover–visiting certain locales freely and often in the order the player wishes–versus having a strict, linear narrative, where the player is moved along a clearly defined path predetermined by the game designer.
Video games can also use the storytelling techniques of a Hollywood film by featuring “cutscenes” or cinematics—usually non-interactive scenes that give the sense of scale and scope of a big-budget Hollywood movie. These epic scripted moments can drive the story forward in a way independent of the gameplay.
And much like in independent cinema, indie games afford players innovative, quirky, and artistic visions (via modestly priced experiences) that are free from much of the tinkering and restrictions that a larger film studio/game publisher might exert.
Strong voice acting can also bring video game characters to life, with many stirring and memorable performances being delivered by talent in this arena. Mark Hamill’s the Joker is a particular standout, in the Batman Arkham series. And unique, distinctive visions from game designers/creators often feature game scripts with sharp dialogue and surprising twists as well. Both laughter and tears can be evoked when playing because of these two traditions from the theater–acting and storytelling.
Whether every game is capable of being classified as art is debatable. However, what cannot be denied is some games are capable of providing experiences as rich, resonant, and powerful as creative expressions in other entertainment mediums–whether literary, theatrical, television, music, or film. Games are interactive multimedia in the best sense of the word–incorporating video, text, and music and drawing from the rich history of multiple media to craft some of the most compelling entertainment available today.
–Cory Graham @2013