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What Video Games Can Teach Us About Storytelling

Very frequently video games are dismissed as an art form and storytelling media. In fact, recently two of the most well-known and influential film directors, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, dismissed the idea that video games would be able to provide the same ‘rich’ experience as other more ‘traditional’ forms of storytelling. And sure, I’m a huge fan of these storymakers (I can’t tell you how much I love Star Wars and Indiana Jones and anything Spielberg touches with his magic) but I’m going to tell you why they’re wrong.

Yes, video games will not give you the same experience as a film. But a film won’t give you the same experience as a book. A book won’t give you the same experience as a television series. And vice versa again and again. Every medium tells a story in a different way, even if it’s of the same story. However, that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of creating a rich and immersive story.

First, I’m going to dismiss Lucas’ opinion that there can be no plot in game (I’d argue this is true for online campaign games – however not so for MMORPG’s like Warcraft that often follow a key storyline). All games follow a storyline, some more rigidly than others. Even expansive RPGs like Dragon Age and Mass Effect have clear plot lines that progress the story, and though this isn’t true for every game, it doesn’t make a plot within gaming impossible.

Secondly, I disagree with Spielberg’s opinion that “the second you get the controller something turns off in the heart”. An opinion suggests that it’s harder to be immersed in the story and relate to the main character. Personally I believe the contrary is true. In a film, you are watching premeditated events take place. In a game you are experiencing them. You are determining the course of your actions. Yes it’s true that often the playable protagonist isn’t particularly well developed, however this is usually so that the player can insert themselves into the role of the character which can be immersive and make you personally invested in the character.

Now my rant is over I want to tell you about some of my favourite video games and why they’re just as important forms of storytelling and how you can use this in your own stories.

Tomb Raider

The reboot of Tomb Raider in 2013 completely revamped the series. It took Lara, an underdeveloped rich English archaelogist, known for her large pixalated breasts and ‘kill all’ attitude and stripped her back to a scared young woman following her own path in life. Tomb Raider stopped being about puzzles and climbing techniques and instead became a story, a journey that you went on with this young women as she changed from a victim to a survivor to a killer.

Sure it was by no means perfect, and how quickly Lara adapts to killing multiple targets can be easily criticised for bypassing story in order to make room for gaming requirements. However, there are some very powerful moments in the game, such as seeing the famous Lara Croft kill someone for the very first time and the emotional turns as she struggles with how to survive. The course of the game shows more character development for the protagonist than I’ve seen in most films or books. I also think the writing has much to be admired in terms of character dialogue (which is obviously a key component in gaming). It’s no wonder that the script by Rhianna Pratchett was shortlisted for WGGB Best Videogame Script. It also demonstrated that the best way to reboot a series, is to do something completely different from the original while keeping some of its core values.

Bioshock

So without spoilers it’s going to be hard to talk about everything I love about Bioshock, but I’ll do my best. While a relatively old game having been released in 2007, Bioshock brought something new to the world of First Person Shooters, that often follow a militaristic approach. Instead Bioshock brought players to a completely unique and immersive city called Rapture. The world building of the city, expands beyond its beautiful scenery as Rapture is located underneath the sea. As you progress through the game you learn Rapture existed as a place for cutting edge science that didn’t pass ethical guidelines anywhere else and soon deteriorated to the horror-esque landscape you experience, with scary and fast once-human Splicers, creepy Little Sister and thundering Big Daddy’s all ready to tear you apart.

With multiple VGX awards and a BAFTA for Best Video Game, it’s easy to see how it was universally loved. Even by gamers like me, who generally dislike First Person Shooters. Besides the rich worldbuilding, Bioshock also leads you on a journey that starts with an unknown man (the protagonist) trying to escape this underwater city, but it then takes many twists and turns which can teach you how to surprise your audience while still laying enough clues. And even if the story isn’t to your liking, the beauty of Rapture and 1940’s aesthetic will be enough to keep you playing.

Bioshock Infinite

The third game in the Bioshock series took a completely different approach to the two before it, departing the city of Rapture and instead taking us to a completely new city called Columbia, and instead of under the sea, Columbia floated in the skies. It wasn’t just the appearance of Columbia that was different from Rapture, it was bright and colourful where Rapture was dark and dank, the evil was hidden beneath the surface and except for a Utopian unison of forward-thinking scientist, Columbia was based off of White American privilege. While it follows a similar story of dubious morality, Bioshock Infinite really shows how to revamp a series and give it a completely new form of life. Not all sequels have to be rigidly attached to their older counterparts.

The protagonist Booker is sent to the steampunk air city to find Elizabeth, a girl locked in a tower, and take her from Columbia. After finding Elizabeth, Booker’s relationship with the girl becomes a key part of the game. The antagonist, Comstock, isn’t necessarily an aggressive figure. He is referred to as ‘the Prophet’, with an ongoing religious focus on the False Shepard (Booker) leading the Lamb (Elizabeth) away. Religion is a key part of the culture along with a clear police state and perceived utopia that is later revealed for the sham it is. It’s one of the best portrayals of a dystopian society, based on the concept of American exceptionalism, influenced by historical racism prevalent in America in the early 1900’s, leaving plenty of unsettling material just beneath the skin and showing the subtle way society dismisses it. If you’re writing about a post-apocalypse, play the first Bioshock game, but if you want a focus on dystopia then look no further than Bioshock Infinite.

Mass Effect

Though space opera is a known genre of science-fiction, there are very few good examples of it beyond Star Wars and the Fifth Element. Shows set in space often focus on humans or human-looking aliens and have a less expansive network of planets or variety of alien races. The game Mass Effect actually has some seriously expansive worldbuilding with at least 39 systems (and a few planets within each), over 22 races you can interract with (not including non-sapient creatures or historical aliens that still developed within the game). There is a codex in your log that also provides information about each of the races, planets and forms of technology. Simply put, if you can plan even a tenth of the worldbuilding that’s in Mass Effect, then you have more than enough for your story.

Even though it’s an RPG, Mass Effect has a rich storyline that continues throughout the entire trilogy. The first story focuses on the ascension of your protagonist Shepard (who can be male or female) as they become the first human Spectre (a form of ‘special’ military under the command of the alien parliament – I’m using earth speak here). The mistrust they face because of prejudice that they’re not ready and their journey to expose and stop a rogue Spectre called Saren. There’s multiple side missions, many of which interact with the plot. Any romances you have will also be carried on across all three games (and if you have a romance with two different people in 1 and 2, you get the joy of picking between them in Mass Effect 3). Another big factor is that at multiple points in the game (especially the finale) there is a chance that members of your crew (including the squad you can pick and choose to travel with you) can die. This is often a result of your choices and will determine whether you see that character or not in the next game.

Unlike any other game, Mass Effect puts an incredibly huge focus on player choice. Like Fable offers the opportunity for good and bad choices (which affect how people in the world interract towards you), you choose to be a good Paragon or a nasty Renegade – as you are given choices whether to kill many characters, commit genocide, and many other thing that will have a severe impact on the storyline, especially when it comes to loyalties that you need in Mass Effect 3.

Dishonored

I know I just discussed morality in Mass Effect, but in regards to the effects of moral choices, Dishonored approaches it in a new way. In Dishonored you play as Corvo Attano, a man framed for murdering the Empress he was sworn to protect. With the aid of many attempting a coup against the new ruler (whom had the old one murdered and kidnapped her daughter, Emily) you escape from prison and go on a mission to rescue Emily and return her to her mother’s throne. This is where choice comes in. There are essentially two routes that you can take. You can either take the path of revenge and slaughter everyone responsible for your imprisonment and the murder of your Empress, or you can campaign for justice and remove your targets in non-lethal ways, exposing the villains and safely taking Emily to the throne rather than carrying her to a throne built on corpses.

Your choice affects gameplay from the beginning. The more you kill, the more plague rats flood the city, the less favourably passing citizens acts towards you and even more importantly how your choice impacts Emily after you rescue her. It’s the difference between a little girl drawing a rainbow picture of you with ‘daddy’ written above it and her telling you that when she’s Empress she’ll make everyone suffer and have all traitors executed with a dead look in her eyes. Like any child Emily soaks in the world around her and if you chose to be evil, this will influence her.

Another good thing to take note of about this game is it’s subtlety. The relationship between the protagonist Corvo and Princess Emily is an important one. It opens with him returning home and the princess asking to play hide and seek. This is as much a hint that they are more than just a princess and the man sworn to protect her mother. Throughout the game you’re given hints that there was a relationship between Corvo and the Empress that went beyond what was likely acceptable and it makes you question whether Emily might actually be his daughter. However, the important thing about this is that the game never once states it. It only gives you constant hints by demonstrating a clear love between Corvo and the Empress and father-daughter bond between him and Emily, but this is never confirmed. If as a writer, you can balance this kind of approach then you’ve clearly mastered the art of show don’t tell.

The Last of Us

Of course, I saved the best for last. You can’t talk about games and story without thinking about the Last of Us, a game that has won more awards than I have the time to list, and features some of the richest storytelling ever seen in any medium. The Last of Us isn’t a story about a zombie-esque apocalypse, it’s a story about humans, humanity and just where the lines of morality blur and don’t. It’s a conversation about human nature and what would happen if we were really the last people left.

It opens on the night of the apocalypse. You play as Sarah with her dad Joel trying to escape the infected. But once the ‘prelude’ ends you become Joel. Twenty years later, coping with the loss of his daughter and the choices he has made in this new world, Joel smuggles things (weapons mostly) out of a police quarantined zones which is one of the few safe locations from the infected, and the story starts when he’s asked to smuggle a teenage girl called Ellie out of the zone. Ellie isn’t some ordinary girl, she’s immune to the virus that has infected most of humanity and a group called the ‘Fireflies’ believe with her, they can hope to find the cure. On a journey across America to find the Fireflies, the two bond and in a way Ellie substitutes the loss of Joel’s daughter and you can see how he projects Sarah on her. The zombie-like virus in the Last of Us, is based on a real thing, the cordyceps fungus. But that’s not even the scariest part. The scary part is the questions it asks without even speaking them. How far is it worth going to cure this virus? What would become of most people if an apocalyptic event to this scale really happened? How much do two people matter? Would it truly reveal the monstrosity of humans? And would you even notice who the real monsters are?

If you want inspiration for a story about the apocalypse and what it means for human nature; if you want to play a game that speaks about the human condition, then look no further than the Last of Us. As well as its story, the Last of Us has been praised for its characterisation, particularly of female characters (like Ellie, Tess, and the leader of the Fireflies, Marlene) and representation of LGBT characters (Bill and Ellie). Yet at its core it’s a story about Ellie and Joel, the story forming around their relationship. A clear demonstration that characterisation can be one of the most important parts of a story.

What are some of your favourite games and what is it that you love about them? Do you think that games are just as capable at telling stories as other mediums, such as film, TV and novels?

– Nadia

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2 thoughts on “What Video Games Can Teach Us About Storytelling

  1. This is a fantastic article!! Time and time again artists and professionals from other industries try to downplay the magnificence of video games and I don’t get it. I’ve had a more emotional attachment to the characters in Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us than I have to most Hollywood films in the past several years. I’m currently playing through Dishonored for the 1st time, heard great things about that game! Great job on this!

    Like

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you liked the article 🙂 I really don’t think games are given enough credit, their may be many that aren’t story driven but then there are those that make you feel a connection. I highly recommend Dishonored, it’s one of my favourite games (I’m so excited about the sequel). What I love most about it is the replayability as there are so many different ways to complete a mission.

      Like

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