These Video Games Are Taking Story To The Next Level
With fleshed-out characters, engaging plots, and sumptuous settings, games are fast becoming the most fully integrated narrative experience.By Laura HudsonOct 6, 2016 1:26 PM
In the interactive fiction game 80 Days, inspired by Jules Verne’s 1873 novel, Around the World in 80 Days, you don’t just watch an adventure unfold across the globe … you get to take one. What cities will you visit? What lamplit streets will you wander? What revolutions will you foment? It’s all up to you. Full of vivid storytelling and richly described locales that open into countless branching adventures at your touch, 80 Days crackles with possibility and feels more like inhabiting a piece of literature than simply consuming one.
It’s the sort of interactive, narrative-driven experience that more and more videogames are starting to provide, and one that the medium is uniquely well suited to deliver. “We’re only just starting to explore the different kinds of experiences, effects, and stories that [games] can tell,” says Meg Jayanth, the author of 80 Days. “It’s a young medium. We’re still working out the rules — and all the ways we can break them, too.”
Although the gaming medium is perhaps best known to the public for hyperviolent fare like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty, it’s also increasingly home to sophisticated storytelling and emotionally affecting experiences that rival those found in film, television, and novels — and sometimes even surpass them.
“For a long time, people believed that movies were the best storytelling medium when it came to acting and entertainment,” says Rich Sommer, an actor on the AMC series Mad Men who also voices the protagonist of the hit independent game Firewatch. “Then shows like The Shield and The Sopranos and The Wire started happening on television, and people realized you can tell amazing stories in a slightly different way on TV. Now I think we’re starting to see that move toward video games as well.”
Although big-budget games are now far more likely to dish out money for Hollywood screenwriters, they still tend to put action ahead of character and story, which are often treated as bonus content rather than the heart of the game. It’s the midsize and smaller studios that are expanding both the types of stories that games tell and the people they tell them about. Firewatch, for example, is an often-melancholy tale that focuses on a 40-year-old man who takes a job as a fire lookout in a Wyoming forest after he loses his wife to early onset Alzheimer’s. Life is Strange, an episodic drama released last year, revolves around the complex relationship between a teenage girl with supernatural powers and her best friend.
“I think there’s been a huge shift in the very basic approach to storytelling,” says Sam Barlow, a game designer who worked at Climax Studios (Assassin’s Creed Chronicles) before setting out in 2014 to make games on his own. “Now we have this huge number of independent developers, like the people making Firewatch, peeling off from the traditional developers, starting up smaller new teams, and finding ways to explore smaller, more story-driven games.”
“Traditionally, with oral storytelling, stories that would be passed on, every telling would be slightly different.”
One of the most highly acclaimed releases of 2015 was Her Story, a murder mystery Barlow created about a woman being questioning by the police after her husband’s 1994 death. Instead of making you the detective or the woman, however, it simply opens an antiquated police database on your computer screen where you can search for videos of the woman’s multiple interrogations. It’s a bit like solving a mystery by Googling: By entering keywords like “murder” or “alibi,” you can unearth all the different fragments of the interviews until you eventually piece together the truth.
By almost any standard, Her Story is an unusual game: It’s a non-linear story whose scenes can unfold in any order, it features only one character and there’s no action or even the ability to move a character across a screen. But it’s still a brilliant and effective experience and one that wouldn’t have been possible in any other medium because it hinges so centrally on the essential quality of videogames — their interactivity.
“The more I’ve looked into classical storytelling and story in any other medium, the more I’ve realized that storytelling is and always has been interactive on a basic level,” says Barlow. “Traditionally, with oral storytelling, stories that would be passed on, every telling would be slightly different, and there’d be audience feedback. And even if a work is entirely static, when we tell stories we are hijacking the brain and doing things with the imagination to unwrap these stories in people’s brains. … There’s something exciting about the idea of telling a story in a medium that acknowledges and amplifies that.”
Game designer Clint Hocking goes even further, suggesting that he wants players “to be able to create their own stories. I think that video games are the water coolers of the 21st century, and the more freedom of expression you give to players to generate their own interesting stories, the more powerful the medium is.”
Although critics of the medium have long challenged fans to identify the Citizen Kane of games — a singular masterwork so powerful that it could legitimize the medium — Hocking says that it’s not that simple, particularly when the shapes that a game can take are so varied.
“Video games have progressed enormously, but in a hundred different directions,” says Hocking, who worked on the Splinter Cell series and Far Cry 2. Rather than converging toward a singular idea of what a video game masterpiece should look like, innovation and storytelling in games has diverged across a variety of different approaches. “It’s not about figuring out how games achieve narrative meaning in a singular way. It’s about the breadth, the different directions that we can explore. There’s a lot of unexplored and fertile territory.”
The potential to tell stories in interactive ways (or even create new ways to tell stories) has also attracted creators from film, television, and literature who want to explore that territory as well. One of the unexpected hits of 2015 was Until Dawn, a horror game written by Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick, filmmakers best known for their independent horror movies. The story revolves around a group of teenagers trapped in a remote cabin being stalked by a killer. It sounds a lot like a stereotypical horror movie, and feels like one too, except that instead of shouting impotently at the screen that a character shouldn’t go down into the basement, you actually get to make those decisions. Instead of feeling smugly superior to the people getting knifed after making foolish choices, you become them — and become responsible for what happens to them.
Fessenden freely admits that he’s “not a gamer” but says he was drawn to the idea of making a horror video game because he wanted to try his hand at “writing a script that had endless branching possibilities.” Like Barlow, he’s excited by the work he sees happening, particularly in independent games, and where it could take the medium. “I think we are already seeing games pushing the traditional format in new directions. Just like how independent film pushes the direction of mainstream movies.
The immersiveness of games and their unique ability to let people embody characters was part of the draw for Naomi Alderman, an award-winning British novelist who writes episodic stories for the mobile game Zombies, Run! Set in a post-apocalyptic world full of the walking dead, Zombies, Run! is an augmented-reality game, played on smartphones, that puts the player in the role of a runner evading zombies in order to carry information and supplies to different outposts. Even the guest writers for the game have an impressive literary pedigree, with notable novelists like Joanne Harris and Margaret Atwood scripting their own chapters of the series.
“I think there are games being made today that … will still be studied by literature academics in 500 years’ time.”
“Games have always seemed to me like places where you can walk inside a story; the writing can be as good and as compelling as a novel or a movie,” says Alderman. “And that idea of letting the waters of the story world close over your head — of feeling so immersed that, like a dream, it seems to be happening to you and not to a character — that’s very exciting.”
In Zombies, Run!, the world of the game is layered over your sprints through the real world which the game tracks via GPS on your smartphone. The story and characters come to life through intermittent radio dispatches that play in your earphones and inform you about your latest mission, what’s happening back at the base, and when the undead are closing in on your location. It’s a visceral experience, one that makes your heart pound when you hear the groaning zombies hot on your heels, and feels genuinely upsetting when they sink their teeth into a character you have come to know and love.
“There’s a growing audience for games with deeper story-driven content,” says Alderman. “And yes, I think some of the classics of the genre are being made right now. I think there are games being made today that — barring the end of the world via global warming — will still be studied by literature academics in 500 years’ time.”