Storytelling through gaming – a new medium?
I don’t mind admitting I play video games. I’m generally not very good at them but I like them. I’ve played arcade games, PC games and had various consoles over the years and currently have a PS4 which is excellent. I’ve recently got to the end of a game called Life is Strange on the PS4 which was quite an experience and it got me thinking about the types of games I play and why.
Games have come a long way from the competitiveness of the simple Pong via Space Invaders, platform games and to current first person shooters such as Call of Duty and the like, sports games like FIFA and a push towards online gaming against people from all over the world.
While many of these are great fun the push for online collaborative play, which I am not a particular fan of, has often meant the single player story driven modes in games are feeling like an afterthought. To me, online modes seem to fall into the same categories and be distinguished only by the different graphics in each game and different weapons used. I appreciate that’s a simplistic view but I like a rather more personal experience.
Having said that, playing against someone in the same room is great fun as I was recently reminded by getting beaten up in a fighting game at a friends house recently.
Something that has greatly changed with games is the push in terms of the quality of immersive and emotional storytelling. Games with quality scripts, quality acting and even with very well known actors getting involved.
There are games that come across as a kind of interactive (to varying degrees) story. Heavy Rain which first appeared on the PS3 was one of the first significant examples of this for me. Before that there were games where you felt a connection to the character but this was more like a book or movie with decisions you make altering the flow of the story. Ultimately it felt like watching the story unfold and pressing the occasional button than playing a game but it was immersive and made you want to find out what happens next.
A game called Beyond: Two Souls from the same studio took this a bit further and felt more like a game and less like the outcome was predetermined as there were quite a lot of possible endings but the one that really showed that you can tell a gripping and emotional story with characters that you really came to care about was The Last of Us. From the shocking opening scene you really felt this was something special as the relationship and bond between the two main characters developed and I actually didn’t want it to end. This was within the confines of a more traditional action game rather than one that required you to make decisions that would influence things further down the line but shows what a difference a quality story and acting can bring to the gaming experience.
More recently there have been episodic decision making games based on The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones which are very well written and really make you develop a connection with the characters and consider the decisions you’re required to make. Will you offend someone who you may need to ask for help later or could you end up getting someone killed?
Then I came to Life is Strange which has many themes around growing up, friendship, bullying and taking responsibility for the decisions you make. There were some difficult choices to make which could result in people dying or just making future tasks easier or harder. Without giving spoilers and even though it was only a game, because of the emotional attachment it had caused me to develop with the characters the final decision was a surprisingly difficult one to make and this was a big surprise. How much you can get emotionally involved in a video game now is really coming into the realms of a story you might read in a book or watch on a movie screen.
What the long term effects of that decision will be, assuming it affects something in Season 2, who knows but that’s part of it, making the best decision you can at the time (though obviously you can reply it and change things and see what happens). While you feel you’ll still get to the end of the story no matter what, the decisions you make do have repercussions, and this is what starts to push these titles beyond the simple word “game”.
For those who spout the rhetoric that games are mindless and lead to the downfall of the human race, maybe take a look at some of the recent batch of immersive and entertaining storytelling that developers are producing. These are becoming almost cinematic stories with real character development and deal with many emotional themes. Development budgets are huge and I’m really enjoying this new kind of storytelling but it’s also great fun to just run around and let off steam shooting things sometimes.
We’ve never had such a range of interesting games and modern ones go far beyond the stereotype. There’s clearly more to come and I’m looking forward to more seasons of the games I’ve mentioned, rediscovering those characters and seeing what’s in store for them and how this new type of storytelling will develop.