Life Of Game: Stories Games Can Tell

I touched on this in my first column, but storytelling in video games is definitely worthy of more dedicated thought and praise. Some people may be quick to dismiss video games as focused on the addicting fun of mashing buttons and lacking narrative, which to be fair, is the case for some video games. I don’t think any gamer is preparing to write a thesis as to why the stories of “Pong,” “Pac-Man,” “Fortnite” or “Farmville” are such compelling masterpieces.

But, as there is that side of the spectrum with games focused almost entirely on providing fun-filled gameplay experiences, there are also games that emphasize story and sometimes even put it first. Take the recent “Detroit: Become Human” as an example. All the gameplay consists of is mainly walking around and pressing buttons that correspond with on-screen prompts or dialogue options. What’s enticing about this game to some people is how the player can control three androids in future Detroit and work their way toward a stunning number of different choices and endings. They can make the story their own, much like an expanded choose-your-own-adventure book, and that’s the main draw.

There are also series of games that emphasize the whole package, including an audiovisual suite of pleasing sights and sounds, well-crafted stories with memorable characters and solid gameplay to tie it all together. Some of my favorite series that I feel combine all of these elements very well include The Legend of Zelda, Metal Gear Solid, Uncharted, Fire Emblem and many more examples too long to list.

However, for this installment of the column, I’d like to talk about specific examples in which the story could truly only be told in its desired format through the medium of video games. Most of the above examples consist of what I call cinematic storytelling in games, meaning there’s a distinct disconnect between what is story and what is game. For instance, in “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End” or “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” (two of my favorite modern games by the way), these games both have satisfying stories, but they could arguably be told in other mediums because the story-gameplay loop usually goes like this: shoot some bad guys or slay some monsters and then watch a cutscene and so on. These games break out of the movie within in a game mold in subtle ways at least. “Uncharted 4” features hours of talented writing and voice acting beyond what any one film could handle in terms of length, and “Breath of the Wild” allows the player to experience cutscenes in different orders depending on where the player explores in the world.

Some games go one step further, forgoing the story-gameplay loop at times by incorporating a radio of sorts. This can be seen and heard in games like “Star Fox 64” or the recent “Marvel’s Spider-Man” for PlayStation 4. These games still have cutscenes in which you, the player, aren’t directly involved in the action for a time, but a surprising amount of the story and character interactions play out with disembodied voices playing in the background while whatever action (mostly scripted on a linear pathway like in “Star Fox 64” or free-roaming web-swinging like in “Spider-Man”) continues on-screen.

The boldest storytelling in games occurs when the act of a game being played becomes part of the story itself. And no, I’m not talking about quick time events in some horror, action or point-and-click games that require the player to press buttons quickly while cutscenes play on-screen. That might be the example that’s easiest to explain, but to uncover how games can evolve storytelling itself, we have to go much deeper.

Perhaps the most famous example of what I’m about to talk about is “UnderTale,” an indie game made mostly by one individual. This game looks simplistic on the surface, with retro-inspired, pixelated graphics and a bare-bones turn-based combat system compared to the usually much more complex role-playing games these days with their pages of menus and commands to choose from.

“UnderTale” made itself stand out in 2015 with its core premise: kill or be killed. Unlike most role-playing games, or games in general, the player can choose not to kill any of the “enemies” he or she comes across. Instead, through a series of puzzles, each type of character can be spared, which directly affects how the story plays out. Characters talk to you a different way or sometimes even the music changes depending on how much you kill or how much you stay determined to just make nice with everyone.

Not only does this serve as a commentary on the expectations of video games — because most games usually concern a hero vanquishing some foe and therefore some sort of violence — but it also provides an open-ended experience that provides something called replay value: meaning a player can beat “UnderTale” at least three times and have wildly different experiences every time. Characters’ awareness of the actions of the main character, who is therefore the player, mold “UnderTale’s” story from what could have been a cliche fantasy plotline into a complex narrative completely dependent on the open-ended nature of the game and the input the player gives.

And that’s where video games differ the most as a medium in general. Input from the person being entertained is never something that can be directly done with a movie, TV show, song or novel. You’re never actively communicating with those things; the pieces of art are communicating to you. It’s one-way only. It’s always a passive experience, even if it’s an amazing one. Games allow two-way communication that in some cases can drastically affect the entertainment you are experiencing on a multi-faceted level, and it’s remarkable how deep it has all become.

What are some of your favorite stories featured in video games? And what other game-related topics would you like me to discuss in the future? Feel free to email me at ezavinski@post-journal.com, and I’ll be sure to read your messages! Have a great Life of Game for the rest of 2019 and make your story what you want it to be! After all, life is more like a video game than any other form of entertainment.