Games against the world…of storytelling

I have always considered gaming a legitimate storytelling medium. The British Board of Film Classification, however, released a report in April stating that “People who do not play games raise concerns about their engrossing nature, assuming that players are also emotionally engrossed. This research suggests the opposite; a range of factors seems to make them less emotionally involving than film or television.” While it’s true that many games ignore the story or only use it to further the action, in some games the tale being woven is the main reason that people buy the game. Final Fantasy VII immediately springs to mind as being one of the few games I’ve ever known to reduce grown men to tears at the death of a character. One of the problems with videogame narratives is that videogaming is not only a very young medium but one that is totally changed with each new generation of consoles, every five years or so. Movies have been around for nearly a century, and yet they have had only a handful of landscape-altering changes: the addition of sound, then color, then CGI effects being the most prominent of these. However, each new generation of videogame systems is a quantum leap over the last one and continually opens up new methods of communication from the developer to the player, so that it is difficult for game developers and producers to effectively master a system before they must begin working on a new one.
Another reason that videogame stories don’t receive the respect they deserve is because novels and movies have to highlight their stories. A novel is a story, so that’s obviously rather important, and it’s rare to see a decent movie that never develops an engrossing plotline. Videogames, however, don’t necessarily need a story to be entertaining. Does there have to be a mesmerizing yarn in Tetris for you to enjoy yourself? Do you sit there and wonder, “Why are there blocks falling from the sky? What’s the point of stacking them up, and HOW DO THEY DISAPPEAR LIKE THAT?” No, of course not, because that would get in the way of enjoying the gameplay.
However, a strong story in a game can absolutely have as deep an emotional impact in a person as a favorite movie or book can. I remember when I first played Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, for the original Xbox. You are a Jedi sent out to look for two Sith Lords, one of whom has mysteriously disappeared and is presumed dead after a fierce battle. All throughout the game you are fed little hints and pieces of info foreshadowing the plot twist, until finally it is revealed that you are the missing Sith Lord! When this came to light I just sat in front of my TV for a good fifteen minutes, utterly shocked. I wasn’t the only one, either. IGN.com proclaimed KOTOR’s story “stronger with the force than any George Lucas- powered movie that’s come out in the last twenty years.” The best part of videogame storylines is that they are dynamic. Many RPG’s now, including KOTOR, let you change the storyline itself with your actions and decisions. Some games even have multiple endings. This kind of interactivity is what allows the very best game storylines to be (dare I say it?) better than the very best movies or novels. No matter how many times you watch Luke Skywalker battle Darth Vader, the end always remains the same. But in KOTOR, the good guys don’t always win. In fact, you can play as a bad guy and embrace the Dark Side, ensuring that the universe becomes your oyster. “Choice” just isn’t a word in the movie land and bookworm vernacular, and therefore I believe that videogames not only have the potential to be better storytelling vehicles than film or novels, but that they already are.

– Sikatanon

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1 thought on “Games against the world…of storytelling”

  1. Truth be told — if, all other gameplay elements being equal, I rarely purchase a game solely because of narrative content unless there is a strong tie to an already well known intellectual property such as The Fellowship of the Ring. If it weren’t for the Tolkien aspect of the game, you could still have gorgeous art and great game play leave me less than engaged. It is the coupling of external literature or a movie with the game that makes the property more interesting — I want to “live the movie!”

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