In recent decades, video games have gradually developed as a valid art form that stands alongside literature and cinema. This is largely due to the exciting stories they are capable of telling. From simple interactive experiences, games have evolved to ones that rely on nuanced narratives to unfold their worlds. Nowadays, a good narrative is just as important as the visuals for a game’s success.
The appearance of Donkey Kong in 1981 marked the beginning of storytelling in games. Elements such as cutscenes, animations, and text place the story alongside the gameplay and give the player a goal to achieve. Gradually, the stories become more and more complex, and the games become multi-hour interactive novellas. At the same time, they have all the elements of literature – plot, characters, and dialogue. The two specific elements of a good video game story are:
- Player-Character Dynamics: A good player-character dynamic is one where the two become one – no matter what happens, the character’s actions must follow their ideas, mission, and morals. At any moment, the player should be convinced that his character’s actions are logical and justified. Any good video game gives the player the feeling that he is in control of the situation as the main character.
- An interactive world that the player explores: The more objects the player can see and touch during their time in the video game, the deeper they become immersed in its world. Interactivity also comes in the form of making decisions – whether to shoot the zombie that stands in our way or run away, whether to give the car keys to the lady who wants to take her husband’s car from the garage we are guarding, or not.
The deceptive sense of control
It’s not hard to tell when a story is good – we just don’t want to leave the world we’re “painting” to see what happens next, and how it all ends. The advantage of video games is that, unlike books, movies, and television, they give a sense of active participation in the telling of the narrative. This feeling, however false it may be at times, is extremely convincing. The player takes on the role of the protagonist. The decisions he makes can significantly change the course of history or so he thinks. In reality, the game is tied to storylines predetermined by the writers. Speaking of screenwriters, it’s worth noting that especially in games that provide choices, they have quite a bit of work to do. Depending on the different decisions the character/player makes, the game could have different endings. Such is the case with the Mass Effect trilogy, where the player has the ability to customize the character and choose the dialogue and major plot points. Not only does this leave room for hundreds of hours of gameplay, but it also gives one time to become emotionally invested in the world the game (and themselves) creates. Uncharted and Tomb Raider, for example, tell compelling stories while engrossing the player in puzzle solving. The storyline in titles like the first and second parts of The Last of Us, while linear, is just as compelling and can compete with the movies. The emotional complexity of the story allowed it to reach the hearts of players and earned the title a number of awards.
There is a belief that literature is at a disadvantage in the current digital age. Such arguments tend to create tension between the media. Language is an extremely powerful tool that, combined with images and sound, creates fascinating worlds. Films are proof of this, and video games are another field for “shifting” between text and picture. Add in the interactive nature of the games and you get some really compelling stories. The worlds we inhabit in video games are, while seemingly vast, bounded by hard-coded horizons that the player simply cannot cross. But good stories are not defined by their ability to be endless, but by the extent to which they make us feel a variety of emotions. There’s a trend called “literary video games” that includes titles like Dear Ester and Everybody Gone to the Rapture. The genre of the game is a walking simulator. The player travels from one point to another, while interacting with objects from the surrounding environment. These games are becoming more and more popular and the reason for this is that they tell stories through the locations and objects that the player goes through and explores.
Video games are a medium of choice for more and more people because they allow them to immerse themselves in a story that they feel like they are creating. If you want to become a good writer, you must read books. If you want to become a good video game writer, you have to play accordingly. Storytelling in games is a job for truly dedicated and creative people. The sooner this passion is discovered, the better the talent can be honed and lead to the desired career.