Video Games as a Storytelling Medium

When one thinks about modern storytelling, one doesn’t usually think of video games first–usually film or books come to mind. Video games, though an increasingly prevalent form of media, aren’t typically associated with storytelling.

It’s a little bit odd, if you think about it. After all, when stripped down to the bare bones, video games serve the same function as films and books–they tell stories. Why is it, then, that they so rarely enter the public consciousness?

There is, I think, a number of reasons for this. Firstly, video games are a relatively new storytelling medium (at least as compared to film and books). The first video game is believed to have been created in 1958–and incidentally, was not Pong, as is popularly believed, which would not be created until 1972–and would not be easily accessible to the general public for decades to come. Furthermore, while early game developers certainly integrated storytelling into their games, the limitations of early technology imposed limits on the sorts of stories they could tell. It’s only been in the past few decades that their storytelling capabilities have been able to match that of movies.

There is also, of course, the assumptions made about those who plays video games–namely, that they are either a) children, or b) stereotypical 30-somethings still living in their mom’s basement. I’ll refrain from dissecting this stereotype, as we are undoubtedly all familiar with it, but suffice it to say that this stigma surrounding video games keeps many from taking it seriously as an artistic medium.

And this is a shame, because video games, just like any other mode of storytelling, bring unique strengths to the table that other mediums will never, try as they might, be able to emulate in the same way.

Though many will debate about the minutia, most will agree that a story requires three basic things: plot, setting, and character. I would argue that different storytelling mediums, while capable of utilizing all three, naturally have different strengths. Books, for example, undoubtedly have an advantage in conveying character, giving the reader a clear view of its character’s thoughts and motivations, and has strength in the plot department, but can be rather weak at conveying setting, as all the reader is physically “looking” at is text and white space. Meanwhile, film is very effective at conveying setting and plot, but as the watcher is a layer removed from the characters as compared to books, often struggles at conveying character. This is not to say that books cannot convey setting or films cannot convey character, but writers and filmmakers often have to take extra time to figure out how to utilize these elements with the tools that they have within their medium.

Video games, however, bring a very unique spin to these elements–video games have the advantage of applying agency to the player. Unlike when they are reading a book or watching a movie, the player has the ability to interact with the setting, control the character, and forward the plot, having the natural effect of increasing the player’s investment in the story. Books and movies have tried to implement the element of agency before–think the Choose Your Own Adventure books or the short-lived choice-based specials on Netflix–but never to any commercial success comparable to that of the video game industry. Over the years, video game developers have come to understand the power that agency has within their storytelling and how to use it to their advantage.

Agency and how much of it will be given to the player is behind nearly every question posed in the game development process–will the game be linear or open-world (how much agency will the player have over the setting)? Will the player be able to make choices, and will these choices affect the outcome of the game (how much agency will the player have over the plot)? Will the protagonist be a pre-made character or a character that the player creates, and will the player be able to affect their personality in any way (how much agency does the player have over the character)?

The answers to these questions are important, as the answers lend themselves to very different sorts of games, and thus very different sorts of stories, stories that might not be able to be told in any other medium. The ability to put the player in the protagonist’s shoes–almost quite literally, given the rise of VR–is a very powerful storytelling tool, and it’s a shame it’s often going ignored by the creative world.

Published by busara@bluffton.edu

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