Why Video Games Are The Best Way To Tell Stories
Updated: Apr 19
I thought I’d open today’s post with a bold and controversial statement – particularly from someone trying to earn a living writing books! Allow me to explain...
Like a lot of people, I love stories. A cool character, a shocking twist, a magnificently dastardly villain, an evocative setting, a tragic ending... devouring these kinds of things is my favourite way to spend my time. And although our own planet has spawned some pretty incredible true-life stories, fiction will always be my main diet, I think because it provides storytellers with more opportunity to carefully craft their tales, maximising the emotional gut-punch of that finale, ramping up the impact of an unexpected plot swerve, and so on.
When video games were first emerging in the 1980s as simple distractions, akin to a lot of modern day mobile phone games (we’ve all turned our brains off to crush some candy or catapult a grumpy avian during a long commute…), they were far from a favourite method of telling stories. Books had been performing that function for centuries, and cinema and television were well-established alternative ways to present a gripping narrative. We all have an enormous list of favourite books and movies, and I am certainly not suggesting that these aren’t highly effective ways to be transported to amazing fantasy worlds or to meet intriguing characters.
But as the video game medium matures, creators have realised its story-telling potential, and the one quality that film and literature cannot compete with: immersion.
Consuming a book or a movie is inherently a passive experience. We are an observer, either reading or watching the unfolding events; the peril or suffering of the main character is theirs, not ours, and although we might feel empathy we cannot truly claim to share their experience. When we read a horror story we might start to imagine ourselves in the protagonist’s terrifying scenario, to shudder at the prospect of spending a night in the Overlook Hotel or in Dracula’s castle – but we know, deep down, that the players in the story are other people, not us. We are experiencing the emotions of the story’s characters vicariously, an echo of someone else’s love or hate or fear or revulsion.
A video game, meanwhile, is uniquely able to cast you as the protagonist. Sometimes you are assuming the role of a pre-existing character, with limited ability to affect the story, while in other works you are a cipher, a deliberately blank slate onto which you can project your own characteristics or even physical appearance. Either way, the best story-driven games succeed in making you feel like the actions you take are your own – you decide which crumbling ruins to explore, which characters to trust or betray, how best to go about overcoming a formidable enemy. Certain games have taken this concept even further, subverting the format’s limitations by encouraging you to play in a certain way, and then challenging you on why you took this approach; Bioshock, for example, is not only a truly original and disturbing dystopian masterpiece, but features a jaw-dropping twist that I will never forget.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate my point is a video game called Shadow Of The Colossus – big spoiler alert if you’ve never played it (just skip the next two paragraphs). The game casts you as a tragic figure, a young man who has brought the corpse of his deceased bride to a distant land to seek an arcane means of resurrection. He is told by a spirit that if he can defeat a series of monsters, his beloved will be restored, and so we set out to slay the fearsome beasts. The game is, essentially, a series of incredibly impressive and challenging ‘boss fights’; yet, gradually, a nagging sense of doubt begins to pervade the experience as we trudge across the forsaken landscape to confront the often gigantic, lumbering creatures. Most of them don’t attack you until you do. Although they are very hard to beat, the leviathans exude a sense of melancholy rather than hostility, like ancient creatures that have been roaming the hills and valleys for eons. Sure enough, the end game twist reveals that you have been duped by an evil demon, and slaughtered the good-hearted beings that were preventing his own rebirth.
The key point here is that this game succeeds in making you feel guilty. You are left hollowed out, haunted by the realisation that you have been nothing more than an unwitting agent of evil. And I don’t think that is an experience that a book or movie can truly replicate – although I’m very happy to be challenged on this!
Of course, the idea that books and cinema cannot be interactive is always being experimented with. In my younger days (who am I kidding, I still love ‘em!) I used to enjoy the Fighting Fantasy game books; you remember, the ones where you’d keep your fingers jammed in between the pages just in case you made the wrong choice and were murdered by a gang of bloodthirsty orcs? Black Mirror’s recent Bandersnatch episode was the first time an ‘interactive TV show’ has been properly-realised and made widely available, and was deservedly a viral sensation. But the key point here is the level of agency and personal involvement in the story’s development that these grant to the reader/viewer – and so perhaps the title of this blog post ought instead to be: ‘Why Interactive Stories Are The Best Kind’.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article, or on anything else you’d like to chat to me about! Otherwise, watch this space for some more maniacal ramblings in a couple of weeks’ time.
Until then, enjoy whatever you’re watching, reading, or playing!
PS: I’ve written a few video game reviews in recent years, and even had a crack at writing a good old-fashioned text adventure game – click here to check them out!