Video Games and the Changing Nature Of Storytelling
A good story has the power to transport you to a different place. It can take you away from wherever you are, and however you define yourself and allow you to slip into someone else’s skin in a different time or location. To inspire that in someone, to create a world from nothing and share it with others who then color in their own details all while reading or hearing the same words, to my mind, is nothing short of amazing.
The way we tell each other tales is constantly changing and we’ve been telling tales for as far back as we have records. Around campfires, tales of hunting and conquest were acted out for the benefit of others. The best of them were repeated, the words taking on life of their own as they touched each new set of ears. Eventually, we organized ourselves and set up specific locations for storytelling and hired the best pretenders to tell the best stories to larger and larger groups. I hear a guy named William eventually got pretty good at it awhile back. The desire to record these tales for future generations led to the invention of the printing press. Finally people were able to enjoy a good yarn in the privacy of their own homes on their own time and, when they were done, pass it along to friends or family for them to enjoy. We’re visual animals though, and scientists tells us that even as we read words on a page, the visual portions of our brain come alive with activity. It was only a matter of time before we invented a way to show rather than tell the tales that we told. Television and movies have since dominated the storytelling realm and are far and away some of the most popular mediums currently.
The most recent development in how our species tells stories to one another is that of the video game. No longer do you have to be a passive participant in the stories that you’re consuming. (Although if you prefer the passive route, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.) Now, if you so chose, you can actually make choices that change the outcome and have a hand in how it all plays out. Historically, the tales told in games were often fairly thin and frequently downright deplorable. Catering to the lowest common denominator (which if you’re keeping track at home is prepubescent twelve and thirteen year old boys) often the story only existed to give you reason to go from one location to the next laying waste to all who opposed you. The objectification of women or writing them off completely frequently played a large role as well. To be honest, it often still plagues the community. Sorry ladies. Strides have been made however, and the industry is seriously working hard to correct these issues.. Anyhow, the era of “go here and shoot all the things and then run there and shoot all of those things too” is quickly coming to a close. Increasingly, the best plots in our interactive media rivals the best that our passive media (television/films/books) has to offer. There’s still a ways to go, as most of it is guy centric and focused on male oriented goals, but we’re getting there. Games like The Last of Us and BioShock (the original and Infinite) are amazing stories, packed with as much subtext and nuance that some of our best authors and directors can provide. They’re not just games, wasted time achieving meaningless goals, any more. They’re vehicles for telling a narrative.
Beyond the ability to interact with the tale you’re being told, games have also added significant length to the stories that we tell. The average game runs about twenty hours long. That’s the equivalent of the entire season of an hour long network television show or roughly all of the Harry Potter movies back-to-back. On the high end of things, The Mass Effect Trilogy is a ninety to one-hundred hour long three game journey that tells one of the best science fiction tales that I’ve consumed to date. (We’ve been pretty effusive about singing its praise in the past.) For some people, like myself, that’s a good thing. I’m willing to invest the time and effort to play through a game if it leaves me feeling enriched and intellectually stimulated when I’m done. For others, the commitment is just too much. People like my father, whom I’ve tried to convince several times to pick up a controller and jump in, just can’t justify the investment that’s required to consume that particular story medium. That’s OK, although I firmly believe that going forward such an attitude will increasingly mean forgoing some amazing tales that will become cultural touchstones, and part of our societal conversation.
Further, the need to invest more than a few hours to get the whole tale is becoming more and more common as the stories we choose to tell in our other forms of media seem to be lengthening as well. Some of this is no doubt due to the lack of original output in our creative industries coupled with the desire to produce something that, while it isn’t significant from a story perspective, will definitely turn a profit. I highly doubt in a hundred years the discussions revolving around the epic arc of the “Fast and Furious” franchise will go much further than how to make similarly sized truckloads of cash. On the other hand, the sixty two odd hours required to completely absorb all of “Breaking Bad” will likely be a foregone conclusion. Cumulatively that is a lot of time to invest, but the significance and depth of the story that it tells makes the investment worthwhile.
It didn’t always used to be that way. Even on television, individual episodes were seen as a self contained unit. Often they occurred along a linear timeline, and the characters may be changed by some of the actions that happened to and around them, but there weren’t necessarily season long arcs to follow that threaded it all together. When I first dove into the original “Star Trek” I was somewhat surprised to find out that there’s very little that carries over episode to episode in comparison to modern fare. If you understood the rules of the universe that the show inhabited and were familiar with all the characters, you could essentially jump in at any point and be no worse for the wear. Skipping a slow episode didn’t mean you missed out on a plot developments first introduced several episodes or even seasons back, it just meant you didn’t have to suffer through watching aliens pointlessly muddling with Spock’s brain because of reasons. That’s nearly unthinkable today. Shows like “Arrested Development” owe much of their appeal to their tendency to tie it all up with a big bow. We’re so used to it and so convinced of the importance of the stories we consume that we’ve become hypersensitive to the revelation of details we’ve yet to encounter for ourselves. I dare you to try and discuss a new(ish) television show, game or book without being drowned out by furious wails of, “Dude, spoilers!” Rightfully so. If you’ve invested fifty hours of your time in a game or television show it’s usually because the plot means something to you.
Story consumption has always been a matter of preference and there’s nothing wrong with not wanting to participate in playing a game, or not being able or willing to invest the time in completing one. They do take a lot of time and the medium certainly has a lot of room to grow. However, I’m sure that at some point when someone was offered their first book a natural response would have been, “why would I bother with that if I can go see the play?” Personal preference is a finicky thing, and far be it from me to tell you that your media consumption method of choice is wrong or inferior in some way. But, for those of you out there who love a good tale, who long to lose themselves in the details of a world other than the one they actually inhabit, who’ve stayed up to four in the morning on a school night because they needed one more episode, or to finish one more chapter, to sideline games as an inferior medium not capable of offering the same experience is going to increasingly mean missing out on that which you hold dearly, the art of the tale told well.