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Video Games and the Changing Nature Of Storytelling

By Mike Roorda | Think Pieces | July 15, 2013 | Comments ()


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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.

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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.

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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.



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Comments Are Welcome, Douches Are Not


  • Melissa Doucette

    I wish Roger Ebert was able to read this smart, thoughtful take on video games before he died. He may well have changed his stance on them. VERY well done.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Can we all just agree that the Metroid Prime trilogy is the best balance of game play and story in the history of the world?

    Yeah, I thought so.

  • Ian Fay

    Ew. DudeShep.

    FemShep FTW.

  • James

    The big downside with narrative driven games is that they often lessen or remove the game aspect of playing a game.

    Let's look at Mass Effect's general structure. Exposition->Action->Exposition->Action and repeat that for 100 hours. Very rarely does the narrative move forward outside of semi-interactive cutscenes. If this was any other medium we'd ping it with demerits. I'd describe that style as the video game equivalent of "Show Don't Tell."

    I played through and enjoyed Far Cry 3. While nowhere near as strong of a story as ME it is a much more engaging game for me since you have to play the game's systems to progress the narrative.

    The other downside of video games with narrative focuses is when gameplay trumps story (gameplay should always trump story by the way). In Far Cry 3 you are an every day slacker who ends up a lethal killing machine through the story narrative. However the nature of the game allows you to start the story at any time you want, even after you have already killed hundreds of people. I am currently playing through the new Tomb Raider game and it suffers the same downside.

  • Jezzer

    If you think gameplay should always trump story, then go play Call of Doody 19 or whatever. Gameplay and story should be equally important.

  • James

    Story should never limit gameplay.

    If I am playing an open world game I don't want to be funneled into story missions at the risk of "losing" the game.

    In general if a production decision comes down to making gameplay more exciting/fun at the expense of story realism it should be implemented over something that makes the gameplay less fun/exciting for increased story realism.

  • ghisent

    Story should never limit gameplay.

    That makes no sense. Gameplay should be crafted to serve the story. That's kind of what makes a video game feel so immersive, is that there's an excellent story being told, and you get to work your way through it. But the only way that happens is if the two are dealt with as a single unified activity. But a really good game gives you a great story, and then builds an appropriate and satisfying brand of gameplay around it. But you can't just say that every game should let you do whatever the hell you want, particularly if you want a strong narrative.

    If you DON'T want a strong narrative, well, that's fine, but there's no artistry or creativity in that. Jezzer is right, then you're just playing the next big shooter, which is all mechanics and whiz-bang, but no soul. Again, what's great about so many new games is the redefining of what both a game and a story can be.

  • James

    Any action-survival game works around that where gameplay does trump story. Throwing a rock against a wall to distract a guard/zombie/dog? Enemies having selective blindness? Player characters being nearly 100% stealthy while moving over mounds of rubble by simply crouching?

    All those are points where gameplay is more important.

    Heck not having Ellie learn to swim during some of the long time breaks in The Last of Us is for gameplay reasons.

  • The argument that gameplay should be integral to the story isn't a good benchmark for what constitutes a good game. It never was. Historically, there have always been games that focus on gameplay over story and vice versa, but the benchmark for a 'good game' hasn't been tied to either of those measures.

    Some of the best examples of 'great games' have been JRPGs, like the Final Fantasy series, that divorce gameplay from story about as much as you possibly can. Outside of extremely minimal in-combat dialogue, the games consist of nothing but sharp cuts between combat sequences, exploration sequences and narrative sequences. The concept of an RPG is actually rooted in this separation of narrative and action, with games like the original Dungeons & Dragons creating game mechanics for actions, but relying on scripted dialogue and extemporaneous conversation for narrative advancement.

    There is also a difference between a lack of good gameplay and a separation of gameplay and narrative. Just because games like FarCry 3 and Spec Ops: The Line have integrated their mechanics and narratives doesn't fundamentally make them better games than Action RPGs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age. I would argue that the gameplay of ME3 is extremely compelling, having struck a balance between the overly menu-ridden ME1, and the overly stripped-down ME2.

    What you're arguing is a symptom the streamlining that occurs as technology advances. As machines became capable of performing more tasks simultaneously, the need to use menus, dialogue boxes and instanced combat was dramatically reduced. But those elements were part of those older games' version of compelling gameplay. Ignore that and you've forgotten how we got to where we are today.

  • James

    As we move towards more narrative focused games and more powerful hardware we'll most likely branch into two routes.

    The open world sandboxes allowing us to explore and play how we want.

    Then we'll have the highly structured world building games like Mass Effect, Heavy Rain and Last of Us.

    I don't think either one is better or worse than the other by default. In general I'm more drawn to the first style as playing the game's system is more important to me on replays.

    My ME experience can be summed up as I love the combat, I was indifferent to the process of getting to the combat which greatly reduces my desire to replay those games.

  • I think Skyrim (and several other of the Elder Scrolls titles) is a good counter-example to this . There are structured game elements in the multiphase quests with the open-world freedom to interrupt your quest event line to pursue another quest or just explore the world at any time.
    To a lesser extent, the Borderlands series has a similar dynamic as well.

  • That's an unfortunately reductive view of the future of gameplay. While it may be true that Triple-A titles have been moving in these directions for the better part of the current console generation, I think you've put blinders on this particular horse.

    On the one hand, casual gameplay has also become a sign of the times, and games that have fused casual elements with more engaging stories, like a lot of 3/DS titles and games like Gyromancer, have proven to be extremely popular and successful. Well, maybe not so much Gryomancer. I'm probably alone in that. But the success of games like Professor Layton or minigame-fests like the Warioware series fill my example quota quite nicely.

    But even on the more powerful systems, art games like Journey, niche games like 2D Fighters or racing games, and indie puzzle platformers occupy a surprising number of slots on the 'best games' lists. And then there's wacky successes like the phenomenal X-COM: Enemy Unknown, a fantastic game that engages you in two, entirely different and somewhat opposite but equally anachronistic styles of gameplay. And there will always be sports games...

    And many of these games tell fantastic stories. Sure, BlazBlue makes NO SENSE WHATSOEVER, but it's still interesting. X-COM's story is loose and easily manipulated by the player, but the characters are surprisingly compelling. I've been playing Muramasa Rebirth on my Vita and I love the stylish voice of the narrator and the wonderful atmosphere of a ghost story that pervades this delightful little 2D Hack n' Slasher.

    Big budget is not the only future of good gameplay or good storytelling. I, for one, am incredibly excited about games like Dreamfall: Chapters, the continuation of The Longest Journey. It's a wonderful Myst-style adventure game that really has no place in your modern world of gaming, but still were some of the most interesting games I played in the Aughts.

  • James

    You're right. I was limiting myself to bigger budget games and I do have quite a few small publisher/indie games to play through.

  • ghisent

    gameplay should always trump story by the way

    This is where we part ways, I'm afraid. I'm not saying I want to play games with lousy mechanics just for a good story, but I can still enjoy games that don't have perfect mechanics. And that doesn't even address games like Heavy Rain or The Walking Dead, which have gameplay mechanics only in the very loosest and most basic sense, but are still absolutely amazing games.

    I think one of the most important and interesting and difficult-to-accept aspects of more and more video games is that they are challenging the very concept of what a game is.

  • James

    I'm not really talking about mechanics so much but restrictions on gameplay due to story, say an open world game placing a timer on doing story missions or else you lose, and conversely gameplay needs to serve the story. My least favorite part of the ME games are boss battles, they are dumb and serve no purpose to the established story and are just there because VIDEO GAMES!

    Cut-scene powerups or powerdowns are another area that irks me.

  • ghisent

    Sounds kind of like you want it both ways - you say gameplay should trump story, but then when the gameplay is too conventional and video game-ish and don't serve the story, you don't like that either. I'm... a little confused by what point you're trying to make.

    Also, one of the things that I liked about Mass Effect is that, for the most part, they don't have conventional boss battles. Yes, the ones that they do have were invariably weak (Saren, Kai Leng, Giant Reaper), but they're such a small part of the game that it barely affects the overall flow of the that universe.

    That said, timed missions do suck. I'm right there with you on that.

  • James

    I guess I want games to be internally consistent with more focus on fun gameplay at the expense of more real story.

    Bill in Left 4 Dead is a Vet, older and has a knee injury that limits his movement. If that is reflected in game with no other systems around it then it is pointless realism that just makes people who play Bill have poorer experiences since the other three characters are all younger and physically fit. So story realism doesn't serve the gameplay.

    Now if the game system was built so your player character had strengths and weaknesses, like Bill being slower but being a better shot due to his military training, then it would be realism that serves a purpose.

  • TCH

    Hotline Miami is a good indie.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Nothing to add, just want to say great piece and support a Pjiba Gamer.

  • Idle Primate

    That title could use a little proofreading, just sayin'

  • TCH

    While the first two Mass Effects were genre defining. Mass Effect 3 was awful.

  • jthomas666

    While I'd agree that 1. ME3 is a step down from ME2, and that 2. ME3's ending blew chunks, I wouldn't go so far as calling it awful.

    Hell, I freaking tear up when Mordin Solus dies, or when Miranda dies in my arms. So they must have done SOMETHING right..

  • TCH

    They did , then they jumped off a bridge by creating numerous plot holes and and broken Choice and Consequence mechanic.

  • lowercase_ryan

    3 was great I thought.

  • TCH

    It was a mostly good game. I actually think E.A. destroyed it. As E.A. most likely wanted new IP with pedigree to its catalog.

  • ghisent

    Why? And if you say that it's because of the endings, I'm going to be upset (not because I love the endings, but because to trash a 30 hour playing experience on the basis of the last 15 minutes is ridiculous).

  • TCH

    No it was how Bioware handled the DLC. Using DLC to convey key plot points ruined ME 3 for me. What makes it worse is that some of the DLC was already on the disc when it shipped. Also the story telling was pretty uneven.

  • ghisent

    Then not to nitpick but your problem is really with the company and their distribution techniques. I don't know if it's fair to say that it's a BAD GAME just because you didn't like how they handled the DLC.

  • TCH

    It did make it a bad game. I have to PAY to see KEY PLOT POINTS. I am sorry if I come off as hostile but I think the ME Trilogy gets way too much slack on pajiba. How would you react if George RR Martin decided to end the A Song Of Fire and Ice series, then turn around and say "hey I know I said I was going to end this but, if you want to know what happens to Danerys Tarygaran and if Jon Snow is the Azor Ahai, you'll just have to buy these seperate novellas"? Would you give George RR Martin a pass for that? I love the ME series I just think 3 is given way too much slack given its writing and how it was handled I wouldn't have a problem with the Pajiba love for ME 3 if it actually showed love to other games that have elements that Pajibans love e.g. well written female characters.

  • ghisent

    On your second point, I agree. I wouldn't mind seeing the site talk about games other than the ME universe.

    As for your DLC complaints, I disagree. If you choose not to download the DLC, it doesn't really lessen the experience, does it? The DLC isn't critical to finishing the game or even getting the desired outcomes. They do broaden and deepen the experience, but that's kind of the point of all DLC.

    Now, if you want to argue against the existence of DLC, full stop, in all games, well, I don't know that I'd disagree with you there. But that's a whole other issue.

  • TCH

    It does lessen the experience, you'll never learn key plot points unless you buy the DLC. These aren't just out of the way side missions or extra characters like the first two games. These are questions that were brought up in the first games e.g. what the Prothean were like and how the Reapers came to be. Lastly if you accept DLC abuses like this don't be surprised if developers and producers do it more.

    P.S, I am glad we agree on something there have been amazing games out there e.g. mirrors edge, Spec ops: The Line, and Skyrim and Pajiba never mentions them. I find this baffling.

  • Jezzer

    "The Protheans were assholes" is a key plot point? Both that and the origin of the Reapers in "Leviathan" add detail to the narrative but don't change it in any significant way.

  • TCH

    Edit Portal 2 is good.

  • TCH

    too

  • Jezzer

    ...it -- it was?

  • TCH

    I felt it was fairly uneven and inconsistent. Apparently the Kasey Hudson stopped using the peer review writing process used in the first two games and wrote ME 3 himself.

  • gorge jung

    Just finished the Last of US. Amazing. Never has a game made me so emotional. It was like playing a great movie for 13 hours.

  • apsutter

    I was a wreck during that game! When the whole thing happened with Sam and Henry I was just in stunned silence for like 5 minutes. I cried during the part with the giraffes.

  • TCH

    Check out Spec Ops: The Line.

  • apsutter

    What is this game and how have I never heard of it?

  • supergwarr

    it is basically heart of darkness

  • TCH

    You are welcome.

  • TCH

    Basically Dubai is rendered unhabitable due to sandstorms. The main officer in charge has gone missing. That is where your spec ops team comes in. The game apes shooters and asks the player why they are getting off at what is often a harrowing and difficult experience.

  • apsutter

    Thanks for the recommendation! I downloaded it off of xbox live today and look forward to it

  • the_wakeful

    Spec Ops: The Line makes all the games mentioned here look like an episode of My Little Pony.

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