Wednesday, November 18, 2015

More Than Choose Your Own Adventure

From humble beginnings, video games have evolved into an immersive, participatory new form of storytelling.  ♦ 
The storytelling potential of video games has been too often overlooked throughout the medium’s short history, both by those who see games as simply an entertainment and even by game designers themselves. What’s more, it’s seemingly been this way from the start, with the earliest games focused on an interactive experience but not necessarily on constructing story. The Legend of Zelda, for instance, depicted an exploration through an unmapped and uncharted world, though the pixels that the player moved around the screen (and the world) weren’t named Link, weren't presented as a real character, until several games later. Instead it was you, as a player, saving Hyrule and rescuing a princess, or speeding through the Mushroom Kingdom in Super Mario Bros (though once again to rescue a princess). By placing little emphasis on the in-game narrative, the story became about you as a participant rather than about Mario or Link being propelled through a narrative.

The Legend of Zelda (1986), dungeon one. Player finds the Triforce.

   But stories in video games have evolved drastically from the days of the original The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros, and games have since become a legitimate storytelling medium in ways no one could have anticipated. There are beautiful cinematic thrill rides, with alien planets and fantastical cathedrals creating entire worlds in brilliant HD. And then there are also compelling emotional journeys using nothing but poorly drawn pixel animations, like the 2015 indie game Undertale. Of course novels and films also create full worlds that emotionally invest and affect the audience, but it’s the player’s participation in the story that sets video games apart from all other storytelling mediums. Even with an overabundance of cut scenes and cinematic camera views, there is no game without the player moving the story and the characters forward. While books and movies sometimes try to put a ‘you’ into their stories, video games rely on there being this outside ‘you.’ All video games are told in a second person point of view. In fact, video games are perhaps the first form of media to finally get the second-person point of view right, the only real medium where ‘you’ are able to participate. The player singlehandedly stops a war, or survives the apocalypse, or helps a child save his teddy bear, all experiences that only someone playing a video game can both observe and help shape.

   Despite its limited graphics, Undertale (2015) creates an incredibly complex,
fun, and emotional journey full of zany, unforgettable characters.

   In recent years, games have been trying to hone that ‘you’ character as best they can, integrating it into their stories more and more directly. Of course, this started off with the silent protagonists—characters with no dialogue like the Links and the Marios. Then this began changing with the development of character customization. While video game avatars already go a long way to bridging the gap between the player and the world, with character customization, a player can place their very own look-a-like into the shoes of the Dragon Born or the Hunter or the Pokémon Trainer. These silent avatars allow players to be the story. Maybe they don’t influence the story themselves, but they get to put themselves in a fantastical setting and fight their way through. This is one storytelling element exclusive to video games. No matter how much the audience is immersed in the story of a movie or a novel, they are not placed into the story itself, tasked with its completion. The audience can’t star in a movie or book as themselves.

Skyrim (2011) character creator.

Customization in Pokémon X and Y (2013).

   Other games take a much different approach. Whether or not the player influences what their in-game avatar looks like, it’s the player who decides the story. First, of course, were the morality choices. Do you become good or evil? Do you become a hero or a villain? Kill or use stealth? But these black and white decisions hardly affected the game drastically. So then video games began developing around the idea of choice. In Until Dawn, a 2015 horror game centered on the player’s choices, do you save Mike, or let him die so that Sam can last the night? When solving the mysteries of Arcadia Bay in the 2015 indie game Life is Strange, do you accuse Nathan of murder when you know you’ll be endangered because of it? In these games, you are tasked with deciding who survives to the final scene. The shape of the story is in the hands of the player. Of course, this kind of story is very hard to accomplish in any meaningful way, because if every choice changes every outcome, then every change has to be accounted for. But the ability to fundamentally change the story laid out before you would be impossible in anything other than a choose-your-own-adventure book. Watching two people play through any of these games, however, you can see that any possible combination of choices leads to all sorts of outcomes.

All the choices in Life is Strange, Episode One: Chrysalis (2015).

Do you risk Ashley’s life to find Jess in Until Dawn (2015)?

   And then there are games that acknowledge the player outside of the game.

The Batter introducing himself to the Judge in the French indie game OFF (2008).

Undertale remembers what you’ve done, even when you don’t save . . .

   Breaking the fourth wall in a video game addresses the player directly, acknowledging the fact that a party outside of the game is directly moving the story along. The players are characters in their own right, not just the pixels moving onscreen. Not only does this add a whole new element of immersion into a game’s story, but viewing the game from this Meta angle also allows for the characters themselves to work around storytelling conventions that would be impossible otherwise.
   How many novels have had the protagonist betray you? This seems almost impossible.
   How many video games have had the protagonist betray you? There are actually quite a few.

Judge’s ending in OFF.

   Although many players have always understood the appeal to this sort of storytelling, even those who have never touched a game are beginning to understand just how unique the video game medium is. Movies and books rely on an audience to convey their stories to, but video games need this audience to even make it to the end of the narrative. It relies on someone caring enough to make it to the end. Even games that seemingly don’t allow the sort of participation shown in games like Until Dawn or Skyrim hold their own. Whether a game is based heavily on a player-driven story or hardly acknowledges the player, video games still keep players enthralled in their stories. Because it’s not just the story, it’s the game. It’s the player’s struggle to overcome adversity, solve the puzzles, beat the bosses. This is at the heart of all video games that aim to tell a good story. Put the story in the hands of the person playing it, and the story will fall into place.
  • About the Author
    Jessica Port is a third year student at Miami University, studying both Creative Writing and Literature. She loves reading, writing, and playing endless amounts of video games in her spare time. She has had two short works previously published in school magazines, with plenty more to come.

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