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Monday, May 2, 2016

Video Games: A New Way to Tell a Story

Photo courtesy of www.telegraph.co.uk

Rising from intersections of art, science, and entertainment, video games have emerged as the first great digital literature.  ♦ 
Video games have been around, believe it or not, since the 1950s, and in the decades since they have developed into an addictive digital interaction for people of all ages, as well as a billion-dollar entertainment industry. They have also developed into an intriguing new storytelling medium, borrowing devices from both novels and films to create engaging works of art . . . and yet, despite modern games’ narrative nature, they are often not viewed by the general populace as stories—at least not in the same way novels and films are—but as more of an activity. Part of the reason for this is that are so many different ways to tell a story that, sometimes, people do not realize that a story is being told to them at all. This is especially true in a video game, because the main reason people play these games is for entertainment, not necessarily to hear a story.
    Nevertheless, video games—at least some kinds of games—clearly act as a modern form of storytelling, because they follow the same format as a work of literature. For example, in the Zelda franchise we follow the main hero through his adventures as he attempts to rescue the queen of Hyrule. We are taken on a journey through mystical lands and temples, fighting off various creatures. As we develop through each level, it is like entering a new chapter in a book. The story continues to develop right in front of our eyes, just as we see story and character develop as we continue reading a book: the protagonist embarks upon a quest, is met with obstacles, overcomes them to move on, and grows in the process. Zelda also puts emphasis on the background of the characters and how this informs what’s happening in the present moment, another clear way that the game borrows from novelistic conventions and is a great example of classical storytelling.
    Another video game that has a complex plot is Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead. This game is interesting because it follows a similar storyline as the comic book/television series The Walking Dead, but it allows the player to make difficult decisions that will affect the outcome of later events. The players, themselves, are telling the story, which can be compared to the Choose Your Own Adventure books, wherein you decide the plot of your story. A player interacts with the video game the same way, and they watch as the story responds to their decisions by altering the arcs, and even the fates, of the characters.
A timer forces a tough moral (and narrative) choice in The Walking Dead.
    It’s certainly true, however, that some video games may not be considered a form of storytelling, particularly those that concentrate more on the ludic, activity-based elements or goals. For example, Tetris, a tile-matching puzzle video game, does not have any obvious storyline, nor does it require any background information that’s important to the process of leveling up or completing your goals as a player. Though this raises some interesting questions about the relationship between the narrative and ludic elements of games in general—if the narrative exists only as a way to spur on the activity, as the “reason” that you move Mario through each level, then is the narrative really a crucial element?
    To answer that question I decided to look at whether professionals in the field think of video games as a form of storytelling. Naomi Alderman, an author who writes for The Guardian, argues in her piece “The first great works of digital literature are already being written” that yes, indeed, video games tell stories, though she acknowledges that the worlds of art and technology can’t always seem to agree on this relationship, because society has always looked at these subjects as complete opposites. “The problem is that people who like science and technology, and people who like storytelling and the arts, have typically been placed in different buildings since about the age of 16,” Alderman writes of this divide. But, she argues, video games can uniquely bridge the gap: “Games often manage to be both great art and an economic powerhouse; we’re doing ourselves and the next generation a disservice if we don’t take that seriously.”
    The Huffington Post also published an article written by Paul Runge titled “Video Games Represent the Most Powerful (and Potentially Dangerous) Era in Storytelling” in which the author discusses how video games are most definitely a form of storytelling, but a “dangerous” one because of the unique interface a player has with story, especially given that the ways video games speak to us might not always be so ethically correct. For example, you are given complete freedom in a video game, but you still choose to kill people because that is what the video game is telling you to do. “Whereas fiction readers have to glean a novel’s takeaway,” Runge writes, “and apply it through real life choices outside the binding, video games streamline the process. They allow players to simultaneously interpret what the game is teaching them and apply (and thereby reinforce) those teachings through in-game decision-making.”
    I would expect the debate to continue on this topic, because games are still a fairly new form (and because technology is practically taking over everything that is in print). I am curious, though, to see if one day video games will be as respected and recognized a subject for a paper or literary study as a book is. Until then I ask you, the reader, to think of your own view toward this question. Are video games a modern form of storytelling, or are they just a form of entertainment?
  • About the Author
    Katie O’Malley is a junior Strategic Communications and Professional Writing Major who is from Dayton, Ohio. Her favorite activities include shopping, eating pizza, and watching criminal investigation shows.

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