If there is one thing about modern gaming that pretty much solidifies video games as a form of art, it would have to be the unique quality of highly interactive storytelling. There are few other forms of art that can achieve the same level of participation without altering the base work, and like many other forms of visual art, the experience is often what is most important. For this next generation of games, I want to see virtual storytelling evolve…
Let’s face it: no one buys Call of Duty or Battlefield for the single-player campaign. As spectacular as the set pieces may be, the real fun for those types of games is the multiplayer. But for the games that do rely heavily on narrative like role-playing games and adventure titles, it would be great if writers finally let their hair down and got creative. Don’t misunderstand, there are certain narrative beats and tropes that will always make appearances in entertainment in general, not just games. We will always have damsels in distress, moody anti-heroes, and one-dimensional villains. There will forever be a great crisis that will require a teenage heart-throb to come of age and achieve his destiny. This isn’t what I’m talking about. I want more emotion and relevance. I want more games to compel me to seek a resolution and not just play to the conclusion. I want to care.
The future is bright if recent releases are any indication. The Mass Effect Trilogy, The Walking Dead, Journey, and The Last of Us are all excellent examples of the type of storytelling that I think is needed in gaming now. Each of these titles approaches their respective narratives in different ways, but all of them are fittingly innovative in their respective spaces. Mass Effect and Walking Dead create universes that feel lived in by populating them with near fully realized characters that you quickly come to actually care about and feel for, and the fate of those characters are directly tied to the many weighty decisions you are forced to make – decisions you must make not as a player, but as a distinct character whose existence fuels the narrative as much as it serves it. The Last of Us is enriched by a fully realized world as well due to the painstakingly well-crafted level design. The spaces that you traverse as Joel and Ellie look and feel as though they were genuinely lived in at one time and nature has reclaimed what it already owned. And along the way, survival, living, and coping are central themes that are repeatedly explored in Joel and Ellie’s relationships with each other and those they come in contact with. Journey forgoes a traditional delivery of the game’s plot, opting instead to wordlessly express the history of the Journeyman’s people via frescoes and short dream-like sequences. It’s up to the player to find meaning in the journey if they so desire.
The most obvious and most powerful similarity between each of these games is the emotional impact each story’s narrative can have on a player. While there are certainly emotional high points and themes in other games, even games like Call of Duty, it’s very clear that the intent of these particular titles is to appeal to the player’s emotions. For Mass Effect, we are tied deeply to our crew and our personal Shepard. For many of us, we became our Shepard, and the fight against the Reaper invasion was ours to win. We fought, we bled, and we sacrificed. This is why there was so much backlash against the original ending; we wanted what felt like our story to end on our terms. The fact that so many of us felt that way is a testament to how masterful the writing was for that trilogy and how perfectly the game was executed from the voice acting to the motion capture, character modelling to game play. Walking Dead and Last of Us present us with father-daughter relationships that develop absent of true father-daughter relations in the midst of extreme violence and worlds that have gone to hell. On top of that, both games repeatedly force us as players to examine ourselves. What are we really willing to do in order to survive? When it truly is fight-or-flight, me-or-you, live-or-die, what acts are we capable of committing? Journey is simply an experience, yet it still manages to force players to confront the very thing we fear the most: the unknown.
There are other titles that explore many of the same themes and do so in very innovative ways. Heavy Rain is great example. There are other titles that touch on and approach these new heights of sophisticated storytelling, but either stop short of fail to execute – like Remember Me. However, the next console generation is a new opportunity for developers to explore the frontier of video game narrative, and upcoming projects like Destiny and Watch Dogs are in a prime position to potentially change they way we view storytelling in games, especially as it relates to game play and multiplayer interactivity. I believe that there is a place for intellectual themes and controversial topics in video game stories. Too often, attempts to be relevant or thought provoking are met with negativity when they should be taken as a part of a greater whole, both in the context of the overall work and as part of a larger conversation.