How Video Games Have Become The Perfect Storytelling Medium
If you grabbed a copy of Until Dawn for your PlayStation 4 last week, you've already delved into the game, as well as the game's involved story. Although other games have embraced video games as storytelling devices, Until Dawn takes it a step further, using the butterfly effect and letting you know exactly when and how your choices within the game affect outcomes.
This isn't a new concept, of course, but with the big push Sony gave for Until Dawn, it's an example of a growing trend of how developers embrace video games as mediums for telling stories.
Of course, this isn't a new thing: throughout the history of video games, developers have used video games for telling stories: in fact, with the old point-and-click adventures of the 1990s, storytelling was a necessity to motivate players to continue playing the game. Classics like the Gabriel Knight series, Phantasmagoria and 11th Hour had stories that were integral to gameplay: those little things that made players want to complete every puzzle and uncover every mystery and find out exactly how it all plays out and ends.
One of the first point-and-click adventure games to offer choices with consequences was the Tex Murphy series: the fourth game in the series, The Pandora Directive, released in 1996, even offered different endings, depending on which choice you made in the game.
So what is it about video games that makes them such good storytelling devices?
"Video games achieve something that other forms of storytelling just can't," says Dave Gilbert, founder of Wadjet Eye Games, the producers behind Technobabylon and the Blackwell series. "They put you IN the experience. You are making the events happen, or the events are happening to you. It's not easy to pull off, but when it's done right there is no experience like it."
It's true that playing a video game involves more interaction than watching a film or television series. With Until Dawn, for example, scenes pause as players are forced to decide who lives and who dies: and sometimes, players must make that choice quickly. This interaction means that the player becomes part of the story and not just an inactive participant.
"The thing about a video game is that it's so immersive," says Jane Jensen of Pinkerton Studios and the writer behind the classic Gabriel Knight video games. "You actually role-play the main character, so it's very powerful when emotional events -good and bad - happen to that character. That's happening to you. It has the potential to be a much stronger connection that you'd feel to a character in books or films."
The player establishes an emotional connection with characters: ask anyone who's played Telltale's The Walking Dead games: many have experienced serious emotions while playing those, including fear, excitement and sadness. It's those emotions that drive the story forward, making players want to continue playing to see what happens to these characters that they've grown emotionally attached to.
"For me, games are the most fascinating medium for storytelling available right now," said Jon Ingold, creative director at inkle Studios, the company behind 80 Days, Time magazine's 2014 Game of the Year. "We know that interactivity can immerse a player into a story in a powerful way, and we know that games can evoke strong feelings – and not just excitement and fear, but humour and passion and sadness, too. But the rules are still being written, and we're discovering new tools and problems every day. If you're writing for film, there are a hundred examples of for any scene you might want to write – but for games, we're still inventing everything. So when you find something that works, that connects with your players, that's an exhilarating experience for both you and your audience."
The very technology of video games makes them perfect for storytelling, especially with that technology constantly evolving and changing. Now, with virtual reality becoming less science fiction and more reality, storytelling in games will become even more important. That means that video games constantly offer new ways of offering that interactivity and emotional connection to players on completely different levels.
"Video games are the most exciting, fluid medium that has ever existed," said Luke Whittaker, head of State of Play, the developer behind the award-winning Lumino City. "They can be graphic, textural, aural, kinetic, two dimensional or three dimensional, and now even in a VR space, and they can be any combination of these, meaning they can bring together many ways of telling stories, and the emergence of new forms is a thrilling prospect."
One of these new ideas is the concept of the interactive movie. Although the idea isn't new, game developers have recently embraced it as a way to tell a story while keeping viewers involved in the storytelling. Missing, by Zandel Media, is such an example.
But putting something interactive like that in a way that keeps the player entertained and immersed takes a certain kind of talent.
"The most important part is to know when it's time to let the player fulfill his/her part," says Simon Tremblay, founder of Zandel Media. "The player has to be able to do meaningful actions to be a part of the story. The advantage of a video game is its ability to deliver story on many levels. The cinematic will deliver the emotions. The gameplay will deliver action, consequence and secondary dialog. And finally, the environments will deliver backstory and context. The writer must keep this in mind at all times."
Of course, with games becoming more involved in interactive storytelling, a lot of questions get raised. One such question constantly debated is: are video games art? Although many argue against that fact, with many games having stories as good or even better than film – a medium which most consider art – the lines have blurred. Another question involves what actually now defines what a video game is and isn't: is an interactive movie actually a game? Is Until Dawn, which focuses so much on players interacting with the story, a game or just an interactive movie?
"As time goes on those games have gotten even deeper and more sophisticated, and much more diverse in terms of influences and themes," says Jess Haskins, creative director of What Pumpkin Studios, responsible for the upcoming Hiveswap. "There's still much that can be done to advance the art, and there's certainly been plenty of ink spilled about games as art, games as systems, the notion of challenge, authorial control vs. player interaction, and the definition of 'game' itself, and who has the authority to decide what's a game or not, what 'counts or not.
"Some of these discussions are worthier than others. As a game designer and a narrative designer, I study and try to learn from the successes and failures of past works, keep an open mind about the possibilities of the medium, and apply my craft to create the most compelling, entertaining, and thought-provoking interactive works I can."
Photo: Supermassive Games