In 2010 movie critic Roger Ebert made the statement “Video games can never be art” to a chorus of dissent. A simple counter argument runs that since video games tell stories, and many stories are considered art, then does the medium through which a story is told really dictate its worth? But what are the great video game stories? Will we ever see video games repackaged and re-released as classics with tasteful new covers? I hope so (see how that might look here).
At their inception many video games were essentially an elaborate form of a board game, like Connect 4; they had rules and objectives. Many offered a simple premise rather than a full story to help drive the player through the challenge. This was necessary since in many cases the incentive of victory over a human opponent had been removed. A classic example would be “Bowser has kidnapped the princess!”. Today, however, most big, mainstream games employ a full story to compel the player to continue, with simple objectives used in the short-term to let them know specifically what to do.
In the past the delivery of the narrative was often blunt and unrefined; exposition or non-interactive story sequences would interrupt gameplay and be presented in a jarringly different style, such as short clips with human actors and cheap costumes. It could feel like a game was having an identity crisis and as such the medium lacked a distinctive voice. In recent years the methods of delivering the story have begun to become more subtle and experimental. Developers are starting to unlock new ways of telling stories, either unique to the video game medium or superior to existing media in some way. If it seems like video games should have been doing this already, then consider how young the medium is and how various story-telling restrictions are constantly being lifted with the advancement of technology.
It must be stated that a video game does not require a story for it to be of great worth and quality. Many are great games, which use the medium to build a compelling competitive or cooperative environment in the tradition of football or chess. Capcom’s Super Street Fighter IV is a fine example of such a game. The techniques required to play and understand these video games in their full breadth and depth can seem impenetrable. It is true that these games demand your time, patience and often study. But they are rewarding because of this strife, like any skill or sport, but with a unique personality. There are other games that do not demand this level of commitment, but reward in emotional or intellectual ways, as any great story in any medium does. However, video games present opportunities to supply this stimulation in completely new and often more profound ways.
The fundamental innovation of the medium is the level of interactivity it offers. Its nature is such that, even more than the most descriptive prose, the player is in the world. He or she is a part of it and can interact with both the world itself and its inhabitants in new and revelatory ways. This deep interactivity has the potential to create enhanced immersion, largely unachievable in existing media. The player can form strong emotional bonds with characters. They can question the actions they, or others, take with more immediacy than in film or literature. These ideas are present in many video games but those that follow are of particular note.
The God of War series and Okami are adventures set within ancient Greek and Shinto mythologies. Myth is, by its nature, disjointed and inconsistent. Presenting a world to explore in a largely original adventure is a wonderful way to expose the great tales of these heritages. The exploration in God of War takes a backseat to the brutal slaughter of the Gods of Old. This may seem childish, but it is not wholly inappropriate; the myths themselves are steeped in blood and they all have it coming. Especially Zeus.
The 2003 Ubisoft game Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time innovated in both its gameplay and story, weaving the two together in a unique and spell-binding way. The game features a meta-narrative where your character verbally recounts the story before you begin and as you are playing. In this way your actions directly weave the tale, making you story teller as well as listener. The 1001 Nights, whose mythology the game is steeped in, were originally stories told verbally to crowds as entertainment and the game continues this tradition. The game gives player death a relevant, if cheeky, narrative context where the narrator claims to be misremembering that part of the story. This seemingly small contrivance adds a beautiful fluidity to the tale.
Beyond such clever nuances, however, the game fundamentally tells a wonderful adventure story. The eponymous Prince accidentally unleashes an evil force, the equally eponymous Sands of Time. With a magical artefact he gains the ability to manipulate time itself and seeks to destroy the Sands forever. Of course, along the way he meets a girl; a Princess, no less, called Farah. They fall in love. They fall in love: that statement is very easy to make, but it is rare that any fiction truly convinces you that two characters are in love. I have never been more convinced than by The Sands of Time. It is the greatest love story I have ever been told, but tragically, one of the fewest heard. For the game’s entire 10-hour duration the Prince and Farah fall deeper and deeper in love. This pace is an opportunity not afforded in movies, television or literature. The gameplay of solving puzzles, avoiding traps and fighting foes keeps the player’s attention, allowing the relationship with Farah to unfold gradually around this experience. Often you will require Farah’s help to progress and she will need yours at times. The enhanced immersion allows deeper emotional bonds to be formed as you feel directly responsible for much of what unfolds. It cannot be overlooked that the script itself is charming, funny and well-performed. The couple go from mutual irritation to a genuine, tangible affection realised through excellent animation and a bold moment of consummation represented by an effective ethereal sequence. The difference in their behaviour towards one another after this moment is beguiling and real. It’s also important because it means that after this point the risks the Prince takes are out of genuine adoration, not sexual desire. All of this is what makes it so heart-breaking when Farah dies.
The player’s belief in the love that has developed over their short time together is required for you to accept the choice the Prince makes at the end. He is given the opportunity to destroy the Sands, forever removing their evil from the world, but he chooses instead to wind time back to before he released them so that the damage is undone and they remain locked away, their destructive potential intact. He does it to bring her back to him, but he hasn’t thought it through. In a wonderful piece of circular storytelling the seemingly throwaway narrative device is revealed to be the Prince telling his lost love of their shared adventure, but of course, now she has never met him. You can hear the yearning in his voice as he sits so close to something he is slowly realising he can never regain. It’s tragic and it’s beautiful and the closing moments of the story are funny, melancholic and moving in a way that I have never felt anywhere else. No fiction has ever broken my heart so much and the emotional connection to the characters was made possible by the unique experience that video games offer.
Portal is a 2007 game from Valve with a much sparser story. The player takes on the role of a largely faceless protagonist in a puzzle game where you can link any two points in space. The puzzles are presented as laboratory test chambers. This makes you the lab rat. You are guided through your testing by an omnipresent computer named GLaDOS. The manner in which she conducts herself, however, results in some of the funniest, pitch-black comedy you’ll ever come across and it’s not really presentable in any other format. Since your character is such a cipher, GLaDOS is effectively addressing you directly, lending all of her comments a harsher edge. Her twisted view of reality seeps through every utterance. Often hilarious, but always unsettling, she is cruel and naïve at the same time, forcing you to destroy the only thing you’ve ever loved one minute, and assuming that the promise of cake is incentive enough for said act the next. Her tone moves from disappointed mother to jilted lover as you progress through the game and you take a twisted satisfaction away from feeling directly responsible for the change. Through this interaction, as well as with the design of the world, the game builds a tremendous atmosphere where you are constantly and ever more acutely aware that all is not well. The final confrontation with GLaDOS ranks among the most memorable and the unexpected end theme is a cult phenomenon in its own right. Portal is endlessly inventive and hilarious, enabled by the unique opportunities of the video game medium.
In 2007 Bioshock was released by developer 2K. It contains more than simply inventive story-telling; its Art-Deco-inspired art direction being its most striking feature. The preceding comments were arguably subjective but Bioshock provides a demonstration of a story-telling device unequivocally unique to video games. In its opening you awake amid fire and water: a plane crash at sea. Your only salvation is a strange structure nearby. This is the entrance to Rapture, an underwater city founded by a Howard Hughes figure with an Objectivist philosophy. As you descend into Rapture it is immediately apparent, once again, that all is not well. The city is broken, decrepit and you are immediately of interest to all who remain. Nothing is revealed about your character’s identity and you run from place to place shooting this and that seemingly with little purpose. Your principal motivation is in the real world: to progress further in the game, which doesn’t qualify as a compelling narrative experience. But the game seems too well-designed to overlook such a fundamental issue. Your only guidance comes in the form of a friendly Irish voice giving you instructions over the radio. Towards the end of the game it is revealed that your character has no motivation. He has been implanted with a post-hypnotic trigger phrase that makes him compelled to obey an instruction. The phrase, oft-repeated by other characters in the game, “Would you kindly…” is something many a gamer will never forget. Your own real-world compulsion to advance is tied into narrative motivation in a wholly original and thought-provoking way. It causes you to question the justness of your actions up until that point and it satirises lazy story-telling where this lack of motivation isn’t seen as an issue. This single example cements video games as a new narrative art form.
Video games are still a nascent medium, but to see this much intelligence, wit and originality present in only the storytelling facet of the whole product is astounding. Restricting oneself to a discussion only of story is akin to the Oscars only awarding screenplay prizes; there is so much more on offer here. Seek these experiences out if you haven’t already. You will be told great tales of romance, humour, suspense and all else in ways that you hadn’t thought possible. There is a personal discovery waiting to be made.