The concept of story in videogames is one that developers and critics are still struggling to grasp. Consequently developers find it all too easy to borrow storytelling methods from other mediums. The result is often games whose stories are driven by expository tidbits (cut scenes, monologues, mission breifings) rather than by their actual game play itself. When games do this they are sending an unfortunate message–this story can’t be played, so you will have to stop and watch it. In light of this, Will Wright (lead designer of Sim City and many other successful games) recently said, ”Games are not the right medium to tell stories . . . video games are more about story possibilities.” Before you list your the top 5 story-driven games that changed your life, think for a moment about what it is that you like about those particular games and what those games ask you to do.
When we sit down to watch a movie–we expect to be passive, when we sit down to game, we expect to participate in the action. We expect that what we do “in game” is going to matter. We like to play games because they engage us in ways that other media can’t. That does’t make games better or worse than books or movies, it just makes them different. The best games don’t hide this difference, they highlight it. Consequently, games have potential to speak to us in ways that other forms of media never will.
Consider Bioshock, one of the greatest narrative-heavy games in recent memory. What makes playing Bioshock a memorable experience? It is not so much Andrew Ryan’s monologues or Atlas’ radio messages so much as it is a combination of those elements and your own experience of the world being spun by them. The “story” of Bioshock exists somewhere in between Ken Levine’s expositional narrative and your unique participation in it. Andrew Ryan is undoubtedely one of the great characters ever envisioned in a game. However, were it not for the hours spent defending ourselves from crazed splicers swooping down on us from the ceiling, learning how to best handle each Big Daddy, and determining what to do with the little sisters–Rapture would not come alive to us. The contrast between Ryan’s vision for Rapture and it’s actual state might be seen but it would not be experienced.
In fact, what makes Bioshock‘s story particularly memorable is that the game’s narrative breathed new life into the idea of the silent protagonist. Bioshock asks us to do a lot of seemingly mindless shooting but in the game’s climax–all that mindless shooting makes sense. So many games require furious shooting that it is all too easy to take such actions for granted–Bioshock highlights this and gives such actions weight and consequence.
On the whole, Bioshock isn’t particularly dynamic in terms of player choices. There are really only two: either save or harvest the little sisters. And yet everyone who plays the game will have a markedly different experience in the world depending not just on how they interacted with the Little Sisters but based on every move, bullet, and plasmid. Their experience will be colored by every sign they stop to read, every corner into which they wander looking for supplies, and every window out of which they look to take in their surroundings. Bioshock is a special game because of the tremendous detail devoted to each of these elements such that most everything the player does contributes to bringing Rapture to life and making the player feel like an essential part of that world.
So if a game is going to attempt to tell a story, it must do so in a way that significantly involves the player in its telling. This is why most game stories are terrible–because the mechanics (namely what you spend most of your time doing in game) do not add anything to the story itself–they are mere tack-ons or fillers to transition us from one piece of expositional narrative to another.
When Will Wright says that “games are not the right medium to tell stories” and that games are more about “story possibilities,” I think the Sim City creator is simultaneously overstating his case and highlighting what makes games special. The best games give us a sense that we are making our own story and our place in that story is absolutely essential. Games engage us most when we assume a key role in that story’s telling.
Great games like Bioshock don’t force expositional narrative down our throats and instead ask us to experience this story, to explore the world, and to do something about the state that it’s in. This isn’t to say that expositional narrative has no place in videogames, but if cut scenes and transitional monologues are the sole carriers of a game’s narrative, that game is communicating an unfortunate message. Such games are telling us that what we do doesn’t matter.
Drew Dixon is co-editor of Christ and Pop Culture, he also writes about games for Relevant, Paste Magazine, and Think Christian. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Steam: Drizzoo703 XBL: Drizzoo82 PSN: Drizzoo