Storytelling in Video Games: Finding the Sweet Spot

A short while ago, I wrote a review on Ubisoft’s latest side-scrolling title Valiant Hearts: The Great War (which you can read here). It’s compelling story coupled with lackluster gameplay got me thinking about the balance needed in game design between a video game’s core elements, blending narrative, music, art style and mechanics into the optimal digital treat. In particular, however, I focused on storytelling as it was both Valiant Hearts‘  focus that grabbed my attention and, as a creative writer, a topic I consider extremely crucial to the equation. But Valiant Hearts made me come to a realization that I previously knew, but never fully appreciated: that a game is not simply a story, but an interactive story. While I usually emphasize the importance of narrative in games, how much significance should really be placed on the story? What are video game narratives lacking or overcompensating that separates  them from its artistic peers in literature and film? As games continue to grow as an art form, these are the issues game writers and game designers must address.

I feel you man, but we gotta do this...

I feel you man and I know it’s difficult, but we gotta do this…

Storytelling in video games has immensely evolved in the medium’s brief, but explosive history. Retro titles such as Pacman, Pong, Donkey Kong, Dig Dug, and Space Invaders all operated on an overarching premise, but as video games grew more complex, they were capable of containing actual plot lines complete with character arcs and multi-act structures. This has continued to grow and expand with each new generation of gaming technology, allowing for some truly memorable experiences along the way (I’m looking at you LoZ: Ocarina of Time). Now, current game studios are pushing the boundaries of storytelling in video games by creating interactive experiences that focus heavily on delivering cinematic narratives, e.g. Heavy RainL.A. Noire, most things by Telltale Games and Bioware. On the other end of the spectrum, certain developers stress gameplay innovation and retooling over story emphasis, e.g. Borderlands 1&2, the Call of Duty franchise, and the Grand Theft Auto franchise. But there are three titles that I want to represent as games that have found an impeccable balance between the two and stand as shimmering beacons of success: the Uncharted franchise, Portal 1&2, and Far Cry 3.

Take that over critical consumer!

Take that overly critical consumers!

This was a triumph. I'm making a note here -- huge success.

This was a triumph. I’m making a note here — huge success.

If you need something defined, I think this guy's got you covered.

If you need something defined, I think this guy’s got you covered.

Yet, with video game narratives becoming more cinematic, more front and center, is the actual gameplay or blending of gameplay with the story being diminished? Sure, the industry likes to throw around the buzzword “innovation” but emphasizing the fact that video games are interactive is what makes it a unique medium. We play them, immerse ourselves in them; they’re a form of escapism, like films, but are different in the sense that films ask you to be a bystander to the events while video games invite you to be an active participant. The same difference applies to literature and studio art in that these are, in a literal sense, non-participative. However, I argue that this isn’t something that should discredit video games as an artistic medium or that it should completely change their intellectual dynamic; to be honest, it’s a slight variation, one that can hinder or boost possible artistic freedoms. Again, other cinematic or visual arts have their own distinct nuances that behave much like the interactive aspect of video games. Wondering why I emphasized non-participative as being literal? You should, because this is what unifies these mediums, this is what I argue is missing in video game aesthetics and gameplay and their subsequent marriage. These art forms should all be interactive on an internal level, acting as mirrors to the soul (sorry for the cliché fellow English major nerds, I feel shame). For games to be wholly accepted into the artistic community, it is this detail that must be incorporated into both gameplay and narrative equally; neither should be compromised to sacrifice or fit the other. They should reflect something new to the player about himself/herself and allow them to derive something greater from the gameplay experience.

Christopher Nolan I think would make an excellent game developer. He's almost there.

Christopher Nolan I think would make an excellent game developer. He’s almost there.

Obviously, there are always exceptions to these points. Some people enjoy a more narrative driven game, such as the Metal Gear Solid series, while others might enjoy a game that focuses on gameplay like Faster Than Light. I’m not saying that either of these examples have lackluster narratives or gameplay or that they in any way neglect them, but they appeal more to one side than they do the other. The Metal Gear Solid franchise is a series infamous for it’s extremely long cutscenes; some gamers might find this boring while others might think constant in-your-face action is dull. But we’re trying to find the sweet spot, to deliver a cinematic experience that is dramatic and engaging while at the same time pushing gameplay into undiscovered territory. Many would argue that games should also be primarily a source of entertainment and this is true; video games should be fun. However, “being fun” is not an exclusive attribute. Games can experiment with traditional storytelling techniques and challenge  perceptions while simultaneously being an enjoyable, engaging game.

Wow, that must be one long cutscene Snake. Look at your hair!

Wow, that must be one long cutscene Snake. Look at your hair and that ‘stache!

Video game narratives are still extremely young when compared to film and literature. It’s difficult to translate the amount depth and artistic credibility associated with those two into the video game format, but I think video games are getting there. More and more art critics and historians are starting to realize the importance of video games as a viable source of artistic expression, even if the popular view remains stagnant on the issue. Now, this argument could easily transition into the age-old question of “What constitutes art or even fine art?” but I’m not going to go into that; that question is mired in personal interpretation and philosophical debate. Instead, as this is an opinion piece, I simply offer my own final, summary interpretation on video game narratives and their place within the medium:

Video games are a unique blend of visual art, storytelling, musical scores and interactive functionality. Much like film and literature, they should not only engage their audience with entertaining substance, but should also invite them to interact on a deeper level. However, this isn’t for every game nor is it the same for every film or novel; but to advance further as an art form, to be able to provide a rich, engaging experience we must challenge our audience’s perception of their humanistic capabilities. It is true for film and literature and we should strive to make that true of video games as well.

(Thank you for reading! This is a very large and expansive topic and I know for a fact that there was some information/counterpoints cut from the opinion piece in the interest of length that could provide further insightI’d love to hear your thoughts on the balance between aesthetics and gameplay and to discuss this in more detail so please leave a comment below and don’t forget to like this article and follow The Pixel Pen Review if you enjoyed the piece. Cheers!)

Written by Tim Atwood

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