Written by Sydney Stewart
When someone mentions video games, you probably think immediately of games like Fortnite, Super Mario Bros., or Call of Duty – not exactly games with stories that would fit seamlessly in the pages of a book. However, I would say that it’s time to start considering video games as legitimate mediums for effective storytelling. While many video games are indeed simple games where your only goal is to shoot as many characters as possible, there are numerous video games where character development, plot mapping, and world-building are just as important as the the death toll in these other games. Video games offer well-composed plots and characters while providing an immersive experience in the wonderfully rich and colorful world of the game, where your autonomy contributes to and can drastically shift the path of the narrative. These features – inventive plots, relatable characters, complete immersion, and autonomy – certainly earn video games a different reputation than their current stereotype of mindless, simplistic pastimes.
The plots of many video games work to convey messages about the world and how it ought to work, all whilst deepening your playing experience. The award-winning Portal franchise exemplifies the power of complex plots. While you may play a nameless character that solves puzzles to escape a mad robot, you confront the hard questions and potential pitfalls of constant scientific and technological development (as this robot has gone mad in her quest for scientific innovation). Another exemplary video game that utilizes exceptional plot structure (and rewarded for this work with numerous accolades and awards) is Assassin’s Creed. This game-turned-franchise grapples with the long-running question of autocratic societies and importance of free-will, and brings up the modern anxieties of threats to freedom and peace. Assassin’s Creed mirrors plots found in dystopian novels, but you aren’t simply reading about stories that bring up these big questions. Rather, you’re thrust into the world in which these things are playing out and are expected do something about it. This immersive effect is achieved also in the expansive array of characters in video games.
The story no longer becomes an event that is happening to someone else, but rather something that is happening to you. Wouldn’t you be a little more invested in the story if that story was actually yours?
In addition to the colorful plots of video games, there are the compelling and intriguing characters that populate video games who all contribute towards creating a world bursting with life. The characters that inhabit the world of the video game and interact with your character are deceptively complex, and have backstories and traits you can uncover through gameplay even if they aren’t the main focus of the story. This attention to all characters further contributes to the complex world the player can explore and provide the game with life and depth. There is, of course, the main character, or the character you play: they may be premade and neatly packaged with proper backstory, motivation, and personality by the game developers, or they may be a character you create yourself.
In creating your own character, you can either concoct a character with an illustrious backstory and complex personality, or you can project your likeness onto the character. Naturally, in making the character a mini-you, the character becomes as interesting as you are – to drive the plot forwards, you can place yourself into unfamiliar situations and consider how you may react. By providing the opportunity to place yourself quite literally into the video game, the line between the player and the character, as well as reality and the story before you becomes blurred. The story no longer becomes an event that is happening to someone else, but rather something that is happening to you. Wouldn’t you be a little more invested in the story if that story was actually yours?
In addition to the varied and well-constructed plots and characters that you can manipulate to reflect yourself, video games offer an immersive and engrossing experience in their world-building. You can hear and see everything happening around your character or in other parts of the video game’s world, and you aren’t limited to the main character’s perspective as often as you might be with a book. Video games don’t place the onus on you to create the mental images of what is being described – rather, you are placed into the thick of conflict. In video games, you witness and experience all of these pivotal plot points in a more tangible way than in a story. In fact, by watching the story manifest around you, it becomes easier to suspend disbelief and believe in the story being told. You are fully integrated into the narrative, and you confront those real-world questions firsthand. Further, you can explore the beautiful world crafted by expert game designers – and I do mean explore. In open-world role playing games (RPG’s for short), you can wander through the setting in which the story takes place, whether this be a postapocalyptic Nevadan desert (like in Fallout: New Vegas) or a seemingly endless galactic empire (as in the Mass Effect franchise). Much like the vivid and in-depth worlds created by Tolkien or George R. R. Martin, an incredibly rich and detailed universe awaits you – except now, you can interact with this world, unlock some of its mysteries, and discover new plot points or characters that only deepen your experience and the story being told.
Sometimes, you only experience and react to the plot points around you with maybe a few side quests or two before you uncover the predetermined story you set out to play. In some games, however, you are an autonomous agent, and can manipulate the path and eventual ending that the narrative will take with your actions and reactions. Your decisions influence the world around you, and often, these decisions aren’t easy. One game that performs this task exceptionally well is Dragon Age: Inquisition, whose effective work in integrating the player and leaving them with ground-breaking autonomy in the game earned it the title of Game of the Year in 2014. Some decisions the player has to make involve choosing which of your companions dies in order to save your character, whether you allow one of your companions to kill her friend-turned-traitor, or whether to permit a man to continue abusing toxic substances in order to become more powerful. You, the player, have complete autonomy and dictate the outcome of character’s lives and the fate of the world before you. You control the narrative and the plot. For all intents and purposes, you become the writer of a story – an exhilarating step forward in how we tell our stories.
Storytelling shifts constantly. Due to technological developments, the medium with which we tell our stories is changing from the easily recognizable forms of literature or film to the unfamiliar. Video games depict stories in powerful, pioneering, and unprecedented ways. People tend to primarily recognize video games for their technological innovations like graphic capability and virtual reality, instead of their abundance of rich storytelling. Video games take advantage of the modern technology we have in order to tell stories in an innovative way, and should be regarded as just of an authoritative medium for storytelling as the books we’ve grown familiar with in our lives.
Photograph by Patrick T. Fallon — Bloomberg via Getty Images