Storytelling has been a part of human culture since we began to communicate with one another. It is a way to pass down information and to teach lessons. Great stories such as Romeo and Juliet can be read as a novel or watched as a play or film. The story of the lovers has been retold many times using different formats and styles. Yet because of the different ways their story can be told, people are still interested in them. Whichever medium one decides to see, he will need to use his imagination to fill in some gaps. If he reads the novel, he will have to picture the characters moving in his mind. If he watches the play or film, he will not need to visualize them as they are presented as moving images, however, he will feel as if he is not part of the story. He is just a spectator waiting for what the characters will do next.
With the rise of technology, video games offer to bridge the gap between the spectator and the characters. People know video games as shooting enemies or solving puzzles. They think it is a shallow waste of time. Some parents even forbid their children to play games. Although video games have advantages and disadvantages, anyone who has played story-driven games can say that it is an effective way of storytelling. It does not only offer visual stimuli but also direct interaction with the characters in the story. The evolution of storytelling in video games has made it the ultimate form of narrative. It allows the player to control the main character and experience the world through their eyes. The actions a character will take can often depend on the person playing the game. This is the part of video game storytelling that is present to no other mediums.
The Video Game Narrative
The video game narrative is the overall experience that allows a player to immerse themselves into a game. When talking about a video game narrative, it does not mean only about the story. It includes music, world design, lore, gameplay, and player choice. These aspects of a video game narrative complement one another to provide a unique experience for the player. A great video game narrative helps deliver the fully realized idea of a developer and lets the players feel fully immersed within the video game. Though some games only focus on gameplay and world design, storytelling video games are made with all of the aspects of video game narrative in mind.
Developers of storytelling video games have mastered combining the different aspects of a video game narrative. They write the main story of their games in a way that it interacts with the gameplay. Most storytelling video games have moments where a scene will be paused briefly and the player is given an option on what course of action the character will take. Urgent scenes where the character is expected to act quickly will challenge the player by including time limitations. Action-packed situations between the character and the antagonist will require the player to push specific buttons in quick succession.
Similar to films, storytelling video games also use music to enhance a scene. Fast-paced action sequences are matched with upbeat and high tone music. Mellow and dramatic music are added in emotional scenes such as the death of a character. Some games even go as far as changing a scene’s filter to invoke more emotion to a scene. Developers commonly compose unique soundtracks for their game. There is even one instance where an opera singer sang the song “Dragonborn Comes” from the game Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on national radio.
The Great Expanse of Video Game Lore
The lore in a video game narrative is the background information regarding the game world. The lore is often used in video game storytelling to give life into the game world. Bits of game lore is often found when interacting with non-playable characters or NPCs. When a player’s character enters a new city, there will be NPCs loitering around. Most games will allow the player to interact with these NPCs either for continuing the main story or giving background information regarding the events in the area.
Open-world games have the most elaborate game lore of any genre. Due to the ability of the player to travel anywhere in the virtual world, almost all aspects of a real functioning world are included in the lore. Storytelling video games like The Elder Scrolls series and Fallot franchise often use in-game books to provide more information about the game lore. Topics like religion, political history, and world history are often discussed in these in-game books. Developers of storytelling games have created fictional cultures that often mirror the real world.
A First Person Experience
Storytelling video games provide a player with a fully immersive world filled with lore and information. Besides this, storytelling video games and video games, in general, creates a suspension of disbelief through the concept of the avatar. (Somerdin, 2016). The avatar is the character model that a player controls. Games like The Sims allow players to give specific personal traits to their avatars. They can make the avatar a reflection of themselves or whatever is visually pleasing for them. This gives the player the feeling that they are directly interacting with the game world. This suspension of disbelief provides a unique point of view in storytelling. This is one of the advantages that video games have from other storytelling mediums.
The Power of Choice
Fans of role-playing games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, The Witcher 3, Final Fantasy Series, and more, are very involved with these games. Due to their video game narrative, it takes players hundreds up to thousands of hours to play. This is not just because of the long story the heroes have to take but also because of in-depth character creation available for the player. The players have a choice on how their character will look, what skills they possess, the sound of their voice, and some games even let the players give the main character some flaws. This gives players a reason to replay a game after finishing it.
The choice is one of the main selling points for a video game narrative. Fans of storytelling video games look for this when they are searching for a new game to play. Choices like a character's skills let a player start the game again but with a different skill. The player’s chosen new skills will allow him to experience the story again but in a new way. For example, a player finished a game by slaying the antagonist with his sword. Now he starts again, but this time he chooses to get diplomatic skills. In this playthrough, he may be able to defeat the main antagonist by persuading him and leading him to a righteous path. Storytelling video games are experts in this kind of choice-based narrative that allows the player to feel that he is directly influencing a virtual world.
Exploring A Fictional World
Storytelling in games compared to films is very different. Though both are visual storytellers, films only let us explore a world in the eyes of the main characters. We see what they see and we are only limited to their perspective. Video Games allow us to control the main character and some games allow us to explore the world outside of the main story. Video Games like these are called open-world games. They have a main story that a player can choose to follow. The player also has the choice to stray away from the main story and explore the world. Exploring the world often introduces a player to side quests. These are quests that are not related to the stories and are short stories by themselves.
Side quests are often used in video game narratives to further illustrate the state of the world. Choosing to do a side quest will allow a player to learn more about the game world. Games like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and The Witcher 3 are well praised for their well-written side quests. The side quests in these games not only teach the player about the world but offer them stories that can be related to the current state of the real world.
Like how Captain Marvel tackled feminism, side quests in these games talk about poverty, racism, sexism, and the everyday lives of the commoners. A player can find himself debating whether to let a war prisoner go back to his family or take him to the soldiers looking for him. This choice-based storytelling method is one thing that is unique to video games.
Evoking Strong Emotions
Video games allow an individual to see through the eyes of the main character of a story. Visual storytelling in games compared to films is almost the same. Films can be live-action or animated while video games are mostly animated. There are recent games that have real people acting as the characters, however, these games are mostly gimmick games with shallow stories.
Due to most storytelling video games being animated, video game developers focus on improving their motion capture technology. These are the tools they use to capture and digitize real actions made by actors. They also capture facial animations to give their characters life-like facial cues. With the technology that these developers are using, they are able to show life-like emotions when editing and creating video game scenes.
Video game developer’s efforts to capture emotions using technology is not the only thing that they use to give emotions to a character or scenes. By playing the game, a player can build a bond with a character, like when he is watching a movie. Unlike in movies and other films, video games make it more personal due to the fact that the player is the one choosing what to do. A good storytelling video game will let players build a bond with a character often making their death heartbreaking. Sometimes, it is the player that will choose which character will die. Leaving the player in a position where he must weigh the consequences of whatever choice he picks. Storytelling video game fans are familiar with this feeling since it is a very common thing developers add to their video game narrative.
Educational Use of Video Games
Storytelling has been used to entertain people. The mediums of storytelling are designed to engage the viewers or readers. Due to these mediums being effective in grabbing attention, they are also used to inform and educate people. Books are not just for literary works but are now commonly used in the academic fields. Video formats are also used for educational documentaries. This shows how these storytelling mediums evolve from exclusively for entertainment to being the best outlet for spreading information.
The same can be said for video games. Some schools have used video games to teach students about a particular topic. There was even a company that used video games to show students how flu epidemic outbreaks happen. Healthcare education, business training, and even military training have adapted the video game format to achieve their goal. (Baker, 2020) This is due to the advancement of technology and how easy it is to show a simulation play out in a video game. The students can interact with the simulation and produce different results.
Besides developing a video game directly for academic use, conventional video games can still educate a player. Most literature has lessons written within them. The same can be said with video games made for entertainment. Storytelling video games carry within their main story an important life lesson. Games like the Assassin’s Creed franchise are filled with ideas about freedom and order. They delve deeply into philosophical questions that may come up during a philosophy class. This is not to mention the historical accuracy of the games.
Examples of Great Storytelling Video Games
There are a plethora of storytelling video games that let their players experience historical events or emotion heavy situations. Oftentimes these games make a player think about certain ideas and issues. Here are some examples of storytelling video games with a strong narrative.
1. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
There are twelve Assassin’s Creed games excluding the spinoffs. One of the best narratives in the franchise comes from Black Flag. It is the story of a pirate named Edward Kenway. The player will see through the eyes of Kenway when playing the game. The player can interact with real-life pirates such as Jack Rackham, Edward Thatch, and Stede Bonnet. The game is set in the Golden Age of Piracy. The player can learn about events such as the pirate hunts and the end of the age of piracy.
2. This War of Mine
The game This War of Mine is a simulation game where you control war survivors trapped inside a war zone. A player can control different characters that possess unique skills and flaws. There is also a moral system that dictates the mental stability of every character. Playing the game will show the players how war affects the innocent. There are random events like choosing whether to help starving people or keep the limited supply for yourself. The game also features a story mode where you can experience war stories of specific characters. It offers heartbreaking narratives such as a father looking for his lost daughter and a woman clinging on to her humanity in the midst of a war.
3. The Witcher 3
The Witcher 3 is the story of a monster hunter named Geralt. The main story focuses on his quest to find his adoptive daughter, Ciri. Though the main story of The Witcher 3 is hailed by many, it is the side quests that truly sets the game’s storytelling above others. Most of the side quests tackle social issues like poverty, racism, corruption, and war. Playing the game will let a player explore a living world and change it depending on their viewpoint regarding certain issues.
Celeste is a platformer game similar to the well-known Super Mario games. It was specifically developed to raise awareness about anxiety and other mental issues. It follows the story of Madeline who decided to climb Mount Celeste. Madeline is a conflicted individual and does not believe in herself. During the story, the player will experience how Madeline struggles to take control of her negative thoughts while climbing the mountain. Playing Celeste will give players an insight into the mind of a person suffering from social anxiety.
The Future of Storytelling
The evolution of storytelling in video games has come a long way since Pong and Super Mario. Video game narratives and the process of visual storytelling in games have become complex. With the evolution of video games, a new way of storytelling was created. Books and films are here to stay since they are a huge part of many cultures. But storytelling video games opens a new avenue for storytellers to show their vision. The video games being developed today are different than what they were years ago. Since the young gamers during the early years of video games are now adolescents, developers are able to construct rich stories that spread ideas about certain topics. A lot of games have been specifically made to raise awareness about medical conditions, social issues, and philosophical ideas. It has proven itself as an effective learning tool and as a source of entertainment.
Video games have become the perfect storytelling medium of today. Narratives in video games like The Last of Us and The Witcher 3 show that games are more than just children’s toys. They are a storytelling medium that can rival films like The Lion King and Avengers: Endgame. With the ever-evolving technology available, storytelling in video games will become more immersive and entertaining. Take the rising trend of virtual reality for example. It removes the barrier a keyboard, mouse, or controller creates when playing a game. It allows a real first-person experience for the player. It is no question that it will be the next step in creating a great video game narrative. Storytelling video games will surely continue to produce amazing narratives that will test the limits of visual storytelling.
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Somerdin, M. (2016). The Game Debate: Video Games as Innovative Storytelling. The Oswald Review: An International Journal of Undergraduate Research and Criticism in the Discipline of English. https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1165&context=tor
Baker, B. (2020, May 6). Gaming as a Teaching Tool. Penn Today. https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/gaming-teaching-tool