Storytelling & Gaming

Game developers control a delicate balance between how much agency they allow their users and attempting to pose an intriguing story. Linearity is something that has been toyed with in the video game industry, especially in the last couple of years.

he Walking Dead, a video game adaptation of the graphic novel franchise, created by adventure-focused developers Telltale Games, was the winner of numerous awards in 2012, including several game of the year accolades from USA Today, Wire, Complex and so on. What is so intriguing about Telltale’s Walking Dead is the illusion of choice. Broken down into five episodes, various options have to be made along the way, and none of them are easy. Choices include rationing out minimal food to the other survivors, deciding who the main character Lee (who you play as) should side with and various options on how to react. While the gameplay is merely functional, Telltale delivers such a devastating story because there is proper character development and their formula in allowing tonal agency makes the player believe they are affecting the overall plot, when really the player has little impact on the narrative.

An arguably less successful example of storytelling is the popular franchise Mass Effect. While they present an in-depth universe with plenty of choice, character development and beautifully told narratives, the overall plot simply could not account for every single choice that each player could make. There are just too many iterations for the developers, BioWare, to consider. Many consider their wrapping up of the overarching plot to be a disappointment because they had to funnel these iterations into one singular plot. The onslaught of downloadable content after the release of the original game also didn’t help the reaction of dedicated fans.

One final example in interesting storytelling is the game Heavy Rain. In it, players dive deep into a multilayered murder mystery. However, what makes Heavy Rain special is also the agency the developers allow the user: With a thought-provoking control scheme, exploring and doing mundane activities, such as brushing your teeth, become mini-games themselves. Using this example, the user would have to hold one of the buttons and shake left and right for the proper brushing motions. Each of these seemingly mundane actions affects the outcome in interesting ways. What’s more, the game doesn’t harshly punish your “failures”; instead it moves on at a speed that can be overwhelming sometimes, especially for newcomers.

It is important to explore the various methods of storytelling in video games because they allow users to partake in the active progression of the story, and many developers are exploring interesting ways in how to tell decent narratives. There are plenty of linear and derivative videogames still, but the more experimental trailblazers will be remembered rather than the perfect and yet mind numbing shooter.

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