The way in which we tell stories and the way that we interact with and consume them is changing, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the rapidly evolving medium of video games.
However, it has taken a long time for video games to arrive at a point where they are taken seriously as a storytelling platform. From the dawn of computer and console-based gaming, fear, distrust and dismissal has been the default setting of the wider artistic community. No less a critical luminary than Roger Ebert claimed in 2005 that “the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art.”
Filmmakers and writers, meanwhile, have consistently vilified the interactive narrative possibilities inherent in innovative technologies, depicting advanced, intricate game worlds as potentially hostile, dehumanising, and dystopian environments.
Consideration has rarely been given to the possibility that video games might actually be a tool for narrative good and if proof is required a quick internet search serves as confirmation, revealing a veritable smorgasbord of classic film titles in which faux participatory realities pose a clear and present danger to humanity’s existence. Tron, The Lawnmower Man, Strange Days, Existenz, Virtuosity, The 13th Floor, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Hell, even the poptastic nostalgia blast of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One adaptation, in which humanity has become sedated by a mesmeric virtual world exploited by corporate opportunists, presents a case for the prosecution.
The academic gaming community has experienced division on the subject too. Arguments against video games as a staging post for a narrative revolution have been simmering in the community for years, born of out the Ludology Vs Narratology debate, which argues on the one hand that video games ought to be studied primarily in terms of their action, rules and game mechanics (Ludology), and on the other that game narrative ought to form the basis of study (Narratology).
Whilst the critical, cultural and even academic consensus has been one of overriding cynicism and negativity for years, complex interactive storytelling has long been an objective of game designers. 1980’s RPG trailblazers such as Ultima laid the foundations for future classics such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. These games spotlighted narrative in gaming, elaborating gamer agency and choice within the storyline to provide a more inclusive experience in which plot development was as important as action.
In Hamlet on the Holodeck, in 1997, Janet Murray optimistically speculated, that computer-based technologies were ‘a new medium for storytelling’ and whilst her optimism was considered misplaced by many, in recent years, with the release of titles such as Rockstar Games Red Dead Redemption, a plethora of Bethesda titles and Guerrilla Games’ beautifully rendered Horizon Zero Dawn, it would appear her faith in the medium has been validated. These games allow the player to become fully immersed in elaborately realised alternate worlds, where gameplay mechanics, textured landscapes, player agency and genuine choice, all determine the direction, and in some instances resolution, of the narrative arc.
Over the last decade, in tandem with the sector’s revolutionary fusion of interactive, emotionally involved fiction and intuitive playability, a growing chorus of academics and artists such as b movie legend John Carpenter and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, have emerged to champion video game aesthetics and the seismic impact they are having on the art of storytelling.
The wider artistic community, meanwhile, has also come around, signalling a more balanced debate for and against the medium. Films such as Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, celebrate and embrace gaming culture and the visual and narrative dynamics that render video games distinctive. With the Tribeca Film Festival putting a call out for submissions for its inaugural Tribeca Games Award in 2021, a category focused on the demonstration of artistic excellence in storytelling, it is becoming increasingly obvious the once humble, and much maligned video game is gaining recognition as a unique and sophisticated storytelling platform.
To quote literary scholar and author Jonathan Gottschall, ’Don’t despair for story’s future or turn curmudgeonly over the rise of video games and reality TV. The way we experience story will evolve, but as storytelling animals, we will no more give it up than start walking on all fours.’
Gottschall, J (2012). The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Murray, J. (1997). Hamlet on the Holodeck. New York: The Free Press.