Storytelling with pixels: The evolution of a medium
For a long time video games have been considered by many people to be a second class form of entertainment. The argument of “Are games art?” has been bandied about on games forums for as long as I can remember – even by people who profess to enjoy playing games. I would actually go so far as to call this debate insulting. If they are not art, then what are they? A mindless exercise in hammering buttons without any creative forethought? I’m sure that the designers and artists who have a hand in creating games would quite rightly take issue with their work being cheapened in such a way.
The concept of art has always been open to interpretation. A fusty old music professor may only consider the work of Bach or Beethoven to be important, but this doesn’t mean that the psychedelic genius of Jimi Hendrix is any less significant to someone who likes rock music. The same can be said about computer games. Just because a fan of science fiction literature considers video games to be a lesser medium doesn’t mean that the tale of Commander Shepard in Mass Effect 3 is any less engaging to those who don’t. The fact is that games are slowly turning into a fully-fledged medium of their own, conveying an experience in a way that no other medium can.
Video games are unique because they make us feel as if we are actually involved in the story somehow. This level of interactivity can be quite minimal like in Thirty Flights Of Loving or it can be complex and involved like in Dragon Age: Origins. It doesn’t matter if the experience is a short indie game that’s over in fifteen minutes or if it’s a lengthy RPG that takes 50+ hours to complete, the end result is still the same – we feel as if our actions have made a difference.
This is different from passively experiencing movies and books. Don’t get me wrong, these mediums obviously have advantages over video games. Novels will always be the purest and most extensive form of storytelling and films have much better cinematography/acting but they both keep their audiences more separated from the story. The bottom line is: why should video games strive to be more like films and books – aka “real” art forms – when they could be something else entirely?
The most notable thing that differentiates video games from other storytelling mediums is the inclusion of choice. The end of Mass Effect 3 caused such a furor amongst the gaming community that Bioware had to make an extended cut ending to try and hold on to the game’s fan base. It’s quite remarkable when you think about it, but the choices players made throughout the game caused them to have a much bigger personal connection with the plot. Many people referred to their save files as containing their Shepard. It was as if the options they had taken throughout the game reflected their own moral inclinations, making the events of the story all the more hard hitting and personal.
It’s not just the choices in Mass Effect 3 that have affected players on an emotional level either. Other games have used different methods of presenting players with choice and have still achieved the same effect. The heart wrenching tale of a father’s son being kidnapped by a serial killer in Heavy Rain is involving enough, but the way that the game allows players to initiate choices through the use of dialog driven quick time events makes them feel involved whilst presenting it in a similar way to a movie. Sometimes complicated visuals aren’t even necessary. The Nintendo DS sleeper hit 999: 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors is basically like a “choose your own adventure” novel and is little more than static images and walls of scrolling text. The experience is made almost entirely on the strength of the stellar story and the choices are just the icing on the cake.
Of course, visuals can make an impact on the storytelling experience as well in the right circumstances. L.A. Noire is an example of one such game. It’s special because it’s one of the first of its kind: a game that successfully blends the digital world of video games with the real life performances of actors. Sure, it had some shortcomings, but I like to think of it as a milestone achievement and a sign of what’s to come. Making choices regarding whether or not to trust witnesses in murder cases was all the more believable when the characters reacted with actual human expressions. It’s very encouraging to think about where this blend of art forms might take us in the future.
I have said nothing but good things so far, but there are some shortcomings to storytelling through the medium of video games too. The main one of these is that games are first and foremost exactly that – games. Sometimes the story must take a back seat to actually completing some interactive challenges that don’t always advance the plot. This is something that will – quite rightly – never change, and it undoubtedly breaks up the pace of the storytelling in a way that books and movies don’t have to contend with.
It is both simultaneously amusing and baffling to me how the general public reacts to video games. On the one hand you have people denying that they are actually art, and on the other you have awards ceremonies for them like the BAFTA’s. Whilst the latter approach is far more appropriate, neither are actually correct. Video games won’t be considered as art by many people because they are the new kids on the block, and the few who do understand the amount of creativity and forethought that goes into them wish to put them into the same bracket as movies. Games have a method of storytelling that is still in its infancy, but it is one that seeks to involve the audience in a way that no other medium can – by letting them play a part.