The stories we play

There used to be a time when video game bashing was trendy. Everyone was doing it, using games like Grand Theft Auto to demonstrate the mindless simulated violence youth was engaging in. More recently, the billion dollar industry has been shown a little more respect, highlighting what videogames can teach us about learning and the benefits of gaming.  There is also much to be said about their value as narrative text.

I like video games so much that I don’t have a game console out of fear of never leaving the house. Game play has become so immersive and not just because of the awesome (and boy are they awesome) animation and graphics, but also because of the captivating, complex storylines and characters. Sure, there are games that rely more on game play than a well developed story (The princess has been captured and Mario must save her. Tetris.) But then there are those that keep you playing because of the story and what you are learning about the characters. In God of War you are Kratos, and it is slowly revealed that you were once a captain in the Spartan army who makes a deal with Ares that leads to the tragedy you are playing out.  There are many other games with brilliant narrative like Metal Gear, Assassin’s Creed and Legacy of Kane. It used to be the case that the good-guy/bad-guy, black and white world that we often see in fairy tales was prevalent in video games when there was no room to develop a character. Today, almost all game characters are complex and human. The player is allowed to discover their history, what motivates them and why. In video games, you not only feel with the character, you feel as the character. It’s another level of walking in their shoes, because you are, virtually (virtual in a digital way, anyway).   

At a recent D.I.C.E. (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain) summit, game designer David Jaffe asked to stop spending time, money and energy on developing good stories for videogames. However, he was speaking about the idea of developing a game from start to finish in order to tell a story.  I agree with Jaffe in the sense that if games were developed solely to tell a story, game play as a result would be pretty boring (I’ve been told Final Fantasy XIII is a good example) Good game play can carry a good story (the early Final Fantasy).  Even Portal, which is a simple puzzle game, is carried out through wonderful storytelling techniques.

Movies and  books are very different ways of delivering a story, each using different strategies and putting weight on different aspects of storytelling. The same story would be told very differently, and have different assets and shortcomings, as a film or as a book. Gaming, in many cases, is just another form of narrative text. After all, a game is text that the "reader" interacts with in order to extract meaning.  Games come with paratext, are loaded with intertextuality and, like all texts, are cultural objects born out of a particular context and designed for, but not limited to, a specific audience.

There are books out there for everyone, to suit every taste and mood. This is also the case for video games. If you don’t like gaming, chances are you haven’t played the right game yet. When you do, you experience many of the same emotions that come with reading. You are completely immersed into another world that you have to examine and make sense out of.  When you finish, it is the same feeling of coming back from the long journey you made with and as the character. It is a feeling of accomplishment, fulfilment, slight sadness  and a quiet knowing that comes with familiarity (or is it just me?).  

 "Michael" is a video that PlayStation 3 created as part of their “Long Live Play” advertising campaign that plays on all these emotions and pays tribute to the “reader”. It features many of the best loved characters all in one place and illustrates how important narrative is in game play. 

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