A book allows you to visualize every single little thing through your own imagination, your own interpretation. Your involvement in the story depends on how well the book is written, as well as much how you allow yourself to be taken into it. A movie takes all of this away, but adds feelings through cinematography and music, but they take significantly less time and involvement. A video game lies somewhere in between. It’s like watching a movie visually and auditory (just listen the Darren Korb’s “Bastion” soundtrack, it’s a story on its own), but you have a lot more involvement. In a book the words aren’t your own, and in a movie the actions aren’t either, but when you play a game it’s you pressing the buttons, you making the decisions. It’s a different way of getting into a story, but depending how well it’s done, so much more effective.
That is not to say that all games are good stories, many actually haven’t even the flimsiest plot. I’m not going to talk about “Battlefield”, any sorts of sports game or “Call of Duty” (though the earlier “Call of Duty” games actually did have some decent story behind them). Those games don’t even need a story, it’s just about racing, football, pwning n00bs or shooting everything before it shoots you. And as you might guess, those are not my kind of games. “Overwatch” is the closest that comes to that kind and even it has some really good background story, it’s just not in the game itself besides some environmental details like posters, voice lines and easter eggs. To make things a little easier, I’ll consider two other categories of games: those with a story that’s ‘unobtrusively’ there, as merely a red line to follow, and those games that pull you completely into the story and actually make you the protagonist.
The first type has the most examples, all “Final Fantasy” games, “The Last of Us”, the “Arkham” games, “Tomb Raider”, “Borderlands”, … They all have a story, mostly excellent ones, but it’s used as a reason as to why you are running from point A to B, in the meantime actually playing a game. These are a bit more akin to books, as in you don’t decide almost anything because the story is set, but the page turning you do is a bit more involving. You don’t get to see what comes next until you do this or that, though sometimes you can get to see optional chapters through doing side quests of course. This linearity doesn’t mean they are bad games, at all. Most of my favourite games belong to this category like “Bastion”, “Kingdom Hearts”, “Okami”, “Shadow of the Colossus”, … The story they tell is absolutely fantastic while I have no real influence over it. But it’s not like I read “Harry Potter” and want to change what Harry and company actually do. That’s not how the story goes, and I have to live with that. As long as the story is excellent, I don’t need to change anything. And yes, I know fanfiction is a thing, but you know what? I hate fanfiction. Most of it, at least.
Sometimes if you don’t care about the story, you’re fine with totally ignoring it. “Dishonored” and “Bioshock” for example do the world building through books or audio logs you can read or let them lay untouched. I’d say you are missing out on some fantastic stories, but it’s ultimately not vital to the game. “Skyrim” is the same, you can kill everything in sight, rush through dungeons like a whirlwind aided by your shouts, or you can take a more leisurely pace through it and look into every nook and cranny to see if there’s something to find, same with the “Fallout” games. Those details they put in, add a lot more to the worlds, but again, nothing completely essential. For me, it’s really fun to discover, to see that couple of skeletons in a car, overlooking the wasteland of post-apocalyptic D.C. with a few bottles of beer next to them, having their final sweet moments with each other when the bomb dropped, or in “Skyrim” to read Ulfr the Blind’s book and see that it’s completely blank. Simple things, but it makes the world feel a lot more alive. It’s not just about stabbing bitches and sniping people who looked at you wrong, it’s a real adventure.
As for the second category, it tends to be about games that are mostly narrative driven and don’t always have as much gameplay. Because of this, they carry a bit of a stigma as being ‘hardly a game’. With those so-called walking simulators like “Dear Esther”, I totally agree, because “Dear Esther” also has no fucking story whatsoever. “Gone Home” actually does and while it is also mostly a walking simulator (but mostly about exploration), is a fantastic experience and definitely worth your time. “Stanley Parable” has very little interaction with anything, but no one denies the great writing, if you have a sense of humour at least. Many games made in RPG maker just let you walk around and look for the next thing to interact with, but with a game like “To the Moon”, it tells you an absolutely fantastic story. So while there’s very little ‘game’ to these examples, the script definitely makes up for it, so then it just comes down to personal preference. Some gamers prefer their technical superiority and can forgive bad stories, while for others they can deal with janky physics in favour of a good story. I don’t think the lack of a game over screen means they are not games. You just don’t progress, like a puzzle game. Total Biscuit described it as “a less desirable outcome” which can be broadly interpreted to many ways of ‘failing’ a game. I think that covers it pretty well.
There are however also plenty of examples that show you can have a good game with very involving and actual gameplay. Many of the following examples are difficult to explain because it’s about how something feels, so this might not be that enlightening for anyone who hasn’t already played the games. Like this, no one denies that “Undertale” is a fantastic game, unless they’re trolling or have no taste at all. The way you play the game is genuinely genius, because it tells a story through gameplay. Every game is just pushing buttons, and that makes your character do something, but for a game like “Undertale”, it feels different. It feels much more personal. You evade the literal sweat, tears and spears of your enemies who you can talk to or outright murder in cold blood, while some opponents don’t even really want to fight and just stand there, waiting for whatever you will do to them. The world gets emptier and the remaining characters flee in terror from you if you go the Genocide Route. At the end, everything is dead and the game just turns into a black screen, wind blowing through nothingness. You did that, and if you want to replay the game, you have to sell your soul, which has lasting impacts on your next playthrough (unless you delete the correct file, of course).
Another example are the Telltale games, especially their “The Walking Dead” series. When you decide who to help, you’re condemning the other to die. It’s you who made that decision, your action or inaction that resulted in an event. And it gets worse when you for example try to save someone by button mashing. There’s a moment in the second “Walking Dead” game where you try to save someone who fell through ice into a river. You smash and smash onto the ice by pressing a button, but it doesn’t break. So you smack your button harder and harder, but you still don’t succeed and you see the character die in front of you. It feels like you failed by not breaking your controller while mashing even harder. Later on, in pure Telltale style, you have to make a decision on who to kill. It doesn’t give you option A or B, it makes you point to one of the characters, and it makes you pull the trigger. Just another button press, but it feels like much more. You took the shot. You killed someone, someone that YOU knew and loved. Telltale’s “Game of Thrones” actually broke me at one point when I had to decide who of two brothers I had to sacrifice. “Until Dawn” makes it so you can save every character in the game, or let them all die, improving the things Telltale is known for. “Life is Strange” is a complete clusterfuck of these things. “LISA” makes you give up an arm to save your team mates, but your own combat power goes way down with it. These games don’t have a Game Over for the wrong decision, but make you live with the consequences of your actions so that you only have to blame yourself for whatever happens. When comparing it to the games of the previous category, you don’t always necessarily agree with how Joel does things in “The Last of Us”. Maybe I don’t want to save the world in Final Fantasy for once. But if you want to progress, you have to follow the lines regardless. Not with this second type of games. You get a few decisions you can make (maybe none of which you want to do, but that’s the world of “The Walking Dead”, yo) and you do them. You tailor it to what you would do in that situation, you role play. It’s not a perfect system by any means due to technical and practical limitations, but when it’s done well, there’s nothing like it.
The most heartbreaking example I can think of is “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons”. You control two characters, one hand for one of the brothers, working together to solve puzzles and get through the adventure, like how the younger brother can’t swim so has to hold on to his big bro but is smaller and lighter so can get to places the big brother can’t. But at one point, the big brother dies. It makes you carry your brother to the grave that the game made you dig. It makes you fill it up again too, and it’s so quiet, no music playing, just the howling of the wind. And from that point, you play with only one hand. You absolutely feel like you’re missing one half. You feel emptier, more alone. And then, as the little brother, you arrive to a waterbed you have to cross. But you can’t swim, right? The action button for the little brother doesn’t do anything. And then you realize, what if I press the action button for the big brother? And you start to swim. After that with the same method, you pull a big lever that only the big brother was able to handle. You are using both hands again. This might sound weird and confusing in just plain text, but I can assure you, if you actually would play the game, you’ll feel it. Every heart wrenching moment.
These are the type of games that make you feel something that no movie or even book can, because the gameplay erases whatever distance between being the reader and the protagonist. You can really get sucked into a book, but to me at least, reading those words and actions is fundamentally different from having a decision to make yourself as well as executing it. I felt things during the Red Wedding and with Boromir’s death, no doubt, but it doesn’t feel the same like me having to talk someone out of a suicide in “Life is Strange”, with several options of dialogue most of which will lead to her jumping and failing not the game, but the protagonist and by extention, myself. It’s different when you have to mash a button in order to run towards a friend in need and they die because you didn’t bash… no, run hard enough. Games can make you feel, laugh and cry, just like a good book or movie. But just like books and movies, not all games are meant to do that. You have your dime novel variations of games, your “the Fast and the Furious” equivalents of adrenaline games, but there are those few gems of a game that can just get to you, and I absolutely love them, even if they made me cry. Because if I cried, it means that I cared. And if I care, you did good. You did good.
This blog was brought to you by: Darren Korb – Setting Sail, Coming Home (Bastion OST)