Video games: It’s about the story

Blair Hanley Frank

Credit: Song

Storytelling in video games has come a long way from the halcyon days of the arcade. Take for example the discernible plot of “Space Invaders”: Aliens are invading from space in various monochromatic warships, because they can. You alone are left to defend the planet in a specialized hovering tank, because you were stuck there. There is no character motivation, no reason for you to defend the world the way you are. You’re just stuck there.

Compare that to the games of today: It’s not unheard of for there to be massive writing teams to put together all of the dialogue and writing for “cutscenes,” little cinematic pieces intertwined with game play to move the story forward. Valve, the creators of the wildly popular “Half-Life” and “Portal” franchises has a New York Times bestselling novelist on staff to write for their games. Increasingly, games are being called cinematic, not only for their graphics quality, but for the depth of the plot.

Bioware’s latest offering, “Mass Effect 2,” has captivated the gaming public with its interesting blend of storytelling and game play. Every conversation you have with a character could have drastic ramifications on your future relationship options with them: romantic or otherwise: and on the game world itself. It’s not just about shooting aliens anymore. In the game, you form a band of compatriots who gather together to stop the forces of evil (who happen to be bug-like aliens abducting human colonists). But rather than just being a bunch of personality-free drones, all of your traveling companions have secrets, their own personal motivations and reasons for doing what they do.

Then there are games that turn norms of video gaming on their heads. “Bioshock” from 2K Games included a plot twist that was not only stunning in its complete upheaval of the story, but also in its ability to make players question why they were doing what they were doing at all. The plot’s climax truly stunned me and made me think.

Endings are also not what they used to be: Even as late as 2000, games worked on a binary system. Either you beat the game, or you lose. Now, it’s more and more popular to include multiple endings, based on the choices you’ve made in the game. Without spoiling anything,  “Mass Effect 2” can turn out very differently based upon the choices you make.

We’ve come a long way, indeed.

Now, I’m not saying that games will replace books and movies, but I think it’s important to recognize and value them as another storytelling medium. It’s a new way for writers to communicate with an audience, and in many ways interact with them. Gamers play games to get away from reality, and the best games, like the best novels and movies, provide immersing experiences where you really are in another realm.

I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next. It’s about the story for me, and I want more. I want plots that will suck me in and spit me back out on the other side, pleasantly dazed, to be standard-issue: not just for the cream of the crop. I’m ready for folks like Stephen King and Patrick Rothfuss to write stories that we, as players, can be a part of. It is my sincere hope that someday in the not-too-distant future, it will be possible to get a degree in video game writing. But most of all, I hope that people will learn to respect the art of writing an interactive experience like a game.