Are we a video games blog now? I think we are. As of this post, roughly 2/3rds of my content is going to be about video games, and that first post barely counts as anything. You know what? I can dig it. If I got words to say about video games, then that’s just where this blog will be, until I decide to talk about something else. Probably ponies. I do love ponies.
Anyways, there’s been a lot of discussion on the games=art concept over the years. And because most of that discussion has taken place over the internet, there’s also been a lot of arguments over the years. Bad ones. By the types of people that leave those really dumb comments on YouTube videos. You know the ones I’m talking about. We’re not going to get into that argument today, but there is a related topic I’m wanting to talk about. Whatever your feelings on games as art, you can’t deny that storytelling has been growing into a more and more common component of our interactive electronic entertainment systems over the years. The importance of narrative in video games has long been on the rise, to the point where it’s the primary purpose in some games now. With this post, I’m wanting to talk a bit about what advantages video games offer to stories.
I’m excited, aren’t you? Let’s get started!
Picture this: you, the career soldier/piano virtuoso/blast-hammering war god that you are, are just going down the street minding your own business like a war god does when all of a sudden you turn the corner and BAM! There’s this horde of like 80 demon bikers harassing a bus load of professional models of your choice of gender. The police can’t get close without getting mowed down. Their bodyguards are all critically wounded. The local superheroes have been fighting for hours, but they can’t even make a dent, because have you seen these guys?! They’re like the size of a Hummer, each! And the old style Hummer, too. The really big ones. It’s a lucky thing you happened by, though. You just flex your muscles, and the resulting shockwave knocks everyone nearby to their backs! You unleash Ulysses, your blast-hammer, and immediately use it to send the biggest demon biker into the stratosphere! The other demon bikers, terrified of you, start vanishing back to the hell from whence they came! All the models come out! They love you! The police give you a special junior deputy badge! The mayor crowns you King of Italy for a day! Everything is amazing! Feels awesome, right?!
There, that’s it. That ‘feels’. That’s what a good, strong immersion will lead to. That’s what happens when you forget about the mechanics, stop noticing the living room and screen and controller, and start emphasizing with the characters. You start putting yourself in the game. Not every game goes for immersion. But those that try to present their characters and their story as more than just polygons and code do. Immersion is what makes horror games scary and death scenes touching. Immersion is what makes you proud of success not because you surpassed a mechanical challenge but because you’ve become that much closer to victory against your adversaries. Immersion is what makes you care about the characters, the world, and the many twists and turns the plot may take.
Immersion is far from exclusive to video games. Without immersion, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre would never have kept you up at night, and Old Yeller would never have made you cry. Well, I guess it’s possible that you’re just kind of a sissy, but I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and say it’s immersion. There are a lot of stories in all mediums that just don’t work if you keep remembering that you’re sitting on your couch staring at a bunch of organized colors. Some degree of immersion is common to nearly all forms of story-telling, because if it’s not there, most sense of mood, tension, and conflict just flies away. I believe video games have some unique tools for encouraging immersion, however.
The first is that you’re providing direction. You never go “Aww, man, why is she running from the killer into the forest?!” because you’re making the decision to go to the forest so you know exactly why she’s doing that. Unless the game is very linear and has poor justification for your character’s choices. Hey, I never said these tools are always applied properly.
The second is that settings can be much more complete in video games. Places just feel more realistic when you can see all four walls, rather than just whatever direction the camera happens to be pointing at the moment. You get to explore the whole apartment, rather than just watch what happens in the living room. If you see something that looks weird or interesting in the corner, you can go check it out yourself rather than waiting for one of the characters to say something about it. All this adds to how real a place feels and, by extension, how much a real part of it you feel.
Third is interactivity. We can get into this later, but by the very nature of you having to press buttons to do actions, you’re already more a part of the game world than you are with other video games.
Fourth is kind of a cultural thing more than a natural factor, but many game designers actively seek to increase your immersion. They remove heads-up displays, attempt to justify gameplay elements, and try to give you opportunities for roleplaying. For many people in the industry, it’s become an ideal to try and get you lost in their game, and they’re willing to add those little touches to help you get there.
The film industry will put a year or years of work into putting out a two hour movie. So much gets left on the cutting room floor because two hours isn’t really a whole lot of time to tell all the ways Bruce Willis can kill terrorists. They have to establish the setting; start, escalate, and resolve all the conflicts; make you care about the characters and much more in just two hours of screen time. Comic books get about six issues of twenty-some pages to do the same thing. Books get 200-500 pages. Television series get more time than any of these others, but they still have to do all this and wrap it up in twenty hours per season at the most.
With video games, you’ve got anywhere between 2 and 80+ hours for your story. I’ll be the first to admit that many, many, MANY games abuse this. Years of stupid pointless backtracking and hastily resolved plotlines have convinced me of that. When used properly, though… I’m a big proponent of just writing ’till you’re done. It’s served me well in both professional documents and my personal works. Some of you may be thinking “man, those are a lot of words Aether’s put in this post so far. I’m not so sure about that concept.” If you are, you’re probably not reading this because you’ve gotten bored and are looking at cats who want cheeseburgers right now. For those of you with patience, you probably have already figured out that means you just write until you’ve got all your good ideas down and you’ve brought things to a comfortable close. And you’ve figured this out because you’re smart. Much smarter than those folk who’ve abandoned me at this point.
Anyways, video games gives you a lot of flexibility in this regard. Got a story and concept that only lasts a couple hours? You can still work with it. Got something that lasts as long as that Energizer bunny? It might be stretching it a little to have a game that lasts for 24 years or more, but if you can make it an open world thing, I’m sure people would buy it. In any case, there’s not really a narrow span for how long a video game’s “supposed” to last. When in the hands of a competent designer, a game lasts just as long as it needs to, pays each part of the story its due service, and comes to a satisfying and proper conclusion.
And entry number three is… actually, I think this post is already long enough, guys. So we’ll be splitting this up into two parts. Stay tuned for next time, which
should come in a couple days! is right here!