What Games Bring to the Table, Pt. 2

Here’s part 2 of the wildly popular series!  Part 1 is over here.  Or you could, you know, just scroll down a little bit.  It’s like, right there.

Last time we covered how games have unique potential to immerse the player, how games have the advantage of a really flexible span of time in which to execute their tale, and how both of those enhance a game’s ability to tell you its story.  Today, we’re going to go over three more advantages video games have when telling its story.  What are they?  Oh, I can’t wait to find out!  Join me after the jump, and we’ll see together!

Expanded Focus

Get it?  Those things in the pictures, those are ear lobe expanders, to go along with the ‘expanded’ part?  Yeah, I couldn’t find anything better.  Google image search, you’ve failed me.

Anyways, if you look into writing literature, one of the cardinal rules you’ll hear over and over again is that you only include what furthers the plot.  Movies operate on similar rules; you only include what directly matters, and excise the rest.  Television series, with more time and scope to work with, get a little more flexibility here, but even then they have to fit everything within an episode-by-episode narrative structure.

With video games, you get to break all these rules.  A lot of video games actually rely on these rules to make things work.  Is it necessary to the plot that the Dragonborn gets in a drinking contest with the god of hedonism and pulls pranks through half of Skyrim?  No, but that’s still a fun plotline that would have been missed out on otherwise.  The very existence of sidequests, a video game staple, completely rejects the rules of “only include what furthers the plot” and it can make the world seem fuller and characters involved seem more rounded than you would have seen otherwise.

I usually hate when games are compared to films, because people don’t often make the right comparisons, and one of the comparisons that turn my gorgeous face the reddest is when talking about all the action in video games.  Specifically, those complaints you see along the lines of “What kind of movie would be 80% fight scenes, like games are!”  It probably helps if you go back and read it in a really dumb voice.  Don’t you think some directors would fill their movies with tons of fight scenes if they could?!  Fight scenes are awesome!  They’re active, vibrant, create lots of tension, and get the audience excited, all things you want in an action movie.  Thing is, because of the narrow focus movie watchers expect, as well as that imposed on them by the relatively short runtime movies get compared to other media, directors normally can’t include that many fight scenes without taking away from the plot.  Video games, with their expanded focus can.  So in this case, you can have your cake and eat it too.  And the cake is your favorite flavor.  And it comes on a plate lined with hundred dollar bills.  This is a good thing, I’m trying to say.

You can also get a lot of extra characterization out of this expanded focus, too.  Normally, in books and such, character interaction is only included when it establishes something about the character or plot, reveals something about the character or plot, or moves the plot forward.  You don’t get a lot of characterization unrelated to the plot.  But think about the social link system in Persona 3 and 4.  That was a system entirely dedicated to you learning about characters in ways that were generally unrelated to the central plot.  And think of how much more round and realistic those characters felt because of it.  And remember the skits from the Tales series?  Those little things that would pop up every once in a while, and let you watch a short scene of the characters commenting on whatever was around them?  I don’t know about you, but those really helped me build a much stronger connection with these characters.

Interactivity

This is probably the most obvious advantage video games have, and one I’d imagine you’d see used most often if you go around asking people what video games can offer the field of storytelling.

As I mentioned in the immersion section, interactivity will, by its nature, get you more involved in the story.  It’s one thing to watch Rambo kill tons of commies on screen, it’s quite another to be doing it yourself.  Most static forms of media, such as movies and books, are experienced passively.  You don’t have to do much other than sit there and absorb the content.  Video games are experienced actively.  You provide the action.  You bring up and move along the content you’re taking in.  From the moment you first press the ‘w’ key or the control stick, you’re the one moving the plot forward.  The main character is an extension of you, and unless the immersion has completely failed, you’ll feel some degree of everything that’s happening to him or her, because they’re your link to the world.

Even in cases where the story’s completely linear, requiring input from the viewer does get them more involved.  Think about the end of Metal Gear Solid 3, where (spoilers) the player has to pull the trigger on Boss.  That’s a completely linear segment of game.  She’s not going to get up and fight you anymore, nor does the game let you move away.  Everything’s completely in stasis until you press the button on your controller, there’s no changing the outcome whatsoever.  Even so, do you remember how powerful that moment was, primarily because it required you to finish her?  It would have been just as easy to have Snake end her in a cutscene, but that wouldn’t have created the connection between the player and that action.

One part of interactivity that becoming more and more prominent in video games is choice.  I think we’re at an interesting point for choice in games right now.  Gamers and developers are starting to realize it’s importance, and more and more games are starting to implement it to deliver their stories, but I think it’s going to be a while before a high profile release really uses its full potential.  There are games like the Mass Effect series, which uses choice to help you own the character and influence some aspects of the plotline.  There are games like the Walking Dead, which uses choice to make gamers question things about morality and the world they find themselves in.  There are games like Radiata Story, which has you choose between branching plotlines.  But I don’t think we’ve got a game yet that truly realizes the full potential of choice as a narrative device, that let the player’s decisions dramatically change the story at several junctures.  There wouldn’t be a plotline in this case, but a plottree.  This is something that would be difficult even for video games to manage, but they have more possibility in this area than most other mediums.  In fact, the only medium I can think of that would be better for truly implementing choice than video games is tabletop roleplaying games, where the writer of the story is able to react to player’s decisions rather than having to predict or force them.

And just having to think of the Walking Dead game is making me sad, so let’s move on to…

Emergence

Emergence is one thing that’s going to be really hard to promote in most video games.  This is where players would be able to create their own stories within the confines of the video game.  This is not just following plots the developers laid out for you, nor is it completing quests in a different order.  This is where you, the player, have your own unique experience through a game in a way the developers did not directly plan for.

This can be done in subtle ways.  Imagine there’s a game where, upon starting, your character is drafted into a corps of guardsmen.  The captain is there to deliver an optional tutorial, after which, the entire corps has to fight off a surprise attack by a group of assassins.  Then, after you’ve fought off the assassins, the king comes out and congratulates the captain on how well he’s trained his corps.  You can experience this a couple of different ways.  Let’s say it’s your first time through.  You go through the tutorial, then stumble through the battle with what you just learned, maybe taking out one or two assassins while the rest of your squad takes out the rest.  Then the king comes out and gives that compliment to the captain.  And he probably earned it.  You did use entirely what you learned from him, and it was a joint effort by the whole corps under his command to wipe out those assassins.

Then you go through the rest of the game.  You finish off the Giant Robot Made Out of the Moon final boss, complete that sidequest where you collect all the compliments in the game to give to Aether (hey, this is my game, I’m making it how I want), and you become crowned Emperor of the World.  You’ve gone through everything you can in this game.  And you start over, getting drafted into the guards corps.  You skip the tutorial, and you kill every assassin in that fight yourself.  None of the other guards even lay a blade on them.  Then the king comes out, and gives the captain that compliment about how well he trained your corps.  Hey!  The captain didn’t do anything!  You guys have got the next great battle-man over here, and that captain is just a glory-stealer!  See?  Exact same event, but because of the unique things you bring to the table, it’s now in a completely different context, and it says something completely different about the captain for accepting that compliment.  That’s emergence to a small degree.

At larger degrees, emergence can completely change the way you might play the game.  For example, in my first playthrough of Morrowind, I found myself in the city of Vivec very early on.  Exploring the city, I found the guard’s barracks, and on a shelf there, one of their sweet helmets.  So I stole the helmet, got away with it, and walked around the city with it on.  Couple minutes later, a guard approaches me, and tells me that those helmets are sacred to their religion, or something like that, and that a heathen like me wearing one is the greatest insult imaginable.  So he attacks me.  All the guards attack me.  Forever.  There’s nothing I can do to pacify them, and as a result, for the rest of the game, Vivec becomes a fortress to me, rather than a peaceful city.  I have to sneak or fight my way in every time I have a quest there.  And it was absolutely thrilling, and because of it, parts of my game were very different from most other players.

Of course, some games completely rely on emergence.  With games like Minecraft and the Sims, you’re creating any sort of plot there is yourself.  Some gamers have gotten together on multiplayer games, and made emergent games themselves.  As a storytelling device, however, this could be one of the more interesting things video games have to offer.  This is where you can talk with other gamers and have different takes on the plot, not because you interpreted things differently, but because the circumstances were actually different for you.

And, that closes us up.  Five advantages video games can offer storytelling.  Did you think of something I missed?  Hey, that’s what the comment section’s for, isn’t it?  Let us know there!

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