The Storytelling Series: Why the Video Game?

From simple beginnings, stories have been created throughout time to fulfill particular niche roles: inspiring us to follow moral paths, maintaining our histories and our cultures, entertaining us, and helping each one of us to understand each other and our place in the great narrative of human existence. The video game–a new platform for narrative expression–allows us to take our stories, both old and new, and re-imagine them as playable experiences.

Where video games and their stories are concerned, we realize that we aren’t on the cutting edge of this discussion. Scholars, such as Henry Jenkins, have argued that video games are by nature a type of storytelling medium–comparable to books and films–and representing a new type of “transmedia storytelling.” Others, such as Espen Arseth, find that the study of games should focus not on narrative at all but on their structure as rule-based, formal systems. There are scores of conflicting voices weighing in on this topic (see: Sebastian Deterding, Jesper Juul, Ian Bogost, etc.), but many of these voices focus on defining what game scholarship actually is.

We are not professional game scholars. The purpose of this blog is not to push forward a new definition of game studies, or to favor one over another, but to instead to step back and see games for what we enjoy them as: interactive stories. Drawing on our shared experiences as primarily fiction writers and literary scholars (we each hold a Bachelor’s of English in creative writing), and our varied backgrounds in film and digital media studies, as well as video game theory and design, we strive to provide critical assessments of contemporary video games in order to cultivate a better understanding of successful narrativity.

Understanding Storytelling

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Storytelling represented in other mediums. The Boyhood of Raleigh (1870) — John Millais.

Before we can truly talk about games-as-stories, it’s important to pause and consider how we got here in the first place. The storytelling art comes to us today from a long history rooted in the traditional oral narratives of the earliest human cultures. Oral stories are only one of several storytelling mediums, which we can refer to as ‘narrative vehicles.’ Modern technological developments led to new narrative vehicles, such as the print medium, for example, and gave us only broader and richer ways to tell our stories to one another, in turn, cultivating the practice of storytelling as artistic expression. Visual mediums, such as film and television, allowed stories to become highly accessible, filling a void that theater and performance arts once occupied alone. The digitally mediated society we’re used to today has allowed  all of our stories to be portable on our smart-phones, sharable on our blogs, and maintain permanence in the public record that traditional oral narratives weren’t able to have in their time.

What About the Video Game?

The video game is a newborn medium compared to the thousands of years oral narratives have been around, but it is one that introduces a unique ability to cultivate interactivity between the audience and the narrative. The player not only experiences but participates in the narrative, relying on their own skills and intuition to move forward, unlocking further story points or creating their own.

Early video games lacked a narrative focus. — PONG (1972)

Some of the earliest video game entries are mostly story-less, however; PONG (1972), for example, is a simple simulation of tennis, providing a rudimentary representation of two ‘players’ and a ball, along with a numerical score keeper. As the potential of games grew over time, and the capabilities of computers and processing systems improved, video games became more complex, both in their gameplay and in their capability to sustain a story. Many of the games released during the past decade alone sport lengthy and engaging narratives that can require ten or more hours of continued commitment, paired with innovative and motivating gameplay to support them.

Understanding Narrativity

The type of theory we can use to properly discuss narratives in video games but be able to unite both narrative study as well as visual mediums. This is where we can introduce the crucial term that comes to us from film theory: narrativity. Narrativity establishes traditional narrative as a dichotomy; narrative is both created by the filmmaker and interpreted by the filmgoer.

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“This work of fiction was designed, developed and produced by a multicultural team of various religious faiths and beliefs.” — Message played during the loading screen of entries in the Assassin’s Creed series.

Where video games are concerned, traditional narrativity is deepened by the intricate pairing of player agency and developer-designed play space. Developer teams–including writers and artists, directors and designers, editors and programmers–act in the role of the filmmaker, designing a unified experience that draws on numerous perspectives and ideologies and presents a particularly imagined experience for the player. Players, in turn, are the audience, bringing their own understandings, identities, rhetorics, and ideologies to the experience, crafting a unique understanding of the game’s narrative that is sensitive to their personal interests.

Measuring Narrativity on a Spectrum

We can safely say that most of the games people play every day are, by their very nature, narrative games, even when they might not seem like it. Narrativity in this context can be said to exist on a spectrum; at one end, we see games whose provided narrative makes up the bulk of the gameplay and experience. Indie hit Dear Esther, for example, a 2012 release by The Chinese Room, is a game mostly about walking around. As players wander through the fairly linear island sections at a slow, even pace, they trigger epistolary story snippets spoken aloud by an unseen narrator. Though players are able to decide what parts of the island they want to explore during their play, they cannot actually influence the events that occur in any way and the experience is mostly the same no matter how many times it is played through.

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011) — Part of the robust character design process.

At the other end of the spectrum live games such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011), where players take on the shell character of the Dragonborn, a person born with the soul and power of a dragon within them. Players can much more directly determine the course of the narrative by creating and modifying their Dragonborn, making him or her a member of any number of races with unique and individualized skills, weaknesses, and allegiances. The narrative, split into a ‘main quest’ and many ‘side quests,’ can be completed in any order the player chooses.

It is here we can even revisit our old friend PONG, whose narrative is informed more by its audience’s understanding of the game than by the developers’ particular narrative goals. Players know only that PONG is meant to be a simulation of tennis but the particular understandings players actually have of tennis, or, perhaps of competitive multiplayer games themselves, help to provide a more formative narrative for the experience of the game. We can make a similar argument for many popular casual games on the market today, such as Bejeweled or Candy Crush Saga. The next time you log into Facebook, turn on your console, or open an app and load up a game, ask yourself: What am I doing here? Why am I doing it? What kinds of biases do I bring to the experience?

Where Do We Go From Here?

We already know that video games can be narrative vehicles, on par (or arguably even surpassing) the various mediums that have shaped the art of storytelling over the years. In future posts, we will be taking a deeper look at a variety of the medium, from borrowed genres and forms – such as the epistolary narrative – to the space and mechanics that allow players to create and share their own stories.


Rebecca Hoffman is a graduate fellow and research assistant with the Center for Games & Impact. You can find out more about Rebecca at rebeccafayhoffman.com or follow her @rebeccafay on Twitter.

Alex Cope is an Innovation Lab Manager and Designer with the Center for Games & Impact Innovation Lab. You can follow him @aecope on Twitter.

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