For most people, videogames are not considered a legitimate form of storytelling. Of course, story is a very loose term, as one can (if they so choose) argue that Michael Bay films are considered a legitimate form of storytelling. But whether or not a single person or a mode of telling can generate a quality story isnít the point. The point is that for most of the Art world, no videogame can even be up for consideration.
This mindset is a form of Ouroboros, where in the infant stages of game development creators needed devices to progress their games, and often would settle on the simplest (least likely to be rejected by the casual person) way: You play a character and that character is attacked by something (usually hordes of something). This type of gameplay is how many people learned to understand videogames. Enemies spawn relentlessly in Mario and the turtle in the little green shell will pace eternally until you kill him. Monsters attack you in Doom; Ganonís minions battle you in Zelda. Lots of things die in videogames and you are constantly under attack. It isnít that developers necessarily want things to be murdered, itís that in order to progress a story something has to be at stake. In almost every case, it is the protagonistís life (which isnít so foreign a concept in books or movies), because that is immediately understandable to any audience. Survival is as natural as breathing. Early on videogames were entirely a visual medium that did little to explain why things were happening or to attach any type of meaning to actions, but they didn't need to because players were too busy trying not to die to focus on story.1 Players became used to this theme and came to expect it, maybe even demanding it, so developers continued to use it.
What all this means is that there was never any onus to make videogames story-driven. It made much more sense to focus simply on the idea of having the player keep the character alive, and then thinking about what sort of quest he/she should be on. Games slowly began to shift in the direction of an overarching, complicated story rather than just a linear, one-dimensional quest. Games like Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy VII and VIII pushed to be more than just the playable character avoiding death. But they still aren't what most people would call literary. They still are themed in specific genres: Horror, Action, and Science Fiction, that come with them certain pretense and rules. And while I can appreciate what those stories were doing and how they complicated their characters, I never felt like they were telling something relatable to me2 Regardless, it has been 15 years since those games came out with the intention of telling a story, but somehow we are just now starting to see videogames where character (and player agency to interpret those characters) is more important than the plot. For me, the tipping point was Limbo.
Limbo is fantastic in its simplicity. It has all of the standard elements that those raised on videogames expect. There is no dialogue, you are constantly under the fear of death, timing is everything, there is no concrete (see: long-winded, over-the-top, bloated) story for you to pay attention to. But Limbo is telling a story, and in a way that you can miss if you want to, but can be extremely rewarding if you choose to notice it. The game is broken into three acts. The first acquaints you with the game: You wake up and walk and walk and walk, avoiding giant spiders and flaming tires and hidden bear traps. You donít know what youíre striving for, but you sense itís something important. Cast against a black and white backdrop, you are nothing but a silhouette, the only sign that youíre alive coming from the sporadic blinking of your solid white eyes.
In the second act there is more walking, abandoned military industrial complex, more bear traps. Towards the end of this act the game literally starts turning on its head. Music plays a role for the first time and itís haunting. Notes inundate your senses and each time you die (you die a lot in this game) all you hear is their dark melodic ringing as you wait to try again. Then, as the world rights itself, you catch a glimpse of something that plants the seed in your head. Youíre probably more than halfway through the game at this point, and up until now you donít really know what the protagonist is after, or if heís even after anything at all. Maybe you think youíve been given a clue hinting towards his goal or maybe you've come to accept that he isnít after anything at all. That the point of the game is that itís pointless. That you are, after all, trapped in purgatory. Some sort of metaphysical, surreal comment on you as a player. I canít say your wrong, no one can, which is what the best stories do. They allow you to form a conclusion that can simultaneously be 100% right and 100% wrong. But you catch a glimpse of something, a meaning youíre striving for, and then just as sudden as it came itís gone, and act three begins. Act three is similar to the previous two, with lots of walking and death, but also electricity and some battles with gravity. The last scene of the game comes without pretense. There is no final boss or especially hard set of obstacles. But it ends magnificently and youíre given your second scene. The final scene. And again you get to decide for yourself what it means. For me it made the entire game make sense. It was subtle and perfect and allowed me to form three conclusions before I ultimately decided which one I think it meant. Itís what every story should strive to do: make you care, make you think, make you change your mind.
Teachers like to give students the short story Hills Like White Elephants. If youíve never read it you should go find it right now. Itís all over the Internet and about two pages long. You finish it and shrug your shoulders, asking what the big deal is. Why would a teacher bother showing this to anyone. Teachers love this story because everyone thinks it's boring when they first read it. Pointless. But then the teacher tells you what itís really about, and you look the story over again and suddenly it means a lot more. All of a sudden it becomes a really interesting story, because it says more with what it doesnít say than what it does. The best storytelling is done by giving the audience just enough so that they arenít lost, and the elements to decide the meaning for themselves. Videogames were built on the premise that you tell the audience everything up front, not giving the player freedom to interpret their own conclusions. Mario is rescuing the princess, and she isnít in this castle but if you go to the next world she might be there. Eventually youíll find her. The challenge isnít in discovering why Mario might be rescuing her or why Bowser might have kidnapped her, itís in avoiding falling to your death or running into a green-shelled turtle. As we play we never see ourselves as Mario or wonder why he is making the decisions he is. With Limbo, the same dangers are there, but we do put ourselves in the protagonistís shoes. We do wonder why he doesnít just lie down and die. We feel that he is making active choices in his fate, and through him, we are as well. We are committed and involved and a part of the decision-making process rather than just a spectator. Through two simple scenes. This is what videogames can be; this is what videogames should be. Art.
1Voice capabilities didnít enter the world of games until after the traditional storytelling mode was set. In fact, games rarely even incorporated written words into a game, and if they did it was in block text separate from visualsósimilar to how a silent film applied dialogue. Off the top of their head, I'm guessing most people canít think of any game that had spoken dialogue pre-Resident Evil (outside of the soothing baritone of the NBA JAM announcer). And if you can you are awesome, but I canít.
2 Perhaps Cloud and Squall have some teenage angst that many people can relate to at different points in their lives. But you'd have to play the game at the right time to sympathize with it. And even then, they really try hard to make you lose that sympathy. Doth protest too muching.[img]