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Complicity: The Unique Storytelling Power of Videogames


*Spoiler warning*
This article contains major spoilers for Bioshock Infinite and minor spoilers for Tomb Raider.

Can videogames tell stories as well as books or movies? If so, do they have their own unique strengths in that area? While these questions aren't new, I think they are worth revisiting because some recent games have made great strides in storytelling. These questions also tie into the late Roger Ebert's remark that videogames could never be art. It was a foolish statement, I felt, because it ignored the fact that different kinds of art have different criteria by which they are judged. Music and photography are both "art". Yet each is art in its own way.

I think Ebert's underlying accusation, though, was that games were not a good medium for storytelling. As a movie critic, that was crucial for him. I used to agree with this to some degree. I felt that games weren't quite as good for storytelling as books, movies, or television because gameplay tended to necessarily break suspension of disbelief (e.g. searching trash cans for candy bars to get health back). I have no problem with games "just" being games… many games are worse off for trying to tell elaborate stories. A simple frame story, a situation, coupled with smart gameplay is better than a more elaborate story told badly. Some of the best games like Super Mario Bros. succeed because they focus purely on being games. Games like that are very much art to me, by the artistic standards we use to judge what makes a good game.

I can't remember anything about the story in Rayman Origins. But the gameplay was wonderful, and that's all the artistic "cred" it needs as a game.

Yet after playing Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite back-to-back earlier this year, I have been wondering if games have their own unique potential for storytelling as well. I stayed up all night to complete Tomb Raider. It was like being hooked on a great book – I just had to push through to the end. Sure, we all stay up late playing games because good gameplay is addictive ("just one more level!"). But it was the story that had me hooked in this case. I had become emotionally invested in Lara's struggles and in her development as a character.

Then there is Bioshock Infinite… months later, after countless discussions with people, I still ponder it on an almost daily basis. I think it may become to videogames what works like Neil Gaiman's Sandman have become to comics. No one in their right mind can say that Sandman is "just a comic" for kids. It is too good to dismiss. More importantly, it's difficult to imagine its story being told any other way. Gaiman's use of specific artists for different kinds of stories fits the series perfectly, and Dave McKean's amazing cover art holds it all together. Sandman has been successful because the story was made to take advantage of the medium it was done in.

Dave McKean's cover art for Ramadan, a story from Neil Gaiman's Sandman.

 Bioshock Infinite likewise succeeds because its story is made with the strengths of its medium in mind. It takes advantage of storytelling tropes well-suited to games – the unreliable narrator and the apocalyptic log, for example. Both of these tropes are common in videogames – and apocalyptic logs are often used in an awkward, heavy-handed manner. Yet the former is done brilliantly in Bioshock Infinite, and both it and Tomb Raider make good use of found logs. The logs augment and illuminate the story and characters without being necessary to following the overall plot. They provide additional exposition that curious players will seek out because they have already become invested in the story.

Showing Versus Telling.

The floating city of Columbia from Bioshock Infinite.

It is the ability of the player to actively experience and pursue a story that sets videogames apart from other media. Only a game can place you into a new world, giving you the freedom to explore and interact with it. You spend the first half-hour or so of Bioshock Infinite being introduced to Columbia at your own pace, learning a great deal about the back-story in the process. That sense of interactive discovery is unique to videogames. It's also a smart, indirect way of exposition. We don't have to be told everything by some omniscient third-person narrator. "Show, don't tell" is a rule of thumb for good writing, and videogames are well-suited to do just that. In the long leadup to meet Elizabeth on Monument Island, for example, we learn a great deal about her abilities, her interests, and even her childhood relationship with Songbird.

An exemplar of this kind of exposition is Adam Jensen's apartment in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. If you take time to look around, it is a treasure trove of information about the character. For all the jokes about Jensen's broken mirror, walking in and actually seeing that smashed mirror speaks volumes about how Jensen feels about what he's become. That apartment is a brilliant piece of interactive storytelling, and a perfect example of the ability videogames have to tell story through setting.

Adam Jensen's apartment from Deus Ex: Human Revolution.


Still, I would say that games have the potential to take storytelling a step further than showing. A game world is interactive, so players are in a sense "doing" the story. They are not passively watching a screen or looking at a page. They are effectively inside the story because they are forced to act and react to it.

This leads to a unique and powerful element of storytelling in videogames, something other mediums are incapable of evoking: complicity. Being in control creates a connection you can't get watching a movie screen or reading a book. I don't even think there is a "tense" in English you could use for the same effect in a book. Even first-person present doesn't feel like it's truly the reader who is acting or speaking in realtime.

What exactly do I mean by "complicity"? Think of it this way: you don't leave a movie asking "What have I done?" or "What happened to me?" A movie or TV show is a passive experience. Yes, the story can have an great impact on you, but you don't interact with anything. You have no agency and thus no sense of responsibility. But when you are in control of a character, it's hard not to feel responsible for how their actions affect both the character themself and the people and world around them.

 Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite brought this power of player/character complicity to my attention because both had an emotional effect on me that felt unique to videogames. It was more personal than anything I had experienced in a movie or book. Each game created complicity in a unique way, though, because they have different visual perspectives – analogous to the way a book is written from a particular viewpoint. Tomb Raider is third-person, and in the cut-scenes we see Lara as separate from us as players, more like in a movie. Bioshock Infinite, on the other hand, is first-person and we never leave Booker's visual perspective.

Lara takes her first life.

In the case of Tomb Raider I felt both exhilaration and guilt through Lara's story arc. She doesn't just go from innocent to "survivor". She goes from vulnerable, to capable of defense, to attacker, to reveling in violence. That last turning point, especially – a scene where the enemies are fleeing and Lara yells that she's coming for them – left me feeling uncomfortable. Lara is "reborn" symbolically multiple times in the game, each time emerging more a killer. Since the game is third-person, I felt responsible for how Lara's actions affected her as a character. That the game was linear didn't matter. Everything that happened was for my entertainment, with my will guiding her actions, making her kill again and again until she barely resembled the innocent young woman she'd started out as.

Bioshock Infinite's mastery of player/character complicity is unmatched, though. First-person has advantages in evoking a sense of complicity, but Infinite doesn't rely entirely on perspective. Because Booker is an unreliable narrator, a man who doesn't understand his own past, we learn about him as he learns about himself. We also experience Columbia and learn the backstory with him. While the "silent protagonist" has been a popular technique since Gordon Freeman – the idea being that the player can "be" the character more if the character has a void personality to be filled – I think Infinite proves that theory wrong. If Booker was silent, his relationship with Elizabeth would have been deadened. What Bioshock Infinite does learn from Half-Life is to maintain the protagonist's perspective at all times. You and Booker are inseparable and one. And, as such, you can't help but share some sense of responsibility for his actions. When he does something, be it good or bad, you do it, too.

Girls. They want to have fun.

For example, there is a point early in the game where Booker convinces Elizabeth to follow him by lying about where he is taking her. Paris, he tells her, having learned as we did in her tower how much she wanted to go there. I felt awful. It's not like the game gives you a choice, but it doesn't have to – it's still a far more personal moment than watching one character lie to another on a movie screen. It is you that Elizabeth makes eye contact with, her excitement making the lie you just told her feel all the more rotten.

Throughout the game, Elizabeth remains a moral compass that calls Booker on his deeds. Her reaction after you are both ambushed – the first time she experiences violence – again left me feeling a bit sickened by what I'd done.

That is "not the last of it", of course, and Elizabeth is exposed to more and more violence on your journey – until she is forced to kill someone herself, intimately and brutally. When Booker says "It's the only way to undo what I've done to you" at the end of the game, I don't think he's just talking about giving her to Comstock or her lost fingertip. He's referring just as much to the trauma he's exposed her to in order to "save" her. Reconsider the scrap of dialogue the game begins with:

"Booker, are you afraid of God?"
"No. But I'm afraid of you."

It's not fear of punishment or death that Booker is afraid of. It's fear of judgment. Ultimately his redemption – and the player's – must come from Elizabeth.

While many games try to make the player feel more "involved" by giving them choices that alter the story – a technique referred to as non-linear storytelling or emergent narrative – I personally found the emotional impact of complicity in Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite more powerful than game series like The Witcher, Mass Effect, and Deus Ex that allow more player choice. In a way the inevitability of my actions in Bioshock Infinite made them sting all the more.

"There was no baby. And if there was I sure as hell wouldn't give it to this guy."
"Booker, you don't leave this room until you do."

What a horror, to be put in that room… that damned little room… looking back and forth between Elizabeth, the child, and Lutece and having no choice. Only a game could put you there. Only a game could make you hand Lutece the child, make you feel accomplice to Booker's act.

"He's Booker DeWitt."
"He's the player."
"No. I'm both."

Future Potential.

A growth chart of Elizabeth maturing.

Complicity isn't the only advantage games have as a storytelling medium, but I think it's a powerful tool that we've only just begun to see leveraged. It's one way of fitting the story to the medium, something developers are still experimenting with in different ways. Games like Dear Esther, Minecraft, DayZ, and Beyond: Two Souls continue to explore what makes narrative in a game, what qualifies as gameplay, and how the two can be interrelated.

It's also only fair to note that Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider have raised concerns about storytelling in games, too. Particularly, whether their gameplay distracts from their stories, and whether the heavy violence in games like this is necessary. Yet I think if we are experiencing dissonance between story and gameplay in these two titles, it's because they both do the storytelling part of their job so well. How gameplay can be leveraged to support story rather than detract from it is an important question, but one that may take a while for developers to sort out.

In the meantime, though, we have every reason to feel excited and hopeful about the future of videogames as a storytelling medium.
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About Jinx 01one of us since 4:26 PM on 11.18.2011

I love gaming, and I have followed the industry and its technology since I was a kid in the 80's. I have gamed primarily on PC since 2000, though I still follow console news and hardware as well.

I worked as a mapper and beta tester for the mod Action Half-Life. I also make custom images for Steam's grid view, those are over on my website.
Steam ID:cryotek


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