Yeah, I know, right? This is an odd assertion coming from an author, but hear me out.
I’m a junkie for two things: a good story and a good game. Often I would have to choose one or the other when searching for a fix, but lately, I’ve noticed that the two are no longer rivals. There recently was a specific scene in a game that gave me an epiphany in regards to the evolution of narrative.
I was playing The Last of Us, an action adventure video game famous for its unusual zombie elements. The characters, Joel and Ellie, are a team, trekking across the ruins of the United States as they attempt to survive a hostile landscape filled with fungus-riddled creatures (ophiocordyceps unilateralis). The story revolves around Joel’s trauma and Ellie’s teenage idealism—their thirty-year age difference yielding a clash of ideologies. Between the two, they’ll have you bawling by the end of the game as if it were the series finale of Golden Girls.
The scene that got me thinking about narrative involves a fairly routine moment in the game. Playing as Joel, you steer him to a nearby wall, press a button to lean Joel’s back against it, and Ellie climbs over him to higher ground. Many obstacles in the game have been overcome by using this simple game mechanic. However, when Joel takes position this time, Ellie doesn’t follow. Joel just stands there, and soon his expression turns awkward. Of course, you’re wondering if you—the player—hit the wrong button. Was there a part of the terrain puzzle you missed?
No. Ellie’s sitting on a bench, staring off into space. Things have been hard for her character lately. Joel’s face melts into tender worry, and no longer is the game about scrambling to reach the next segment. It’s about Joel loving the girl he’s come to see as his daughter and wanting to shield her from emotional harm.
The game literally betrays its own control scheme to impact you, the player, on an emotional level. That impact could only have been made via gameplay.
This made me step back and look at storytelling as a whole. Narrative is a vital method to convey information. What started as campfire stories evolved into song, literature, comics, film, and beyond. Through these mediums, we transfer astoundingly complex and nuanced ideas to a diverse audience in the hopes of engaging in meaningful debate, playful entertainment, or merely to connect to each other.
Narrative always has been and always will be.
The video game medium has exploded not only as a visual means of storytelling, but also as a uniquely interactive one. While it started as an insular subculture, modern gaming has joined the mainstream, and more and more people find the narratives—and the way in which they are presented—compelling. And there are many games that support my theory. Some might do so more obviously than others, but they all combine intriguing stories with gameplay elements that are crucial to their impact.
Let’s continue with another recent game. The Wolfenstein franchise is considered to be the great-granddaddy of first person shooters. In every iteration of the series, the player takes on the role of blond, blue-eyed B.J. Blazkowicz as he guns his way through Nazis, Nazi cyborgs, Nazi zombies, and other Nazi concoctions of a pulpy nature. This was never anything to be taken seriously, so when the newest entry to the franchise hit, the high-quality story came as a surprise.
In Wolfenstein: New Order, the Nazi party has won World War II, and they now dominate the globe except for Central Africa. Everything is now Nazi. In the game, you can listen to the Beatles (now in German) as well as glance at movie posters, all of which are now Nazi-fied. The Nazis have landed on the moon, and great masters of culture like Jimi Hendrix are refugees.
Now, all of what I’ve mentioned regarding Wolfenstein thus far could be done in the mediums of film or literature. B.J. is in love with a nurse, however. She is a freedom fighter like him, constantly displaying compassion and tenderness despite the horror she is steeped in. And as the game progresses, you can dig a bit deeper. Your character can search out hidden files and cabinet drawers with tiny clips of information regarding her hometown. You can listen to her personal diary recordings. And if you do, you’ll discover she’s been murdering as many Nazis as you, except she approaches it Dexter Morgan style. This character reveal will remain hidden from the player if not for a bit of exploration and patience. Most go through the game guns blazing, felling Nazis left and right while missing out on the captivating sub-story of revenge occurring right under B.J.’s nose.
Another great game is Papers, Please. You’re a border checkpoint inspector in an Eastern Block nation during the 1980s. You organize passports, sift through paperwork from immigrants, perform contraband inspections, and either allow or deny people entry based on constantly shifting criteria that is handed down to you from your superiors.
Literally, this is a game about stamping passports in the correct spot. It would have been the most boring movie ever filmed, and as a book, it would excite no one; but as a game, you can’t help but get taken in. You watch the clock, check nations of origin, and decide whether taking a bribe is worth the risk or not. The people who come to your booth tell you heartbreaking stories, and you are the only person who can make a difference. Will they bomb a government building? Are they lying? How many lives can you improve or even save?
Every single “thump” of your rubber stamp steers the progressive narrative as your choices impact the people whose lives sift through your fingers. It’s haunting. Riveting. And something only a game could have done.
Here’s another. Imagine a game that was the product of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: that is The Stanley Parable. Set in a drab, lifeless office complex, you play as Stanley, in search of meaning. Your computer ceases to function in your tiny, personality-free workspace, and as you look about for your co-workers or supervisors, you find the place abandoned. Only the narrator’s dry voice keeps you company, telling you which door to enter or which elevator to avoid.
Here’s why this game is on my list: you still have full control over Stanley and can operate in contradiction to the narrator, often much to the narrator’s dismay. When you hear, “Stanley chose the left door because it was clearly the correct one,” and you go through the right instead, your narrator chides you: “Clearly Stanley hadn’t thought things through, and now he had set into motion his untimely, painful demise. If only he had listened!” As the player, you get to not only toy with the narration, but delve deep into the guts of the game in an effort to break it, spilling open its codes and secrets for you to manipulate and hilariously abuse.
But not all games that shatter the fourth wall are charming. One game in particular disturbed me for days and forced me to evaluate what exactly I get out of gaming and narration in general as a military veteran. It challenged me in ways that only art can. Essentially a brilliant retelling of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Spec Ops: The Line puts you in the role of a battle-weary officer and his two subordinates seeking out a rogue Army battalion and its commander in Dubai. The juxtaposition of opulence and devastation creates a savage setting as you and your team dive deeper into the cultish madness the colonel has propagated among his troops.
This game, despite looking like the typical modern military jamboree of gun porn from the box art, is one of the most advanced and experimentally subversive examples in story telling that I have witnessed in my lifetime. Very few people have noticed how revolutionary this model of narrative truly is.
First off, the colonel you are hunting chides you through the radio on your shoulder as he watches your every move. His banter reflects your choices and actions within the game, much like in The Stanley Parable. Your character must decide between doling out mercy or efficient slaughter, and each time, the choice comes back to haunt him regardless of the morality behind his (your) intentions.
In one scene, my actions lead to one of my team dying. Soon after, a platoon of enemies stormed my character’s position, and lo and behold…each of the enemies was wearing the face of the man I had just failed. I thought it was a bug in the game, some sort of error. Still trying to fight off the assault, my controller’s aim went haywire, reflecting the mental state of my character. He screams for forgiveness as he fights futilely for his life amid the platoon of enemies wearing the face of his fallen comrade.
Then, the loading screens…at one point, you unknowingly burn an entire refugee camp of women and children to death. The fallout between you and your team is completely spot-on. They deny any wrongdoing and pin it on you, claiming that you will answer for it. On the loading screen after that scene, a simple phrase appears: “You are still a good person.” Other little samples from the game’s loading screen include: “Do you feel like a hero yet?” and “The U.S. Military does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants. But this isn’t real, so why should you care?”
And that isn’t the best part. When finally confronting the colonel at the end of the game, the observations he indirectly makes about you as a person sitting on the couch playing a game had me hiding under the sheets that night.
The late and brilliant Roger Ebert asserted that games were not, and could not be, art. He had various reasons for this, and they were all applicable to his generation. But narrative has evolved in radical and spontaneous ways during our recent media renaissance. With a flood of new technology and ideas, we are desperate to convey the knowledge of this shrinking world to each other by any effective, meaningful, and profitable methods necessary. If Wolfenstein: New Order were a feature film, its budget would have been north of three hundred million. If Papers, Please had been a novel, no one would have tolerated it past the second chapter. If The Stanley Parable were a musical, it would have been charming but without experimentation. If The Last of Us were a TV series, the tender, small moments of emotional impact might have brought tears to our eyes, but it wouldn’t have reached us on a tangible level. And simply put, Spec Ops: The Line could not have existed as anything but a video game.
The future of narrative is happening right in front of us. We have a new, wildly mutated means with which to tell stories. I challenge you that even if the boomerang-shaped controllers aren’t your thing, dive in. To dismiss this medium of storytelling would be to miss out on the bleeding edge of narration and perhaps someday in my elder years, gamers like me will be teaching university courses on the literary body of video games.