Welcome to Digital Raconteurs!
There is a huge potential for video games as a storytelling art that we’re only beginning to fully explore. Gaming allows for a non-linear and interactive method of storytelling, impossible with any other medium. Developers that leverage this potential effectively can create emotional connections and elicit visceral responses from the player on par with, and sometimes beyond, anything film, literature, or graphic novels can offer.
This aspect of video games is often overlooked by the casual or non-gamer, and there is a real lack of intelligent discussion on how video games tell stories. In a high school English class, you might discuss the symbolism of the fish in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, or the conch in Golding’s Lord of the Flies. A college film class may discuss how the color palette in Star Wars shows the cold, unfeeling Empire versus the earthy, ragtag Rebellion, or how the physical camerawork in Hitchcock’s Vertigo conveys the disorientation of the character far more effectively than any acting could. There aren’t many places, however, that discussion turns to how Half-Life‘s use of the first person perspective involves the player on a more personal level than cutscenes, or how Eternal Darkness‘s fourth-wall breaking sanity glitches were jarring and added to the experience. Here at Digital Raconteurs, we want to talk about how storytelling in games differs from other media, and why we like it.
I want to try to clarify what I mean by “storytelling within the medium of gaming”. Just because a game tells a great story, doesn’t mean they use the medium to do it. Video games have been described as interactive movies, and for some games, this is an apt description. Games like the Final Fantasy series use cutscenes to tell story with gameplay in-between, often with greatly differing visual styles, and they convey a story very effectively. However, they’re not using gaming as a storytelling medium, they’re using animation, and having gameplay when they’re not telling the story. This breaks immersion, and feels like we’re being told the story, rather than experiencing it. Games like the Call of Duty series, on the other hand, have elaborate set pieces and interactive environments, but they’re only there to be visually stunning and provide challenges to the player. These types of games are using the medium to make gameplay fun, but not to tell a story. Most of the story is still played out in detached dialogue or cutscenes, and could have just as easily been a big screen blockbuster rather than an interactive experience. Games like Bioshock, however, use the video game medium very effectively. How the player interacts with the game determines how much or how little of the story is told, the environments change and react to the player, the world presented feels large and believable, and the player feels personally connected.
All of these games are great, and all have things that make their storytelling work well, and things that break the immersion. Digital Raconteurs hopes to capture what makes a video game stand out from other media, and how it can better tell a story. I’ll try to highlight at least one game a month, and discuss why it works and why it doesn’t. I’ll also try to post theory articles that discuss different aspects of game design, and how they pertain to storytelling in particular. I look forward to hearing from you, the community, and building a place for great discussion.