When people discuss video games, their development and growth as an industry often gets talked about. During the 60’s and 70’s games were considered little more than merely digital distractions. Games such as Pong, Space Invaders, and Pitfall on the Atari 2600 were simple games that focused primarily on creating high scores, and to keep players amused in short bursts. In the early 80’s, often considered “The Arcade Game Era”, games began telling stories. Well… they weren’t telling epic stories, but they were beginning to resemble a narrative. The timeless love triangle of a heroic plumber rescuing a princess from an angry, possessive ape, to a small yellow puck fighting ghosts in order to eat fruit and snacks; games were beginning to tell a story.

Fast forward a few years, specifically to 1985 and the NES, when games started growing and along with them, so did their stories. They started developing their own heroes; from an Italian plumber off to rescue a damsel in distress, to a beefcake vampire hunter, taking down Dracula. During this Wild West era for games, new genres were born. Role-playing games such as Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, and Crystalis started developing sagas and adventures. A lot of the games now considered the primary titles of the industry; such as The Legend of Zelda, began crafting fully fledged worlds. Fantasy lands filled with brave heroes determined to fulfill their destiny; the desire to tell a story was there.
Some argue that games have never really told stories that rival that of a timeless piece of literature or film. However, that leaves the question: Have they been playing the right games? Games such as Final Fantasy VIII, Shadow of The Colossus, God of War and others are immediately mentioned, often in defense of one claim: Video games can’t tell good stories. Although, I’d argue games are becoming just as adept at telling a great story now as they ever have been before. Some would say they’ve always been telling good stories. I’d agree; but right now, games seem to be entering a renaissance of interactive storytelling.

Particularly this console generation we’ve seen a burning desire from developers to turn games into a serious storytelling medium. Nearly every blockbuster game that’s been released recently has looked more like a movie than the one before it. Games such as Uncharted, Heavy Rain, L.A. Noire, and even the Call of Duty games often use a lot of the techniques used in films. On the flip side, games such as Virtue’s Last Reward, The Stanley Parable, Bastion and The Unfinished Swan also use the language of books in order to tell a story. Pretty cool, eh? However, the gaming industry is still learning as it enters a maturation period; where it starts to become a bit more grown-up and more able to tell a resonant story.
Last year, 2012, was an interesting year for the industry. Games were getting funded in a whole new way: Kickstarter, tablets and mobile gaming gaining even more of a foothold, and games became even better at storytelling. They started telling stories with real-life issues and focused more on tales about the human nature. The Walking Dead, Spec Ops: The Line, Papo & Yo, and Dishonored all seem to be signs indicating that games are beginning to enter a new Golden Age for storytelling. Let’s go back a little bit though and let’s not dismiss other titles from this generation that have also showed the capabilities of games narratively.

One that really stands out and I have to mention is Catherine. Atlus often provides stories that are generally unconventional and different from many other Japanese games. However, this puzzle game was certainly a step forward. Instead of focusing on spectacle, it focused on adult relationships. Interestingly enough, Catherine examines the complexities, trials, and tribulations of a relationship; mainly through the eyes of a lazy drifter. Vincent Brooks is a genuinely human character. He has the problems that many young-men-turned-adults face today. Commitment, routine, marriage, structure; all things that many young people are initially afraid of. What makes him so human is that he’s relatable. Yet, despite the game’s steamy nightmarish vibe, Catherine creates an intentionally vague message. It’s up to you to take control of your own life. You need to take responsibilities for your own actions. Just remember, every action has a consequence.

So, why mention Catherine as an example of great video game storytelling? What impressed me the most about Atlus’s cult puzzler is how mature it was. It rarely descended into immaturity; It was an appropriate study of adult relationships, without being juvenile or opinionated about it. At the same time it also served as an effective morality tale. The entire game is a cautionary fable, Vincent shows a fair amount of carelessness for his actions and behavior. When he learns to think about what he says and does, he then realizes: Every choice you make comes with a price. The game also says something optimistic about us, as people. Everybody has a choice. Everyone. If you want to take a certain direction in life, pursue it as much as you can. This is what a mature game is.

Now, here comes the game that will, no doubt, be remembered as a pivotal point in video game storytelling, Telltale’s The Walking Dead. This game is a character study examining the human nature; and the tough decisions that need to be done in compromising situations. In a move that is rarely seen in this industry; Telltale did not focus on the zombies. Rather, it focuses on the survivors as every character in these episodic games is pushed to their limit. Including the player. Sacrifices are made and the group adversely adapts to each of them. It’s a surprisingly bleak tale; about the repressed side of human nature, but it has brief moments of optimism and hope. That is shown through one little girl: Clementine. Everything Clementine goes through, such as witnessing death, murder and darkness she always pushes through with strength. The survivors often look at Clementine deeply; as she is perhaps, stronger than all of them. She’s a little girl growing up before her time and it’s masterfully executed.

A lot of Telltale’s The Walking Dead shares much in common with what you would find in classic literature. It’s study of the dark side of human nature, almost evokes the marooned island boys in William Golding’s The Lord of The Flies, as well as how quickly characters like Lilly, become nearly savage. However, what makes these games really impressive is how they use the language of film in order to affect the player. Instead of trying desperately looking like a film, The Walking Dead uses camera, dialogue, and settings in order to make you care about the survivors. Their struggle with the walkers and themselves is very palpable, as well as the tension and fear they have about one another. The result is a very cinematic experience that doesn’t try too hard to imitate a movie to do it successfully.

Released on the PlayStation Network last year, Papo & Yo can be described as an interactive allegory. Now here’s a game that deserved far more attention than it received. As lots of allegorical fiction uses metaphors in order to create a point, Vander Caballero’s bittersweet tale is about child abuse, maltreatment, and the redemptive, heartbreaking relationship between a boy and his alcoholic father. The boy’s partner, Monster, represents his father. When he eats frogs, he suddenly becomes very angry, and even aggressive. The game’s clever use of symbolism, imagery and metaphors gives the game the feel of a classic short story.

I felt Papo & Yo was worth mentioning because it shows us you don’t need to rely on sentimentality in order to tell an emotional story in a game. Rather, you can tell gamers something honest and people can take away what they want from it. Also presented is a new way of telling a story. The game uses fictional ideas such as frogs and monsters, in order to tell the player something far more harrowing and dark. Plus, games need to start telling more stories about relevant issues in today’s world. This game shows us it certainly can be done.

Lastly, there’s Spec Ops: The Line, a game I certainly didn’t see coming. Right away it deals with quite heavy issues; such as post-traumatic-stress-disorder, murder, and feeling guilt and regret for your decisions. We also get a satire of other modern military shooters. On the loading screens the game has some curious pieces of text, such as: “How many Americans have you killed today?” and “Do you feel like a hero yet?”. They’re clearly statements aimed at us but I won’t spoil the rest of the game for those of you who haven’t played it yet. Judging by the sales numbers I’m sure that’s a lot of you. Let’s just say that halfway through, the game will give you the biggest moral punch ever.
I was impressed by Spec Ops, mainly because it showed us game stories can be more than just singular. A game can be a biting satire, but it can also be a story about the horror of our own choices. We’re also shown that giving a character a real disorder can make the story more compelling. Captain Walker’s ever-increasing psychological trauma mirrors nicely with the peril that he sees with the war victims. This also shows us something important: taking risks with a story can make it even more enriching.

These games, to me, show us that video games can tell us mature stories about relevant issues in our time. Now it’s time for more brave developers to give it a try. If games want to grow as an artistic medium, we need more like I’ve just discussed that aren’t afraid to tell us these kinds of stories. If anything, due to the reception that these other titles had, one thing is proven: We are ready. We’re ready for games to grow up, and we’re ready for them to keep telling us stories that we can take seriously. Hold on, guys, this could be the time for video games to become of the biggest drivers in innovative storytelling, and I for one, can’t wait to see what they can come up with next.

Max Keogh the author

During his free time, when not gaming or writing, Max loves animation. He loves watching animated films, loves watching classic animation, and is an aficionado of Disney, Warner Bros., Pat Sullivan and the like. He also loves Japanese anime, culture and is an Otaku of all things Ghibli. He loves reading classic literature, and for his day job, provides support for people with learning disabilities.

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  1. Mr.Popadopoulis on February 4, 2013

    I fully agree with the majority of this article. However, I would add that videogames have actually already become THE major medium for creative storytelling in light of this generation, even if most people have not come to realize it yet. It began with unexpected heavy-hitters Mass Effect and Bioshock, and has since thus become reality as the renaissance itself is slowly gaining momentum, which it will likely continue to do for some time.

    In addition, anybody who would argue that videogames are not comparable to film and literature in their ability to tell stories is simply not paying enough attention to the gaming industry. Not only can you use computer graphics and graphic design to easily create worlds, settings, and characters at the frontier of creative storytelling that movies and books could only dream of, the fact that they are designed by nature to be so much more immersive and engaging allows them to be more powerful and influential than other mediums ever could be; I myself, who majored in English in college, could go on for quite a while naming games that have been just as influential and transforming as any of my favorite classic writers.

    P.S. I also really enjoyed The Walking Dead discussion. I think one of the reasons it’s done so well as a game is that the story does something within 20-30 minutes that Heavy Rain ( a very similar title genre-wise) took hours to do: force you to care about the main characters. That alone shows major proof evidence of how much better games are becoming at telling stories over time, something which will be exciting to watch going forward.

    • Max Keogh
      Max Keogh Author on February 5, 2013

      Hi there!

      Thank you very much. I’m glad you enjoyed this article. I agree with what you said, mostly. Video games are becoming huge innovators in storytelling, and as mentioned in the article, some would say they always have been. I would also add Mass Effect, BioShock, and other games such as the terrific Batman Arkham games by Rocksteady, Red Dead Redemption, LA Noire and plenty more. I mainly wanted to focus on 2012 though; as we saw some real evolutionary steps in video game storytelling. Although, I wanted to mention Catherine… because I’m obsessed with Atlus ;). I enjoyed Heavy Rain. I commend Sony and Quantum Dream releasing it; in a console market struggling to provide new experiences. However, I felt the story and characters were pretty heavy-handed, and lacked any real development. Some of the cutscenes tried a bit too hard to make you ‘take it seriously’. It also tried a little too hard to be a Hitchcock film. A part of what made Alfred Hitchcock such a influential filmmaker was the psychoanalysis he used to create fascinating characters; such as Norman Bates. They were very flawed humans; with innate evil inside of them. I didn’t really… feel any of that in Heavy Rain. Although, that’s just my opinion. The Walking Dead doesn’t force anything on the player. It allows the story and character to speak for themselves; and I think that’s something more game designers can learn from. I still think games have a bit of maturing left to do, as any medium does, to be honest. There’s still a bit of Hollywood envy in this industry. So many game designers want games to get the same respect cinema gets… but I’d say we’re on our way there already. Games are not movies; but that doesn’t mean games can’t tell great stories either. We know they can. However, if the desire for quality storytelling still remains through developers, then, as you say, it’ll keep getting better, and it’ll keep moving forward. I love games as a storytelling medium; because it’s interactive. We as players, drive the story. When we’re reading a book, or watching a film, we’re spectators of a story being told to us. In a game, we’re not. We can decide how the story goes. And that is sensational. It’s unique. It’s unlike storytelling elsewhere else. The industry is finally waking up to that. Thank you for reading! P.S. I think retro classics such as Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 1-7, Max Payne 1 & 2, and others use symbolism, metaphors, and commentary just as effectively as a great movie or book :).

      • Mr.Popadopoulis on February 12, 2013

        I’m not really disagreeing with you. Perhaps my wording was poor. When I made the claim that The Walking Dead ‘forces’ the player to character, I meant that the characters are empathetic and engaging in a way that makes it almost impossible for the character NOT to feel some kind of connection with them… Hence, caring for their well-being. I’ve played through Heavy Rain once before (and am now playing through it with my housemates), and to be honest, It’s incredibly difficult for me not to just make fun of every aspect of the game while I’m playing; I find the characters and plot to be taking themselves far too seriously (almost like and Indie movie), to the point that for me, everything about the game comes off as unintentionally comical (ex: “JAAAAAAAAAAAY-SON!”). I do commend them as well for producing such an original and progressive title in this atmosphere, but feel that they ultimately missed the mark that The Walking Dead completely nails. P.S. I also would agree about those retro titles being just as powerful (Earthbound is one of my all time favorites), but I feel that recent advancements in technology make it easier to develop characters that are engaging, realistic, and easy to connect with.

      • Mr.Popadopoulis on February 12, 2013

        *’forces’ the player to feel for the character

        • Max Keogh
          Max Keogh Author on February 27, 2013

          I wasn’t disagreeing either :). In fact, it’s great to see a gamer such as yourself be so enthusisastic about gaming as storytelling! Yeah, I think Heavy Rain suffered from a pretty flawed narrative structure. A lot of the story events didn’t progress much; and the player choices, such as Ethan Mars’s suicide, felt a bit forced, as you say. If a game’s main selling point is it’s story, make sure the story structure flows sucsessfully. It’s a shame, because other than that, Quantum Dream are an interesting studio. I hope Beyond: Two Souls will be a step forward in this regard. David Cage is certainly a visionary game designer, even if his ambition outstrips it’s exe cution. Tell me thoughts on Two Souls soon! :).