The art of video game storytelling

BY JORDAN RYDER | MAY 07, 2015 5:00 AM

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A few weeks ago in my review of Ori and Blind Forest, I noted how Ori succeeded in provoking emotion in the player but didn’t weave its emotional plot with its gameplay. That observation got me thinking about video game storytelling in general, and titles that stayed with me long after playing them.

The first title that came to mind for was Spec Ops: The Line. Released in 2012, The Line is a third-person cover-based shooter. Gameplay wise, it was nothing special. Story though? It had the moral and thematic complexity of a novel.

The player controls Captain Walker, leader of a Delta Force team inserted into a Dubai that’s been obliterated by sandstorms with U.S military personnel trapped inside. Your goal is to look for survivors. And you’re going to wish you didn’t find any because Walker stumbles into the middle of a desperate civil war that’s chipping away at everyone’s sanity.

I’m going to stop there to avoid spoilers, because this is a title worth playing if you haven’t yet.

But the thing that stuck with me most about The Line was that it made the player feel as conflicted as the characters felt about what they were doing. It accomplished this by setting the scenario in a cutscene but then handing back control to the player whenever a choice had to be made, and trust me, all the choices are grim.

I realized as I was playing that this one of the beauties of games as a medium. They are interactive. There is no audience, because the player is an active participant in the proceedings. No other medium does this.

This does make development harder though. One must balance the narrative with the interactive, or more simply the story with the gameplay. Every gamer has a list of games that were “good,» and most of the games on that list had either great gameplay or great story, never both.

The list of games that are amazing is much shorter, and those usually strike the magic balance between great gameplay and story. I’ve encountered a few who succeeded in this: Final Fantasy X, Final Fantasy VII, Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite, Gears of War, Halo Mass Effect. All games that had the backdrop of a strong story with play that was enjoyable and immersive.

Video games have become a new form of art, alongside books and film. Granted, not every game is, but neither is every film nor is every novel worth reading. But in the last 15 years, the game has matured and really come into to it’s own as a medium.

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