When I’m feeling especially lazy, I’ll binge watch a television show. If I’m feeling slightly less lazy, I’ll read a book. If I’m only feeling kind of lazy but am in a mood for something narratively satisfying, I might just fire up a video game. It isn’t that video games tell better stories than other mediums but what I have realized is that they are capable of narrative feats unique to their medium and that is why they need to exist as an artform.
At their best, video games feel far beyond an alternation of cutscenes with gameplay. At their best, they incorporate story throughout the experience. One of the strongest examples that leaps to mind is the original Bioshock which simply could not have been done in film. At the very least, it wouldn’t have been as fulfilling. Warning, major spoiler for a pretty old game coming up.
Bioshock tells the story of Jack as he explores the dystopian city of Rapture after his plane crashes into the ocean. Throughout the game, he follows the commands of a man called “Atlas,” seemingly willingly, often prompted by the phrase “would you kindly.” Meanwhile, the game explores various themes, with a particular emphasis paid to the choice people have. When it is revealed that “would you kindly,” is a trigger phrase that was implanted in Jack as a kid to make him obedient, it is natural to feel shocked.
What makes this so perfect is that the player was mindlessly following commands, likely without questioning Atlas, because that is the conditioning they’ve received from video games in the past. Of course, it wouldn’t have really mattered if the player had wanted to defy Atlas because the game isn’t really that open-ended but there is enough distraction going on in the weird, horrific world of Rapture that most people are willing to accept the guidance Atlas provides.
There are even examples of subpar stories in video games that manage to utilize the unique features of video games in order to create an ultimately enjoyable experience. Final Fantasy XV is a game that suffers on a lot of fronts. For one, its gameplay is a bit confusing. For two, its narrative has been spliced up across a few different pieces of media, is riddled with questionable pacing, and contains poor characterization for everyone but the main characters unless you purchase some DLC.
What it does, though, is create a bond between the player and the cast through its design. Throughout the game, the player controls Noctis, Prompto, Gladiolus, and Ignis as they travel across a vast world. To do this, they cruise around in a fancy car, listening to music, and chatting. When they rest, they talk around a campfire. Movies and books don’t waste a lot of time with this idle chatter but there is something about Final Fantasy XV that makes these conversations feel appropriate. Why not use the gameplay to complement the story? That’s precisely what they do when Prompto’s photography habit is used as more than a character quirk; it is a part of gameplay and also helps deliver a gutpunch in one of the game’s more emotional moments.
Then there are the stories video games aren’t designed to tell. What I’m talking about are the stories we form with friends while we play the games. This is why I am a huge fan of cooperative gameplay. Games like A Way Out are perfect for this as they throw two people into a situation together and allow the bonds between the players to function alongside the bonds between the characters. MMORPGs do something similar, as they throw a bunch of people into one large story and task them with overcoming difficult challenges together. There’s this weird way in which the game’s narrative blends with our own, real life stories to create something unique.
All mediums contain something unique about them and are suitable for different types of stories. I love video games because of the autonomy given to the player and the way that brings me into the tale psychologically. There’s something that feels personal about the story this way and the fact that there isn’t currently a standard, expected runtime for a game allows for a bit more freedom. I’m, of course, not saying video games are the best way to tell stories. I’m just saying that video games are the best way to tell some stories.