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The Unique Storytelling Power of Video Games as a Medium

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Posted September 16, 2013 by Bunneh3000 in Editorials
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(taken from Nerdist podcast 389 – Ken Levine @41:20: speaking of Red Dead Redemption)

It’s by definition you’re engaged in a way that you’re in awe. Because it …asks things of you. You can’t fall asleep playing it the way you could watching a movie.” – Ken Levine (creative director of Bioshock Infinite)

As I listened to Chris Hardwick and Ken Levine chat on this podcast about why the gaming community is so passionate about their hobby, I thought of so many other storytelling art forms and realized the truth in what he said. Video games are a POWERFUL storytelling medium that only recently has become a ‘respected’ artform in the general public. Even so, there is still a generalized stigma surrounding video games essentially for the same reason that it is so unique.

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When you watch a movie, everyone will see the exact same scene, hear the exact same music, and see the exact same actors each time that it is watched. You many find yourself noticing other details or things that you didn’t notice the first time around, but all in all, the story will be the same for everyone that sees the movie. Video games take things a step further. Typically a movie will run around 2 hours and your engagement is done. With video games, most times the experience is stretched out over anywhere from 10 to 20 hours of gameplay. While in that time frame, there are many scripted and unscripted events that can create a scene or experience that is different. One gamer might miss audio logs that further flesh out the story line. Another gamer may decide to spend time and enjoy the changing weather and sunset while they are exploring. Open world games with randomized events like Red Dead Redemption and Skyrim are prime examples of how adventures and experiences can differ drastically from player to player. Multiple play-throughs are common with games like this. There are even games where the story changes based on choices made throughout the game! This involvement makes the experience very personal. It gives the player a type of creative ownership that each person can hold onto that others (and at times even the developers) may not have even considered could happen.

The whole conversation made me take a step back and recollect how many times I’ve had to try and justify time or money spent on this hobby. Most times the criticism came from someone who never played video games before and have this stereotype that death and murder is the only thing you do in games. From the mid 80’s all the way up until now, I can remember exhilarating memories of a game that has captured my imagination and fed my competitive or creative spirit.

Here’s an example. I liked watching football when I was a kid but couldn’t ever play Madden or understand the intricacies of the game. So, I would always search for football games that had coaching modes or that would simulate the gameplay. As a result of these kinds of games, it forced me to learn how each position is played and their importance within a play. I would spend hours pouring through free agents, draft prospects, and my own roster to find that right mixture that I could use to build a perennial playoff caliber team. Games like Front Page Sports Football Pro or the EA Sports coaching sim (the one before Head Coach that is) each allowed me to flex my sports strategies to a point where I actually appreciated the complexity of the game many times over. I would simulate whole seasons with the intent to draft or trade for the perfect players that met my team’s deficiencies. I’d pour over stats and player ratings and the like hoping for that dynasty, and when it was done, I was proud of it.

Probably a better example of how unique a gameplay experience can be was Neverwinter Nights. As an avid D&D player, this game allowed for me to join other people who loved role playing games in a kind of virtual live action cosplay event. Someone would use the game’s toolset to create their own world for you to explore and play in. Then, as people populated the game, they would craft little adventures for groups or teams to partake of. They would even reward people who were ‘in-character’. This aspect of online gameplay was probably the best that I can remember (since I don’t play World of Warcraft). I remember joining a Dragonlance themed setting as a kender (which are like short agile thieves who are rarely serious). I spent so much time annoying and pestering people who played (in a good ‘in-character’ way that is) that it could have been an excellent series of short stories had I the insight to write about it.

There are probably countless other memories I could speak of over the years and the frequency only seems to increase as the games get larger and allow you to do so much more. Imagine some of the stories people could make about their Minecraft or Skyrim or World Of Warcraft adventures? There are endless fantasy and sci-fi settings that have been and will be made for people with grand imaginations to get lost in. It is pretend play at its most powerful form.

That is why there is so much attention placed on video games and their content. Honestly, there is hardly a time in memory when a game that isn’t based upon professional sports or violence isn’t featured at the top of the sales list. Still, the trend seems to point towards the hero complex in all of us. We all wonder what it would feel like to be that invincible action movie star who saves the world (or universe). Throw our friends into the mix and now there is that desire to beat your friends (or even total strangers) in a similar setting that requires a modest amount of skill. The result are esports that test reflexes, strategy, teamwork, and tactics in a variety of different genres like martial arts fighters, sports, and tactical first person shooters.

While there is a responsibility here for gaming developers to seek out experiences that challenge our minds moreso rather than our reflexes, it is hard to fault many of them for returning to the violent successes that have tantalized gamers of all ages for years. Sure, one can Candy Crush the day away or farm their ville to their hearts delight, but it is clear that this medium can do so much more. Educational content on the gaming scene has dwindled quite a bit. Many more attempts to educate with this medium are found on dedicated sites while the consoles themselves don’t seem to feature a wealth of content utilizing popular franchises.

Seriously. Where are the Halo Reading Challenge games or the Mario Typing Tutors? I’m certain Leap Frog could stand a bit of Nintendo 3DS software development. How about Reader Rabbit having a Kinect experience? I’m certain Math Blaster would do well also with the Kinect. How about a steampunk adventure that actually teaches a bit of engineering concepts? There are ways to make this happen and organizations such as Institute of Play and Games for Change are shining a spotlight on that type of innovation.

There’s a huge opportunity that can be tapped into. Until then, epic story based gaming is more than welcome in my household.

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About the Author

Bunneh3000

A gamer since the days of Texas Instruments PCs with cartidges, I embody the 'casual' gamer moniker. RPGs, turn based strategy, hack n slashers, NBA sims, shooters, Space flight combat sims, and mech combat sims are my forte. If you need a Battlefield commander, I'm your Cylon... I mean... um... man.

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