Video games get a bad rep. This is perhaps due in part because to some extent, video games can be really bad for people. There are games that are addictive and remove people from life and games that promote violence and sexist or racist stereotypes (though I will argue against the notion that video games breeds violent people, but that is for another day). Yet these traits, especially the latter, are equally as prevalently in movies and books and yet no one seems to be a harbinger of justice for those mediums. And that is because as a culture, we can see how these mediums can also be very good for our culture, parodying what is wrong with it or creating characters who address our current state of the world.
It’s time to end this stigma. If you are someone who likes books or movies or plays, then it is my belief that you like video games, otherwise you are claiming you do not like stories, because that is what video games are – stories. Just like with novels and television, there are bad, trashy video games that perpetuate the very worst aspects of our culture. But don’t let those bad ones define the entire medium for you. Instead, try giving them a chance to see them as artistic and literary just like the rest of the mediums can be. Many years ago people treated television the way people treat video games today, and before that people even used to talk about books that way!
However, I am not here today to argue about video games merit in the world, but instead to prove it to you. There are so many great aspects about video games that can teach you so much about storytelling. You don’t have to be a hard-core gamer to enjoy a video game, just someone who loves great stories. And video games offer stories in a way unlike any other medium! Read on to see why exactly that is.
Why Video Game Storytelling Is Different
1. Video games are dynamic and flexible.
Unlike any other form of storytelling out there, you as a consumer of the story get to not only determine the pace at which you explore your story (and by that I mean how quickly the story occurs in its world, not the pace at which you actually finish the game) but you also oftentimes get to choose the order in which your story is told. Furthermore, video games can be told non-linearly with ease and oftentimes offer countless replay value due to so many variants on how the game can be experienced. It is almost impossible to experience any video game exactly the same way every time you replay it, creating a unique experience every time. While you can read a book out of order or watch a TV series at random, you are still viewing pieces of the story in a disjunct manner, whereas with video games, the story is meant to be told this way and does so seamlessly. The only other thing that comes close to this experience in my opinion in other mediums is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, and that serves as a wonderful example as to what video games could teach you about storytelling in fiction writing at the very least!
2. The player is a storyteller.
I think what appeals to most fellow lovers of story is that when players play video games, not only do they get to consume a great story, they get to tell that story and become the main character! While you can tell a first person story in literature, as a reader you still don’t feel like you literally are that person, whereas video games create that sensation. When I took my video game writing class, one of the most prevalent things we discussed was player mentality. Even when playing as pre-set character and not one as your own creation, players often think things like “I don’t know if my character would say that,” or “my character would probably do this.” The most important word here? My. In what other medium do you hear consumers of the story talk this way? None.
3. The stories are interactive.
Maybe you’ve read a choose-your-own-adventure novel and maybe (most likely) you found it extremely underwhelming. I imagine this is due in part to the fact that when you read a choose-your-own-adventure novel, there is the labor of flipping to the right page and the sense that so easily you could undo the adventure by choosing a new page whenever you feel like it. With a choice-based video game, there is the more pure sensation that what you did actually was permanent and you are forced to commit to your choices. Additionally, this adds to my previous point in that with choice-based games, players feel that they are responsible for the course of action of the story and take ownership. This is a type of connection to a story I have yet to see in any other medium, and it truly is a beautiful one if you think about it.
4. The ability to seek out more story
Everyone has personal taste, and for some, the idea of exploring subplots or side characters is considerably gruesome. With a video game, players can opt out of this experience if they choose, or if they want to know every little detail of the world they can usually seek that out too (though it depends on the type of the video game, which I discuss later in this post). Video games are a medium where everyone experiences the extent of the video game they wish – and nothing more!
5. The world is tangible
Though I touched on this briefly at the beginning, I felt it worth hashing out a bit more. Because unlike with books and movies, players get to experience the world you’ve built for them! No movie or book can give me what roaming around in Rapture did for me in Bioshock or what galloping around Velen did for me in Witcher 3, and that’s the truth of it. Some people play video games for this experience alone, getting to travel great lengths at the cost of nothing. Take the new game, No Man’s Sky, whose premise is just to explore the universe and find new planets and societies. There are stories everywhere if we so choose to find them, and they can be found in even the most simple experiences!
Why Storytellers Should Love Video Games
Now that I’ve covered why consumers of video games benefit so much from the experience, I’ll cover what video games can teach storytellers!
Quests are the perfect place to tackle big stories by dividing them up! There are tons of mini stories within a grand story, and by trying out quests, you can get a feel for how all the small elements of a story add up to one huge piece. However, not only is this great practice for larger pieces but also for short stories. Each quest in a video game can be something that stands on it own but also serves the bigger picture, honing in on the craft of telling a concise story for those of us (me!) who don’t love writing short stories. Perhaps the game that does this better than anyone else is The Witcher 3. Never before have I played a game where I felt motivated to do side quests and was consistently surprised by each side quests story and outcome. Of course, I could do a whole blog post on why The Witcher 3 is a phenomenal game, but for now you should just take my word on it.
What depth offers players it also offers storytellers and that is a deep exploration of characters, and a place to reflect world view. There are opportunities to tell stories of all proportions in a video game, from a small journal entry your character stumbles upon to the latest news on a fictional radio station. As a storyteller you can write quick little one-liners that hint at a huge problem a character overhears or offer lines of dialogue that open up entire backstories if someone is lucky enough to ask the right question. The possibilities are endless and gamers are always craving more! If you need a great example of this depth, none do it better than Rockstar, specifically in Grand Theft Auto V, though The Witcher 3 (surprise) comes to a close second.
I believe if video games were to appeal immediately to any type of storyteller, it would be the genre one. After all, here is a place where all your mapmaking and world-building can come to fruition! You can make a story as big as you want it to be, pack in as much lore as you like, travel to places characters only mention in passing. The sky is the limit! There are so many fantasy stories I’ve read where I so deeply wish to be able to experience and touch the world, to know the backstory of my favorite side characters, and video games are the perfect place for that.
This type of writing cannot be found anywhere else, and that type is the consideration of the player of the story as someone equally as important as your main character. As novelists, we sometimes consider our readers and as TV writers we occasionally think about our audience, but never to this degree. Video game writing offers great practice balancing writing for other people and writing for your story in addition to encouraging play with the narration style.
More and More Writing
With choice based games, you get to write out so many different outcomes to a story. Think of all the times you couldn’t tell which ending best suited your story, and now you get to write each one! This also works wonders to truly learn the craft of storytelling because you are forced to write out every possibility and feel out which one best serves your story, something we aren’t always afforded in more restrictive mediums like novel writing or movie writing.
Finding the Right Video Game for You
Now that we’ve covered what makes video game writing unique and I have hopefully convinced you to give the medium a shot, let’s talk about which game might be right for you and your preferred storytelling method. If you are completely new and a former hater of video games, I suggest starting out with shorter, story-focused games before moving on to big RPGs which require more patience, devotion and time. Unfortunately, many of these games may not be available on Macs or may be limited to console gaming. However, I believe that if more Mac users become gamers and therefore demand better gaming standards on their computers, the market will follow suit. In the meantime, there are still quite a lot of options for Mac users out there, and most of the games listed I have played on my own MacBook!
Pure Story Games
If you are new to gaming, I suggest starting here. This is by no means an “official” term for these types of games, but as the medium grows genres are blurred so I have separated these from choice-based games because I believe them to be different. These games are purely story based with no choices or people jumping out at you or puzzles and demonstrate the different ways games play with the medium. They are usually pretty short and are focused on uncovering a story by wandering around. As video gaming becomes more mainstream, I find there are more and more of these games so it’s quite easy to break into the medium, even if you have a Mac computer.
If you are interested in games that explore multiple endings and different choices, this is the best place to start. Most of these games require no combat, though they may occasionally implicate quick reaction sequences, and often are released episodically (All Telltale games for example) so they are a lot like television in that way. My friends and I love to play these together because it’s a lot like watching an interactive movie unfold.
Some games to start with: The Stanley Parable (This game is very unique and hard to label as choice-based alone. Just give it a try! Trust me.), Until Dawn (PS4 only) The Walking Dead, Tales from the Borderlands, The Wolf Among Us, Life is Strange, Game of Thrones
While games like Call of Duty may first come to mind, the world of first-person shooters has really evolved into a place for great stories (though even CoD has some great stories too). For example, Ken Levine, the writer behind Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite, is highly literary and references Atlas Shrugged often in his first game. I remember days after I finished Infinite I still was thinking about it and even downloaded the score to listen to – something that I regularly do with great movies. If you are deterred by the idea of shooting at people – something many claim the lack they skill for – keep in mind that you can opt to play most games in story mode or “mostly” story mode.
Some games to start with: Bioshock, Bioshock Infinte, Portal 1 & 2 (more of a puzzle game, but it has a great story all the same and is considered first-person shooter. A great start for beginners to FPS)
For those of you who may have played the Harry Potter games as a child (Me. Who wouldn’t want to explore Hogwarts?), those games fit under this category. Action-adventure games are very similar to RPGs, but lack a lot of the personalization such as leveling up specialities and crafting supplies. All the same, some of the best stories have been told in action-adventure games and they’re great for people making their way to RPGs who are intimidated by all the personalization in that genre.
Short for role-playing games, these games are the most intensive on the list, not in terms of difficulty, but in terms of their depth. Oftentimes you create a character (and most of the time you can create a girl! Hallelujah!), set up a backstory and can even sometimes have relationships. Even if you can’t create someone from scratch, you essentially take on the full role of some imaginary character, making decisions that determine how the story will turn out, oftentimes determining if characters will live or the state of societies. These are perhaps the most expansive in terms of story options, and if you ever reach this point in your video gaming career, you will know why people love these games so much.
For many of these games you’ll need a Steam account. Signing up is free and you can add me and see what games I’m playing here! I highly advise against getting an Origin account if you can avoid it (sometimes you can’t). Half of my games do not work and Steam is far more helpful when issues turn up.
While these lists do not even begin to scratch the surface as to what is out there, I hope that I have provided you a good jumping point into the world of story-based gaming. Of course there are video games out there with no story at all, or at least a very bad one, but if you look in the right places you will find some absolutely beautiful stories in the video gaming world.