I remember the first time that I played through the Zero Escape games. It was long after the third game had come out when the first two games was released as a bundle on Steam. I started playing it and my friend who hates video games came in and sat down and watched. Pretty soon he was enraptured and he told me that I wasn’t allowed to play without him there. Pretty soon we would alternate the puzzles. Occasionally looking up answers if we got stuck. We ended up playing through all three games together and he loved every second of it (even if the third game is easily the worst of the three). At the end of it all he said something along the lines of ‘If more video games had stories like this I might like them’.
This line led to a lot of thinking on my part, at the time I saw his point, but the more I thought about it the more I disagreed. Video games already have a great story, of course not all, and of course it is not always the kind of story you would expect, but video games allow story telling in a way that is completely unique. I would love to talk more about Zero Escape’s story, but not nearly enough people have played it so I will save that for a future post and talk about some other games here.
I still remember playing Bioshock for the first time. When it first came out I wasn’t very plugged into the best video games and I was 11 so my mom likely wouldn’t have bought it for me yet. For the next two or three years I managed to avoid spoilers (like I said I wasn’t very plugged in) and eventually was able to get the game for like ten dollars. I knew very little about it but my excitement was palpable, I still remember being shocked at the plane crashing and well my jaw just dropped when I saw the underwater environment in all its glory.
My favorite movie of all time at the moment is Arrival, which does an excellent job playing with your expectations. Even compared to that, Bioshock’s major twist is a masterclass. The way the game is played and it’s linearity is what allows Bioshock to pull it off funnily enough. If Atlas could say “Would you kindly do _____”, but then you could just fuck off for 80 hours the story wouldn’t hit as hard. The power of playing through a game, but then realizing you were never really in control as power is wrested away from you and you have to watch helpless as Andrew Ryan is brutally beaten to death. Everything leading up to that point makes it one of the best narrative beats in any story I’ve ever experienced.
Of course it is impossible to talk about story in video games and not talk about one of its biggest strengths, which is of course open worlds and player choice. Now I will proudly show off my superiority by saying I played Witcher before it was (really) cool, playing the second game when it came out and playing it four or five times.
Wow Geralt thank you, no you really didn’t have to, you’re too kind. Anyway, The Witcher 2 stories were great and got me excited for me, but were nothing revolutionary. They did of course still have that gray sense of morality that more people got to know with The Witcher 3. After playing The Witcher 2 so many times though, I can comfortably say I was one of the most hyped people in the world for The Witcher 3. When it finally came out I got it day one and played it basically non-stop for quite a while. When I got to the point where the warning message pops up on screen saying some quests will lock off, I stopped, I’m still not sure why exactly.
Eventually though, I got the season pass for a solid deal and I decided it was time to give it another go. I started over from the beginning and this time I decided to take my time, I got to know the land, the people. I did countless side quests, often times I would do a side quest and look up and see if it had any relevance to the main quest because of how substantial it felt. I am the person who quit playing Oblivion because of how obnoxious some of the fetch quests were, but the world of The Witcher completely pulled me in and had me hook line and sinker.
Once again, of course how could I talk about The Witcher 3 without talking about the Bloody Baron quest-line. The first time through I had looked up nothing and the choice I ended up making resulted in the Baron’s suicide. Looking back, I don’t think I really felt the weight of my actions and of this moment, but this time through I went the opposite way and it really helped me feel how powerful the whole story is. This is one of the few times in gaming that it really felt like my choices mattered substantially even if no matter what I did it still resulted in a less than ideal outcome.
Video games let you make choices and they effect the story this is one of the reasons I believe video games are and have the potential to be the best medium for telling stories. Another reason is it allows the developer to tell stories from all different kinds of angles in ways not possible in other mediums. When watching a movie or tv show you are watching a character perform these actions and so it is a lot easier to judge what is happening. In a video game you, the player are the ones performing the action which can lead to a lot more questions, a lot more ambiguity, or it can lead to the sudden realization that you may actually just be the baddie.
A game like Spec Ops: The Line is the perfect example of this. Throughout the game it becomes more and more clear that maybe you are not the badass solution to every problem that you are in so many other games. A movie may be able to pull off a story twist exactly like this, but it could never elicit the feelings of sickness I got from the actions of the main character of “me” that this game solicited. I could have stopped, but at that point I wanted to see it through to the end; I needed to. Games like this help show what can make a story in a video game so poignant and a perfect example of how to use the mechanics of a game to help tell the story.
I’ve talked about a game where you are the baddie and one where you get to make the choices. What about a game where you get to make the choice to be the baddie? Undertale was simultaneously way overrated and way underrated when it dropped what seems like forever ago. It is a game with a great story and great characters throughout. What is really great about it is the ability to make decisions and feel consequences from them. It is partially why I hold that the Genocide route of Undertale is one of the most haunting stories in any medium. As you progress through and see the emptied out areas that were likely bustling with life on a previous playthrough, you feel the consequences of your actions. It is one of the most powerful experiences I have ever experienced while gaming, or while enjoying a story in any medium.
We don’t have to “never grow up” to enjoy video games, video games have grown up with us. So many games can tell a powerful story that actually means something, and every year there are games that change the preconceptions for what a video game can be. Video games are something to be enjoyed just like any other medium, they have the stories and the gameplay to do it, and even if you just want to play something with a simple story like Pokemon. It doesn’t matter what your age is, all that matters is that you enjoy it. As much as I’ve talked about how powerful video games stories are. I don’t care if mainstream media never sees them that way, as long as I get to keep playing them.