The Unique Storytelling Power of Video Games
As I’m stuck inside finding ways to stay busy, I have come to develop a greater appreciation for modern video games. They’ve come a long way from two paddles bouncing a ball back and forth. Graphics and gameplay are the two most obvious developments, with players able to seamlessly input complex commands that play out through life-like animations. But the improvement that stands out to me the most, that keeps me playing just 15 more minutes for hours at a time, is the way video games have grown as a storytelling medium. By integrating the innate interactivity of games into the story itself, a plot becomes something the player experiences rather than consumes, elevating games themselves as an art form.
Why yes, The Last of Us is one of my favorite games. Why do you ask?
*Some spoilers below.*
A shared experience is one of the most powerful bonding forces in human nature, connecting us to each other in ways both expected and unexpected. In controlling a character in a video game, the player feels like they’re experiencing the story through the character’s eyes. But that’s every game, and while it might add a layer of depth beyond a movie or book, the real magic comes when the player assumes control of more than one character. This creates a shared experience, not just between the player and the protagonist, but between the player as multiple protagonists.
One of the best examples of this is Naughty Dog’s seminal stealth zombie game, The Last of Us. For the majority of the game, you play as Joel, who’s become grizzled and jaded after 20 years of navigating a quarantined existence caused by a disease that killed the majority of the population — and turned those it didn’t kill into zombie-like creatures.
The true power of The Last of Us, however, comes from the times when you’re not playing as Joel. At the very start of the game, on the day that all hell breaks loose, you play as Sarah, his 12-year-old daughter. Alone and powerless to do much other than walk around the house, you pick up from context clues that something is going very, very wrong. Soon after, you take control of Joel, carrying your daughter through a city that is actively undergoing a zombie apocalypse. And then, just as you think you’ve reached safety, she’s killed by the people you think are going to help you. This is the backdrop in which you start the game in earnest. You’ve lost your daughter, a daughter whose helplessness and fear you’ve experienced directly.
A similar experience emerges during the “Winter” chapter, when you take over as Ellie, the immune girl that the entire game revolves around. Instead of shepherding her through the world as Joel — protecting her from others and herself — you’re now playing as Ellie trying to help Joel survive. At first, it feels like a downgrade. Most of your guns and equipment are gone, you have none of the skills you’ve developed over the course of the game, and you can’t punch enemies. It feels helpless.
And, sure, Ellie isn’t quite the combatant that Joel is, but over the course of the chapter, you realize that she’s also not as helpless as she seems — or as Joel thinks she is. You can still shoot a gun, you have a handy knife that makes stealth easier, and given the right components, you can craft everything Joel can. As you fight to survive against David’s merry gang of cannibals, you realize just how capable Ellie is, because you’re the one doing it. And when you finally kill David in a boss fight that is both insanely frustrating and easier than it seems, Ellie breaks down as Joel hugs her, leaving you with a deeper understanding of the bond they have and why Joel does what he does to save her life at the end of the game.
Lore and Optional Dialogue
The idea of anything being optional in a movie or book is absurd. You get the story you get. But the interactivity of video games is uniquely suited to making things optional, and that includes the story. Dialogue trees are a common way to do this, but we’ll start with one of the subtlest ways video games hide information: in-game lore. And it can take a number of shapes.
When I first played Horizon Zero Dawn, I quickly fell in love with the unique combat system, gorgeous world, and main character, Aloy. But while the story would become one of my favorite in any game, I wasn’t all that fond of it for a good while. That changed when my friend, who had convinced me to buy the game in the first place, asked me if I was reading the datapoints — and he couldn’t believe it when I told him I wasn’t. Because while the story was taking shape as some kind of reimagining of humanity in a world with robots that were turning evil, the lore showed me things like the opening of a Climate Refugee Museum in 2060 (and an allusion to the Great Die-Off). There were also more banal logs like the Schott v. Frost decision that referenced the 2060 presidential election and an actor bemoaning the extinction of mosquitos. It all served as an early hint of the game’s major twist — we were on our Earth the whole time, a thousand years after we had caused our own extinction. And I had no idea until I started reading the lore that suggested it.
Japanese “git-gud” factory From Software is notorious for using lore to tell its stories, while The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has troves of books offering insight into the world. Lore in the sewers of The Last of Us tells a story within a story, while Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain hides cassette tapes throughout the game. There are countless examples of these optional in-game tidbits that help deepen your understanding of the story you’re experiencing — even as you could miss it all entirely.
As for dialogue trees, these are present in almost every RPG at this point, so it’s really a matter of the degree to which it impacts the game. Your dialogue options may do little more than prompt an NPC to share more information about the story, or perhaps alter what they say but not the outcome of your conversation.
However, games like BioWare’s Mass Effect series and interactive stories like Detroit: Become Human include dialogue as part of the mechanics of the story. The decisions you make and the things you say impact the world around you, leading to a different experience between your playthrough and another person’s due to the dialogue choices you made. The lesser known Alpha Protocol, described as an action-adventure third-person shooter, incorporates a dialogue system as a complement to its combat, making it impactful enough to create 32 different possible endings to the game.
Finally, we come to storytelling through mechanics. A character arc is an integral part of any story, and has been for a long time. Where video games can build on this fundamental element is by tying character progression to player progression. And much in the way character arcs have been a part of stories forever, player progression has been a part of video games for a very long time.
The simplest, most common way a game progresses is by giving the player more tools as the game advances. For a character like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s Geralt, the player’s development is more important than the character’s, whose growth doesn’t make sense in the story. The veteran witcher can’t start from zero the way an unexperienced player controlling him does, so his arc differs from the player’s. Geralt’s arc revolves around the story, while the player’s arc allows them to fight higher-level monsters and develop a skill tree to customize Geralt’s abilities. But in games where these features are tied, it becomes a part of the story.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is one of my favorite games of all-time because of the way its mechanics are linked to the plot. The game tells the story of Henry of Skalitz, a troublemaking blacksmith’s son who finds himself in the middle of a major geopolitical conflict. In order to survive, Henry the character must learn how to fight, read, ride a horse, fire a bow, speak to nobility, and make potions. And in order for Henry to learn how to do all that, the player must learn how to do all that at the same time.
My favorite example is the combat system, which is a complex (and, in fairness, imperfect) system that requires stamina management, crowd control, and good defense. The uncoordinated Henry has little ability to do any of this, and thus the player has little ability to do any of this, so the only way to get better is to practice. And as the player practices, Henry’s stats increase, improving his strength, stamina, and defense. A perfect block, one of the game’s more powerful tools, requires timing the block button to a green shield icon. To learn the timing, you have to practice hitting the block button on the controller, and while doing this, Henry defense stat improves, and so as you get better at hitting the block button on time, the improved stat increases the block timing window. Both of you get better at blocking at the same time.
On the other hand, player empowerment can go the other way too, and no game exemplifies this better than Bloodborne, the best game I may never finish. Bloodborne’s world is a breathtaking, horrifying Lovecraftian tale which is governed by obtuse rules and shrouded in mystery. The game itself gives you few clues and few ways to uncover its mysteries, while at the same time presenting an oppressive, unrelenting difficulty. Combined, its systems make the player feel the exact type of horror you should feel if you were dropped into a nightmare.
At the same time, the enemies you encounter are, with few exceptions, bigger, stronger, and/or faster than you are. Any enemy at any point in the game can kill you if you’re not careful, and that’s nothing compared to the bosses, who tower over you. Even the weapons you use to fight these monsters seem to be a little oversized, as if they’re meant for a larger character, underscoring the idea that you don’t belong there.
As you improve your character, find new weapons, and better understand the mechanics of combat, brilliant scaling keeps the challenge omnipresent. Although it’s not advertised as such, this integration of mechanics with the environment and (admittedly scant) story makes Bloodborne a much more terrifying experience than any two-bit jump scare.
Controlling How the Player Controls
Ultimately, player input has the ability to bring the audience into the story, and when done well, video games can use that to improve the impact of their story. The Last of Us is coming to HBO, and while I’m sure it would have been great on its own, it will resonate harder with people who’ve played the game. When I find breadcrumbs in Horizon Zero Dawn, my imagination is allowed to run wild, and I start looking for more clues. Bloodborne gives me nightmares in a way that Lovecraft himself never could. Because of their innate interactivity, video games allow players to get closer to the material than other mediums can, and that intimacy always has the potential to hit harder.
I’m a freelance writer who uses the basics of fiction to inform my professional writing. For professional inquiries, you can reach me at anthonyjondreau.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Instagram at anthonyjondreau.