Why Video Games Can Be the Greatest Storytelling Mechanism of All

I just finished with the first two of five chapters of Telltale’s The Walking Dead video game. I’d heard good things both from critics and friends (our own Dave Bast, for one), and I thought it might be worthwhile.

Turns out, everyone was right. What would usually be dismissed as a knockoff trying to capitalize on the popularity of a hot show was actually an incredibly thoughtful, well made title. In fact, as I played for about five hours through the first chapters, I found myself caring more about these characters than the ones from the actual show, and was more engrossed in the universe than I’d ever been before.

Video games can be about pure mindless fun. Who doesn’t love gunning down noobs in Call of Duty or running over pedestrians in Grand Theft Auto? But outside of these types of games, because of the interactive nature of the product, I firmly believe that games could in fact be the most compelling storytelling vessels of all.

This theory started with a game rather similar to The Walking Dead from a few years past, Heavy Rain. Though the game was more or less one really, really long interactive cutscene, there something about being involved in the action that made the stakes higher than they would be in a film or TV show.

When the killer tells a man to drive the wrong way down the freeway for five miles in order to get a clue about his son’s whereabouts, we’re not just watching the tense scene unfold, we’re living it. We’ve seen a million car chases on film, and can enjoy them leisurely on our couches, but here? I’ve never been so involved in an action sequence before and was literally sweating by the end. And that was before the killer made my chop off my own finger to further prove my worth.

The Walking Dead game operates in a similar fashion to Heavy Rain. It’s light on action for the most part, and much of the time will be spent wandering around environments looking for clues or problems to solve, or in dialogue with the other characters. But that’s not a bad thing. These type of games tell fantastic stories, and because you’re controlling the lead character and making all his choices, you’re far more invested in his fate and that of his friends than you would be in a TV show you have no control over at all.

For example, how many times during The Walking Dead have you yelled at the TV, “Why would anyone DO that?” as the characters take an idiotic course of action. You might have the option to do the “dumb” thing in the game, but you can consciously make the decisions NOT to, saving yourself a lot of yelling. Conversely, when there are truly tense moments on the show, like someone having to make a life or death decision, it’s really hard to watch. But when YOU’RE the one who has to make the decision as the countdown timer ticks away onscreen? It’s a whole other level of immersion and intensity. Even something as simple as trying to give out four food items to 10 hungry people in your group is a hard-hitting decision, when it would have been a far less impactful moment on the show.

Furthermore, watching Rick try to protect his son Carl can be endearing, but is often frustrating. There’s a distance between us and these characters, and he’s not OUR son, so it’s hard to get attached to him, particularly when he’s so annoying. But in the game, playing as Lee, you’re tasked with looking after a stray girl named Clementine and goddamn, do you ever feel responsible for this kid and her fate. Every action you make is based on what’s best for her, and you truly begin to care about this girl in a way you never would for Carl. You feel fantastic when she giggles after you find her lost hat. You feel sick when you kill someone and find out she was standing right behind you. These are feelings you simply don’t get watching the show.

That said, there’s a long way to go still. The Walking Dead, for example, is a long ways off from true immersion as its graphics look like a six year old tried to program his own version of Borderlands. But once photorealism is achieved, it’s hard to say that games won’t be better storytelling mechanisms than movies or TV shows because of the reasons I’ve explained. With games like Heavy Rain, LA Noire and Beyond pushing the graphical envelope, we’re almost there.

Games give you a connection to the protagonist that simply is not replicated across TV and film. When YOU are the lead, rather than just watching the lead, it’s a whole other level of responsibility as you’re tasked with all the hard choices that are always made for you across other forms of media. This is essentially what choose your own adventure books have grown into, and it’s fantastic.

What’s been the greatest story you’ve been told through a game? Why?

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  1. The Walking Dead game is so much better than Heavy Rain, it’s not even funny… it was nice that there were a couple of parts in Heavy Rain where your performance in the quick time events had somethign approaching a meaningful impact on the story, but it was so difficult to care with the horrendous performances and the fact that the other 88% of the “game” required no input from you. Making this an episodic experience, filling it with superior writing (even with a plot that’s so full of genre tropes) and voice acting, and not trying to pad it out needlessly has shown that this is a viable gaming genre for consoles.

  2. Man, I hope they put that game on-disc once it’s finished. Anyways, I’ve been feeling this way about games since the first Mass Effect. Novels are great for tone and detailing a characters thoughts and feelings, films for visual medium and the ability to use music, and comics have aspects of both plus a panel format that lends itself well to artistic design, but video games have something none of those mediums can touch: interaction. being able to choose your characters’ actions and then living with those consequences is in many ways the ultimate storytelling device. And incorporating music and prose into the narrative makes it so that in the right creative hands, no other medium will be able to compete. What Bioware is doing with storytelling this gen is AMAZING. Forget the hate from closed-minded malcontents; this is scientific fact. Also, Arkham City destroys Nolan’s latest thing any way you look at it. Then there’s Catherine, which combines deep visual metaphor, dream horror that would keep Freddy Krueger up, metafiction, with an engaging romantic tale about the anxieties of growing up and committing and wraps it all up into a simple but damned effective cross of puzzle game and RPG that satisfied me more than most films have in years. Stick around, man. This shit is getting gooooooood.

  3. I’ll do this per game console that I’ve owned.

    For the PSone, I was fully immersed when I played this game called Suikoden 2. It had a simple enough story but I think what made it memorable to me was that the story revolved around your character and also, the world where the game was set in had its own history. I really dig games that have those extra details where you can choose to be more involved in its universe. Damn I suddenly missed that series.

    For the PS2, I’ll say the greatest was Shadow of the Colossus. That whole game/world was so engrossing from start to finish. Heck, when Agro (the horse) fell off that cliff, I was shocked because I never knew that I cared for him until that moment.

    PS3: Has got to be Uncharted 2 so far because it kinda plays like an action movie.

    My games have been pretty limited lately. Question: I wanna get into Mass Effect but the PS3 only starts at 2. Will that be okay as a starting point?

  4. The Mass Effect series is too great to pass up on, ME2 for the PS3 actually does a pretty great job catching new players up on the decisions that you can make in the first game. it might not be as good as playing through the whole series with your own shepherd but the last two games of the trilogy are probably the better ones anyway

  5. @Don,

    I would recommend PC or Xbox (if you own one) to get into ME. There are a lot of events and setup in that game that impact the others. A lot of your decisions in ME1 carry over to ME2, ME3.

    If you decide to start with ME2, then you get stuck with ME renegade decisions (evil/bad/etc). I usually play paragon (good).

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