On video games, storytelling and the growth of an artistic medium

Tuesday, March 20, 2018 - 2:49pm

"Legend of Zelda"

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Nintendo

I love video games. For me, they are almost inextricably tied up in childhood nostalgia. I think of countless hours spent with my brothers huddled around a GameCube, Wii or PlayStation. I think of collecting Pokemon on my GameBoy Advance during long car trips. These probably sound like familiar stories, and that’s because they’re the kind of experiences shared by many kids who grew up during video games’ “golden age” through the late ’90s and early 2000s. As millennials grew up, video games seemed to change with them — just look how far graphics have come from the clunky, polygonal look of the N64. This change expands far beyond how video games look, however, and has greater implications for how they tell stories. The last 15 years have seen video games come into their own as a unique form of expression.

I’ve always held that many of the best pieces of art your “Casablanca”s, your “Les Misérables”s, your “Catcher in the Rye”s are told via their respective mediums because that medium is the only way to most effectively tell the story. A great film, for example, should be able to do and show things that only a film can do. Today, we’re in the midst of video gaming’s renaissance; inspired, motivated content creators are continuously finding new ways to push the boundaries of storytelling within the interactive medium of video games at both the indie and mainstream level.

This prolific explosion of artful storytelling didn’t just happen spontaneously, however. Rather, it was a slow build over nearly two decades of progress and experimentation. Through much of the ’80s, video games existed mostly as novelties; games like “Tetris” or “Galaga,” which told no stories, but were just intended to be, well, games. Throughout the early to mid ’90s, this began to change. Games like “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past” began incorporating fleshed out stories with dialogue. The beauty of these early story-based single player games was the ability of the player to step into the world of the game. For example, Link, the protagonist of “The Legend of Zelda,” has no lines of dialogue; he’s just a stand-in for the player. These roleplaying games had begun to dabble in one of video game storytelling’s most unique aspects: The ability to give players a sense that their actions matter to the world of the story.

The advent of modern video games, however, wouldn’t truly begin until the release of Hideo Kojima’s “Metal Gear Solid” in 1998. “Metal Gear” tells the story of Snake, a work that was so unmistakably different from other games being put out at the time because of its sweeping, cinematic nature. The game’s many cutscenes offered dynamic, interesting “camerawork,” alongside dramatic voice acting, that lent the game a sense of gravity and importance that had thus far been absent from the medium. This would lay the groundwork for games like Sony’s “Uncharted” series, which has been described as playing a movie. This signaled one of the first times that mainstream video gaming had embraced its role as a medium capable of telling intense, deeply felt stories.

The late 2000s and beyond would see the beginning of the storytelling explosion. Here, studios began to experiment with the concept of player choice. Games like “Metal Gear Solid” did important work in terms of establishing video games as a legitimate medium of storytelling, but it still seemed as if there was little that video games could do which other storytelling mediums couldn’t. “Metal Gear Solid” could just as easily have been a movie; in fact, you can watch all of the cutscenes spliced together on YouTube as a serviceable substitute for actually playing the game. Unsatisfied with this being the benchmark for storytelling in games, developers such as Telltale Games began to create games with alternate endings and storylines based on choices given to the player. These games seemed to emulate the choose-your-own-adventure novels sold to kids in elementary school, albeit with more adult subject matter.

Cut to the modern day. The last couple of years have, in my opinion, seen video games truly come into their own as a medium that can tell unique, powerful stories which could only be told as video games. Games like Toby Fox’s “Undertale” and Davey Wreden’s “The Stanley Parable” come to mind as members of a developing medium that almost feels reminiscent of the 1920’s literary postmodernism; these games dissect what it means to be a game. Players can exploit glitches, mess with game files and more. “The Stanley Parable,” for example, is a game meant to be restarted dozens of times. It has almost 20 achievable endings, some of them entirely random, including some in which Stanley, the game’s voiceless protagonist can either choose to comply with or rebel against the game’s whimsical British narrator. Games like this make me think that if Samuel Beckett were alive today, he’d be a game developer. Wreden’s follow-up game, “The Beginner’s Guide,” tells the story of his friendship with a reclusive game designer by walking the player through the games his friend made. It’s an entirely unique narrative structure, a story about an artist in which the audience is placed inside of their art.

One of the most unique offerings I’ve seen has been Giant Sparrow’s 2017 release, “What Remains of Edith Finch.” The game follows the titular Edith Finch as she explores her now-abandoned childhood home and unearths generations-old secrets about the Finch family. “Edith Finch” is the first video game I’ve encountered that I can say tells a story that could only ever work as a video game; it makes such creative use of all facets of the medium, from its interactivity to its non-linear narrative to how effortlessly it manages to tell a story through its environment. The player is left to wander aimlessly through this massive house and, through discovery of old family heirlooms, step into the memories of Finch ancestors, experiencing the world uniquely as each family member did. In one such sequence, the character plays as a baby sitting in a bathtub, able to control the bath toys floating and swirling around in the water as Mozart plays alongside the player’s movements. The game’s emotional journey is ingrained in its interactivity.

This isn’t to say that all modern video games are art. On the contrary, truly artful games make up only a small portion of the medium. However, this is the case with all artistic mediums. For every masterfully constructed art-film, there’s a mindless blockbuster, and for every “What Remains of Edith Finch,” there’s a “Call of Duty.” There’s nothing wrong with the latter — it’s in fact beloved by many — but for the first time in the history of the young medium, video games are beginning to consistently offer an upper echelon of well-crafted games that tell deeply felt and uniquely experienced stories. Today, some of the most moving, profound stories being told anywhere are being told in video games — we’ve come a long, long way from “Pong.”