"Beyond Film And TV: How Video Games Can Tell Unique Stories"
Like many geeks, I have two life-long loves: reading and video games. And while I enjoy first-person shooters and action games, I will always have a deep and abiding affection for the way that video games transform a narrative in ways that other mediums can’t match. Recently I stumbled across the IOS game Device 6, a groundbreaking mix of text and interactivity. For people who haven’t played it, it plays with interactivity and the physical aspect of the narrative in unique and unusual ways. Scrolling through the narrative literally moves the character back and forth through the setting. You’re not just flipping back and forth so much as physically traversing through the castle.
But while I’m an avid gamer, I’m not as deeply involved in the video game scene as others, especially for games that push the narrative and scope of storytelling. So I reached out to IGN editor Mitch Dyer to talk about the power of video games to tell new stories in ways that simply can’t be replicated in books, movies or film.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity and contains in-depth discussions of the plots of Gone Home and Brothers.
So let’s start off with a little bit about Device 6, because this is an astounding app. It’s an interesting mix of ebook and puzzle game.
Simogo is a fascinating developer. Everything it does is different than the last in every conceivable way. Tone, input, structure, story, aesthetic. It’s unique in a way that you’d never know it was the same team.
Device 6 is one of the weirdest, most daring little things I have ever played. It has this reckless disregard for how video game stories are told, and how mobile games should function. The text creates a sense of space separate from the prose’s description. Geographically, you understand where you are, where you’re going, and how to navigate based on the layout of the story. It’s written as a story, and structured like a map.
And the prose takes the shape of the environment.
More subtly in some places than others; ascending a spiral staircase made of spiraling words is a little more on the nose than descending clauses in the shape of stairs. It’s a way to play with your perception. Forcing you to rotate the device gives you a sense of physicality that connects to the place described in text that’s literally rotated sideways.
It kind of reminds me of The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski in that way — bringing a physical connection to the way you relate to the story.
Yes! House of Leaves was the first thing that came to mind for me, too. Not just in the way it’s weird, but in the way it subverts the traditional storytelling functions of its medium. Device 6 and House of Leaves both leverage what they have at their disposal — communication through words, and the physical nature of how you consume them — to uproot what we understand about how we’re supposed to take in their information.
Whenever people talk about the storytelling in games, they usually refer to Grand Theft Auto or Mass Effect – basically games that emulate film or television pacing. Very few people seem to take advantage of the medium, do they?
That sort of storytelling definitely has its place. Mass Effect and Telltale’s Walking Dead are a great examples of a strong story, a detailed world, and believable characters told in a way that marries interactivity and observation. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with it, but it does seem to rely on marrying other mediums’ expertise to the uniqueness of games.
But there’s a special sort of value in games that ignore tradition and defy expectation. Journey is an entirely wordless game. You literally can’t talk to any other players who happen to join your game, which revolves entirely around getting to the top of a mountain for reasons unexplained. The emergent moments that happen with those people, and the sort of things you project onto the places and history of that world, rank among my favorite moments in any form of storytelling.
What do you think of games that blur the lines between reality and gameplay like alternate reality games (ARGs)?
What’s most fascinating to me about most ARGs is that, by the nature of their design, and their presentation as games, is that they hide the fact that they’re almost always marketing tools. It’s interactive advertising as entertainment. This isn’t always the case, and that’s not to take away from what they are, but engaging an audience through an abstract story in need of unraveling, typically via relentless, regular interaction and input, is fascinating, too. These are games, stories, and experiences so cleverly engineered that we don’t realize we’re part of the PR plan.
The one that stands out the most to me was The Beast – the ARG that was designed to be part of the marketing for AI. The game blended reality and fiction in ways I’d never seen before. There were points where you would attend rallies in the real world, register to vote in upcoming elections and get calls and emails from characters in game.
The closest thing I can compare it to is the War of the Worlds broadcast — but even that is different, because it was accidentally misconstrued as reality, where as The Beast carries itself as non-fiction.
And the game was being written as we played it, so the creators were adapting it to our actions. Literally emergent game-play.
That’s brilliant. That’s emergent design. Jesus. That wouldn’t (couldn’t?) ever fly in most “normal” games. Can you imagine a Call of Duty or Battlefield game that developed as your faction turned the tide of a war?
There were some MMOs that tried that weren’t there?
The sort of stories tied to who you’re fighting for would change based on success/failure of players allegiances. Planetside 2 sort of does it. With no narrative conceits or progression. You just lose territory and have to get it back
Which is great for emergent “We went in behind enemy lines and reclaimed our home” sorts of stories; but it isn’t being driven. Simogo, the developer of Device 6, made this horror game based on long-forgotten Swedish myth called Year Walk this year. Did you play it?
I haven’t yet!
OK. So, when you finish Year Walk, there are parts of that place you think back to and go, huh, how come I couldn’t open that box? Or why didn’t I know the answer to X when I was done? When the credits roll, you’re given a code, and that code unlocks a secret in a separate Year Walk companion app. Inside of this thing is an extension of the game you’ve finished, an ARG that feeds back into the game and all but demands you return to certain places to discover the insane, fucked up truth behind a mystery you think you’ve solved. The ARG is a diary of a guy looking into something related to the Year Walk, which is the myth. There are images and secrets hidden in his diary entries. They lead up to something else in the game you’ve finished.
It’s bonkers. It’s a game within a game within a game. And, like any great ARG, is completely self-serving. It’s promotional, but also deepens that connection you have with something.
Then there was this game on Kickstarter. It didn’t go anywhere, but it was a terrific idea. You and I as super best friends decide to play. I am taken hostage. You receive unsettling phone calls from the kidnapper about my fate at random times. And you have to go places, and do things, to keep me alive. You might get a call at 3am and have an assignment. Fail, and I’m killed. I would love to have seen this. I love when stories in games invade real life, affect the way you behave. Getting a text saying I have to move a mile in the next 120 seconds or you’re dead? Fuck, man.
I can see this resulting in a lot of awkward conversations at work.“Why did you just leave the meeting?” “David Hayter said if I didn’t travel to the phone booth on 5th, he’d kill my buddy.”
Solid Snake is kind of an asshole.
Which actually brings up the Metal Gear Solid series. They weren’t groundbreaking gameplay, but they definitely did interesting things with the fourth wall and the meta-story of games. Like the way you could kill one boss by turning off the game for a week and waiting for him to starve to death.
Metal Gear is a special breed. It is straight-up everything wrong with video game storytelling with bits and pieces of things nobody else would ever dare do.
I love those games, especially for that sort of weird stuff. The first Metal Gear Solid forces you to use the disc case to access knowledge the game never tells you. You need to change controller ports so a boss can’t read your mind through the game pad. That boss reads your memory card to prove he knows your interests. “I see you enjoy Castlevania.” Well, no shit, Psycho Mantis, Symphony of the Night rules. I think it actually became less self aware and daring with how it presented its fourth-wall-breaking jokes. Its technology enabled it to be ambitious outside its story moments with each sequel.
It would screw with the player in ways that no other game really did. The only one that comes to mind is Eternal Darkness on the Game Cube.
Yeah, GameCube had a couple intelligent instances of the hardware/software conniving against you. Eternal Darkness would make you think there were bugs on your screen. It and Animal Crossing would fake deleting your save game in certain occasions. But it was essential to Eternal Darkness. Your character went insane, and you empathized with him or her by wondering if you were off your rocker, seeing things, hearing things, believing things that weren’t there. It forces you into the same emotional state of panic.
It seems to me that there’s a revolution going on in the indie scene with non-traditional storytelling, like with Gone Home. Do you find that the mainstream devs are too constrained by the audience’s expectations? Or publishers not willing to take a risk?
I was so hoping you would bring up Gone Home, AKA game of every year for the rest of time. Reliability sells, especially if you’re a franchise. I don’t think story has much, if anything, to do with the success of something like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed. Few AAA publishers are willing to deviate from that, or to build something that cannot become a franchise. This is why I love the indie scene right now. The Fullbright Company doesn’t need to build a brand — they wanted to tell a meaningful story and move on. In that respect, and we’re seeing a lot more of this, there’s a literary movement in the video game industry.
We’re seeing more games and creators commit to telling a story as is and letting it exist on its own terms and merits. Gone Home says everything it needs to say — and having a message or soul at all like it does is a delicious rarity — in a couple hours. Their next game will abandon all of those characters and places, I’m sure. I’m not sure why telling a meaningful story and having a satisfying power fantasy are mutually exclusive.
One thing I loved about Gone Home was the way it would reward you for exploring. You can follow the main plot but miss a lot of the side details if you aren’t methodical in searching every drawer and corner.
Oh god, yeah. The stuff hidden in safes isn’t essential, but it provides an enormous amount of perspective about Katie’s family. One thing a lot of my friend’s missed was the pamphlet in the greenhouse. Which, if you don’t know, tells you where Sam and Katie’s parents really are, which is, instead of a wedding, at marriage counseling. It’s a bittersweet resolution to their story.
It seems like the indie developers for XBox Live Arcade and the Playstation Network are only just starting to get away from lower-budget retro-platformers or first-person shooters. Do you think there’s going to be a console equivalent to Gone Home any time soon?
Dear God, I would hope so. I’d love to see Steve bring Gone Home to consoles, but I don’t know if it’s logistically feasible. Unity, the engine Fullbright used to make it, plays nice with Xbox One. Hopefully we can see that game as-is on next-gen hardware. But in terms of something like it, I think the change in Xbox One nomenclature, away from “Arcade” and labeling everything “Games” will likely encourage a new breed of digital game, something not inhibited by download size or the “Arcade” name.
I’m trying to imagine the reception something like To The Moon would get on XBox Live and it’s kind of hilarious.
Oh god that game. Or something like Castles in the Sky. Similarly absent of notable interaction, totally marvelous as a precious little story device.
It’s interesting to see the how different games handle story. Some of them are little more than linear corridors that just funnel you along, but even the limited interaction makes them hit harder than something more open. I loved the freedom of Fallout 3, but it never had the emotional gut-punch that To The Moon did.
Probably because you spend so much time building and telling your own story that the one they’ve authored for you carries less weight. It’s not the only thing you’re thinking about in the same way it is when you’re playing To the Moon or Gone Home.
It does teach you to get more invested in some of your companions though. I didn’t care too much for the story of Fable II but when Lucien murders your dog, I couldn’t kill him hard enough.
Yeah, same thing in Shadow of the Colossus. Argo dies getting you to the final colossus, which makes you angry rather than sympathetic to your victims for the first time. Colossus cops out, though. Too few games are willing to take anything away from you. Did you play Brothers?
I adore that game for setting up a simple, relatable story about paternal strife, and ends with you losing someone you’re literally bound to. And along the way you encounter implications of events that occurred in this world without anyone ever saying ‘Oh, hey, this is the legendary giant war where the slave people fought back” or any garbage. You just see it, take it in, and imagine what might have been. It does for that game’s history what many great horror games do with horror. The sort of “what you don’t see is most damaging” mentality
And it was an amazing transition from pastoral beauty to just stark carnage as you’re seeing the aftermath, climbing over corpses and literal rivers of blood.
The first time you drop the ax or set off the trebuchet. Fuck.
What games do you think really push the boundaries of narrative and story?
A lot of games accomplish different things really well. You can look at the AAA space and see The Last of Us using filmic values to communicate its story, but it also does a remarkable job of involving the story, the history, and the feelings of the characters in the moment to moment gameplay. Part of that success comes from the fact that it’s an action game that gives you moments of reprieve, downtime to get a little introspective and think about what you’re experiencing in this atmosphere, while observing what everyone around you is thinking, feeling, or how they’re behaving.
But most of the stuff we’re talking about is what excites me. Gone Home commits to its personal, grounded story and tells it using familiar devices — the audiolog, for instance, which rarely makes logical sense in game worlds ravaged by violence. But there’s payoff in terms of why Katie is hearing her sister’s recollection of these events because you find a diary addressed to Katie.
Device 6 sort of ignores everything about video games, from story to input, and exists in its own world. It’s like someone described what a video game was, and they were like, “Nah, that’s dumb, but we’re going to make this thing on a machine you’d normally play one [on].” I also sort of, kind of, and against my better judgment think Beyond: Two Souls is brilliant?
The long version of which you can read in this thing I wrote, but the short version is that David Cage is so clearly a film director, but there are elements in the way he’s written his script that are theatrical, literary, and otherworldly. The dude just does not make video game stories, for better or worse. He bounces through time and returns to certain story beats in a way that’s haphazard and inelegant, but despite the way Beyond bumbles around like a drunk college kid, what it’s doing is actually really interesting. It’s very inward-facing, showing you pieces of a person’s life as it comes back to her, rather than in the linearity of her life’s chronology. Beyond flails about, but it’s trying to do something different, and I appreciate that more than anything else in games these days.