Are Video Games the Future of Storytelling?

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WORDS Ben Nour

With the huge success of this year’s The Last of Us, Bioshock: Infinite and Grand Theft Auto V it’s becoming apparent that video games have immense storytelling potential.

Long gone are the days of Space Invaders and Asteroids where it was essentially impossible to expect a complex narrative – today’s video games rival books and Hollywood blockbusters in their potential to deliver emotional and exciti
ng storylines. Indeed, some video games feature plots notably similar in scale and content to some films, such as Heavy Rain, which like David Fincher’s Se7en is a dark tale about a serial killer, set in a city where it is constantly raining. The Uncharted series follows the adventures of a young treasure hunter who travels to exotic counties in search of fabled treasures (Indiana Jones anyone?) while the epic sci-fi RPG Mass Effect trilogy has been called the “Star Wars of our generation”.

However, despite their growing popularity video games have been criticized as not being capable of providing the same storytelling power as traditional methods of storytelling such as film or books. In 2005 renowned film critic Roger Ebert claimed that video games were not art, and earlier this year directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas voiced their opinion that video games are incapable of delivering the same level of experience that traditional modes of storytelling does. Their argument was that player interactivity robs video games of providing the same emotional power that a film or book can. While it could be easy to simply conclude that Spielberg and Lucas haven’t played many games, they do raise interesting questions – namely, does interactivity rob a video game of its storytelling power? And further, where do video games fit within the wider scheme of storytelling?

It has already been established that video games are capable of featuring narratives that are creative, emotional and exciting – games such as The Last of Us, The Walking Dead and Red Dead Redemption have received critical acclaim for their storylines. Concerns that interactivity robs videogames of narrative power are misplaced, when in fact interactivity can lend itself greatly to the emotional experience of the player.  A key example is Telltale’s hugely popular The Walking Dead video game in which the player’s character is tasked with protecting a young girl in a harsh world overrun by zombies. Throughout the game the player is forced to make difficult moral decisions that shape the outcome of the story and this agency greatly enhances the emotional impact of the storyline, as the player is continually aware and made to see the consequence of their decisions.

In 2011 Rockstar’s LA Noire, a neo-noir crime thriller, became the first video game to be recognized by the Tribeca Film Festival, and this year Quantic Dream’s Beyond: Two Souls was also recognized. Clearly video games do not fit in to the same category as films, and instead represent a new medium of storytelling, a medium that has yet to fully define itself, but which will prove fascinating to watch as it develops over time.