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Game On: Video games can tell stories no other medium can

UPDATED: Thu., March 11, 2021

Released in December, “Cyberpunk 2077” succeeded in telling a captivating sci-fi story but failed to make its oft-advertised “lifepath” choice a meaningful one.  (CD Projekt S.A.)
Released in December, “Cyberpunk 2077” succeeded in telling a captivating sci-fi story but failed to make its oft-advertised “lifepath” choice a meaningful one. (CD Projekt S.A.)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

For many years, storytelling was often seen as one of the weaker selling points of any video game. It’s not difficult to understand why: “Pong,” “Pac-Man” and “Space Invaders” didn’t exactly contain gripping narratives – or any narratives at all. At first, video games didn’t replicate real-world experiences in any meaningful way; they simply played with your senses with vibrant colors and tested your hand-eye coordination.

To this day, I see nothing wrong with video games designed entirely for simple fun, and many indie developers continue to release games with that philosophy in mind. But a good story can make a good game a great one – it can wrap up all the gameplay into a focused and thought-provoking narrative much the same way an exhilarating action movie can still contain good themes.

Like other mediums, the way video games go about telling a story differs wildly. Some focus on a single, fixed narrative like a novel does, as seen in “BioShock Infinite” or “The Last of Us.” Some games scatter clues around the environment hinting at a greater overarching lore like “Left 4 Dead” or “The Elder Scrolls” – it’s the “show, don’t tell” storytelling principle in video game form.

But the most impressive type of video game story are those where the outcome differs depending on the player’s actions. Many games have watered down this concept to a simple dichotomy – do you take the good or evil path? – but a select few have attempted to explore the many moral grays in between.

It’s been difficult for games to present branching stories in earnest. Telltale Games, best known for adapting existing franchises into story-driven episodic games such as “The Walking Dead” and “Minecraft: Story Mode,” is widely credited for crafting narratives with player-input decisions – but choices made throughout their titles rarely impact the ultimate conclusion of the story. You might choose to save a character’s life only for them to perish later with no way to help them.

Despite its excellent worldbuilding and character development, “Mass Effect 3” is notorious for its lackluster conclusion to the space opera trilogy. Without getting into spoilers, the player is presented with three options, and all of them stink equally. “BioShock” was heavily advertised for its moral dilemmas, but in truth it only presents one choice over and over – save corrupted “Little Sisters” for some power, or murder them for maximum power. The latter is over-the-top evil, and its payoff is far from impressive.

“Cyberpunk 2077” also generated hype where it shouldn’t have, advertising the player’s choice of a “lifepath” – nomad, street kid or corpo – as a major selling point of the game. But your character’s lifepath mostly affects the first hour of the game, and aside from a few throwaway pieces of dialogue, it becomes largely forgotten as the story proceeds.

I don’t mention these small disappointments to tell you these are bad games. All of the aforementioned titles were exceedingly ambitious, and they succeeded in many respects. That said, each one of them made promises during development that proved too lofty upon release.

Precious few games have truly managed to offer a nonlinear narrative because it’s a massive undertaking from a game-design point of view. Imagine writing one story, then penning several different variations of it. If a pivotal decision is made early on, the butterfly effect occurs, and you potentially have hundreds of differing outcomes on your hands.

Over the years, a handful of role-playing games have managed to find a reasonable compromise: add and remove side quests depending on the player’s actions, but focus primarily on an overarching narrative that ends with the same pivotal decision no matter what. “Fallout: New Vegas” and “Planescape Torment” both pulled this trick, and it’s convincing enough to make them enjoyable for at least a couple of playthroughs.

Will there ever be a video game featuring true nonlinear gameplay? By using sophisticated-enough artificial intelligence, the possibility might be looming on the horizon. In the meantime, the best way to experience a living fantasy world that can change completely based on your every action is by rounding up a few friends for tabletop “Dungeons & Dragons.” It’s not difficult to set up a game over Zoom, and I’m sure all of us could use a bit more person-to-person interaction right now.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com.

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