Novels used to be the only way you’d get a GOOD story. Books carried you far deeper than any movie could and even delved to places TV shows couldn’t. Regardless of how long directors or screenwriters were granted, they couldn’t match the power of a five hundred page epic. Those who wanted to immerse themselves in a great tale did so with their favorite author.
Video games, on the other hand, started out with some pretty good stories. Many times, those with GREAT messages were bogged down by the system you used to push it along. The concept remained sound. Interactive storytelling. Within limitations, you control the pace, and sometimes even the direction, of the story. The right game looked a lot like the choose your own adventure books I read in high school.
They still couldn’t compete with books. The graphics weren’t quite there and because there was limited voice acting (if any), you still had to read everything. Ultimately, some of the greatest Role Playing Games were spreadsheets with novellas mixed in. You read a LOT and while there’s nothing wrong with that, if you weren’t interested in the min/maxing required to placate the system, you may have been alienated.
There are some great examples from the old days. The D&D Gold Box series always had a story but you needed to pay attention to party construction, gear and statistics. They moved into the first person style with the Ravenloft games, both pretty fun. Privateer had a loose story to keep you moving along if you didn’t want to pirate/trade/explore all the time and the Ultima series (with a few exceptions) simply kicked ass.
These were all incredibly entertaining titles and I could name another dozen or so that I sunk a lot of time into. However, memorable as some of them were, I didn’t find them as immersive as reading a book. With movies remaining shallow and television shows not quite up to the standards of our modern conventions, games had the longest way to come. But technology jumped and so did the quality of our story driven content.
The most recent example I have of amazing story telling came from Dragon Age: Inquisition. This title was a marvel. Not only did you have the opportunity to embroil yourself in a deep main story but you also had a massive open world to explore. They took into account what race and class you chose as well, altering many key events throughout your experience. You could explore vast terrain and indulge quests spawned through interactions with your companions and romance one of them in the process.
Superior voice acting gave your character a voice and dialogue felt natural, elevating the impact of the scenes. Your character, crafted by you through a powerful editor, became a real extension of yourself. Your imagination manifested on the screen. Much like the games of old, you managed the pace but you possessed an even more profound control over the destiny of your characters. You decided where to go and when, what to do when you got there and hundreds of choices all held consequences.
And the best part about it is the replay value. If you read a book again, you might pick up a few things you forgot or missed but if you replay Dragon Age: Inquisition, the entire experience could be different. You could side with the mages instead of the templars in a separate play through. You could play a male human instead of a female elf, instantly raising your standing in the world. You could let one character die when you had them live before. All of these things are just as deep the second time through and grant you a NEW experience.
Mass Effect does this very well too. My Commander Shepard seemed like the definitive one and she looked nothing like my friend’s. Again, choices held consequences and I played through the game twice with ease, playing once as a hard ass renegade and again as a super good guy. Each game, 1, 2 and 3, granted another level of interaction and control. The story was yours and your decisions carried from one title to the next.
Bioware isn’t the only company which can make great stories but some of the others do lack the replay. BIoshock Infinite’s story is pretty amazing, if a bit strange. By the end, you’re invested in the characters and you really care what happens. Through the 13 hours of game play, you learn a lot and see many things. The events stick with you and you’ll remember them for years, if not forever.
The Assassin’s Creed series also takes story telling seriously while giving you an open world to play in. There are some problems with each title, especially in how they handle time. From one mission to the next, weeks or even months could pass but you as the player walked your character across town and started it. (I’d like to point out that Dragon Age Inquisition addresses this through a power system. I’ll describe it in a moment).
Assassin’s Creed 1, admittedly, held the weakest in game story. Mostly, it was hampered by repetitive missions, mostly from the fact that this was the first of the series and they were showing off the technology. This is VERY clear when you play AC 2 and the story telling goes from a 5 to 100. Ezio was so popular, he spawned two more games as the main character, each one with powerful events throughout.
I will never forget many things which happen through these games. In AC 2, you meet Leonardo Da Vinci and become friends with him, learning about his inventions and even using some on your quest. In AC Redemption, the closing scene made me cry and throughout the tale of an aged Ezio, I was floored by how well they painted him in the twilight of his career and life. These were moving titles, every bit as well crafted as a good novel with the added benefit of interactivity.
AC 4, Black Flag, created a cadre of characters which were important and full of life. These scoundrels were horrible people that you still fell in love with. The ending scene, once again, brought it all together and left most players a puddle on the floor. Most games are getting better writers for their material than movies and they know how to spread out their tale over many hours without it feeling rushed or drawn out.
Tell Tale Games has been coming out with some pretty fantastic ‘adventure’ style games like The Walking Dead, Back to the Future, Tales from the Borderlands, a Wolf Among Us and Game of Thrones. These take storytelling to a new level with awesome consequences for your action. They remember what you did and somehow manage to allow those choices to have meaning 4 episodes after you made them. Combine this with great graphics and voice acting and you’ve got an immersive experience worthy of any game in the past or book in the present.
I believe wholly in the modern game maker’s ability to give us a great story every bit as inspirational and interesting as a great book. They are not a substitute for novels and nothing ever will be but these are damn close. They embody every form of art from music to painting to acting and writing to puzzle crafting. They can appeal to multiple audiences, especially the games that let you make your own character. Here you can really craft your avatar to look just as you think they do, your imagination manifested.
As we move further with technology and graphics become better and more intense, I think we’re going to see an influx of even better stories, more cinematic with lots of choices. We’ll be the masters of the tale we’re shown and move it in whatever direction we see fit. Our actions, our consequences. Better than movies, more involved than television and close to the written word, there are many titles, presently available and coming soon, which are worthy of your attention.
Try them out. I think you’ll be happy you did.
The video below is a spoiler if you haven't finished AC 4 but if you have, you won't mind checking it out again.
Author of several books, composer of several CDs. Please check out the rest of the site for some of my work.