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Before we had language, we had stories. People have always wanted to communicate, to share experiences, and to entertain. “Remember that mammoth Ogg killed that one time?” Oh Ogg, you rascal. You legend. We still tell stories of older times, and they still resonate. The Iliad and Odyssey, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Epic of Sundiata, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, the Popol Vuh. The stories of ancient Goddesses and kings, heroes and villains, trials to overcome, lessons to be learned. Storytelling is one of the things that makes us human, and it has adapted as we have. With new ways to communicate, we’ve come up with new ideas of how stories should be told. Radio dramas and eventually movies were made possible by advances in technology. Though we’ve always had plays, the ability to reach a very large audience was limited by the dimensions of the theatre the play was staged in. With the advent of radio and motion pictures, the restraints of the physical were loosened.

The march of progress continues, and with it, we consider the role of video games as narrative devices. Though board games have had roots in storytelling, video games offer a unique way to explore stories of people, places, and events. Though all games require the player to be aware that they are playing, some video games have been able to bend or twist this perception. Extra Credits makes a compelling case for this in Missile Command, in that the player should put themselves in the role of someone defending six cities close enough to drive to. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of lives are in your hands and you have to save them from an unknown assailant who just keeps raining missiles on those six targets. It’s easier to save them of course if you let some of them die, as there are fewer targets, but then again, you’ve just let your fellow countrymen be obliterated. It may be easier to save the rest, but only for a time, as Missile Command doesn’t end until all six cities are gone. It ends only when everyone dies.

The story-within-a-story convention has also seen a degree of success in gaming. Final Fantasy Tactics, possibly my favorite game ever, asks you to recount the tale of a brutal war for a country. You play Ramza, a character lost to history, and though the game’s mechanics are clearly a JRPG, the story is not just of Ramza’s successes and failures, but is seen through the lens of time. The narrator is a historian from four hundred years in the future, telling us the deeds of a man who was purged from the annals of the world. No. Really. FFT takes one of the standard Final Fantasy narratives, a globe-changing war, and talks not only about it, but the tendency of humans to bury the things we don’t agree with. Ramza lost, or else he’d be recorded as a hero, but we are introduced to him as a man who is outside of the scope of history, someone forgotten because he was inconvenient to the winner’s designs. Their plans. Their story. It’s a brilliant piece of narrative, and one perhaps only possible in a video game. How else would get to experience the life of someone who was erased from history?

The first person perspective in video games does similarly interesting things to narrative. We are forced by perception to be in the story ourselves. Nothing else gets us quite as close to the action of a story. Even with first person narration, we don’t get the experience of being in the story. “I walked to the bank, took out some money, flirted with the teller, and then got in my car to go home. Along the way, I saw a dog chasing a cat, and some kids riding bikes.” This is a somewhat different experience than playing a game in which your all your perspective is is everything on the screen. Here, I’d like to introduce perhaps the most well told story of the past five years, Portal (and Portal 2). Apologies to Mr. Patrick Rothfuss. Seriously, go read his books.

The first person style of Portal 2 is exceptionally useful in telling a compelling story. These things don’t just happen to Chell, but to you, the player. GLaDOS isn’t giving speeches to some woman in a weird laboratory, but to people who are sitting at their computers, figuring out things for science. However, if all that Portal had to bring to the table was a first person perspective, it wouldn’t be doing the medium a whole bunch of favors. They’ve been done before. Even first person non-shooters have had their time in the sun, as evidenced by the Myst series, and even The 7th Guest. No, what Portal does is take an interesting story and tell it well, with both monologuing from a great character as well as incorporating mechanics into the storytelling, particularly in Portal 2.

Without trying to spoil too much, Portal 2 takes one of the core aspects of a puzzle game and turns it into a great way to tell the backstory of the world which the characters live in. Necessarily, Portal 2 requires you to explore, to find out new ways of going places, and to think of new ways of doing things. In so exploring, you are forced to uncover the story of the Aperture Labs, how they got built, who built them, and why. It talks about loss and struggle while being a struggle itself. It is a challenge to make your way through the middle third of the game, as the layout of the labs undergoes a decided shift. As a result, you find out a lot about the character of the builder of the labs, as well as GLaDOS, your former archenemy turned reluctant ally.

The speech in the game is also legendarily funny. Well written, sharp, just a tad creepy, GLaDOS’ monologue is not only well phrased, but expertly delivered. Though more characters are introduced in Portal 2, each feels very natural to the world, as though they were lurking at the edges of Portal the entire time. Their own writing is just as sharp, their vocal characterizations just as endearing. Again, trying not to spoil anything.

Ultimately, what the experience comes down to is a well crafted piece of narrative excellence, one that can’t be achieved with just pictures or words, but interactivity. Portal 2, and in particular the end sequence, isn’t particularly groundbreaking in terms of video games, except to say that it is storytelling done oh-so-right. It takes the emotional qualities of a great novel and blends them with a dramatic, fantastic display characteristic of any Hollywood blockbuster. In the synthesis of script, sounds, and scenes, we get an amazing story that shows what video games are beginning to accomplish in terms of art.

We’re at the beginning of a movement. Recently, the National Endowment for the Arts extended the definition of the grants to include Arts In Media. For those of you still skeptical if video games can qualify as art, this should help settle that debate. A government agency empowered to give money on their behalf extended the definition of media to include:

All available media platforms such as the Internet, interactive and mobile technologies, digital games, arts content delivered via satellite, as well as on radio and television.

It’s up to us to make sure that the stories we tell are not just of King Arthur and Bruce Lee, but also of Chell and GLaDOS, of Ramza and Cloud, of Mario and Peach. These are our heroes, and our legends.

Let’s tell some stories.

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  1. May 10th, 2011 at 19:39 | #1

    Now I really want to play The 7th Guest again.

    (See it doesn’t really add anything or start a discussion, but here’s your comment, since you like comments so much. :P)

  2. May 10th, 2011 at 21:56 | #2

    Our heroes and legends sure didn’t say a lot and one had to read the instruction book to understand just why this squat red overall wearing man was jumping upon turtles and mushrooms only to be told, “Your princess is in another castle” seven times. Likewise, without a read in the instructions, that weird elfen guy in green might not have checked out that cave above him to be told, “It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this.” (I do give props to the Zelda design to encourage exploration to achieve reward from the onset)
    It appears a recent trend in gaming (The past five or six years) that a greater thrust for narrative is to be placed in the game, told via cut-scenes or between levels, to allow the players to experience a story being told as they interact and achieve, instead of a beginning of text, the game play and then at the finale, the end text. (See every game of the 8-bit era that isn’t an RPG) Genres that have embraced it are the action-platformers, simulation (historical or otherwise) and role-playing. Ones you might not expect it out of are first-person shooters (Seriously, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 puts together a sprawling story, told to the player avatar, the first person representation of us behind the controller.) and MMO’s (Blizzard’s inclusion of the Wrathgate and the retaking of the Undercity were heralded as the highlights of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion until the Icecrown raid’s end boss fight)
    On the subject of interactivity and narrative in the massively-multiplayer market, several games have come out (Final Fantasy XIV) and are coming out (Star Wars: the Old Republic, Guild Wars 2) that put a focus on the player’s character’s own personal story and quest across this land. the allies one made in past RPG fare are now fellow players with their own stories to tell. FFXIV got slammed with various problems and heavy criticism, so it is uncertain if this direction of story telling will succeed in future endeavors.
    Immersion is important to a degree in video games, a way to buy in to what’s happening on screen and becoming vested in the action and the plot line. A player receives more of it when an NPC looks at the camera and says, “You’ve got to get out of here! NOW!” right before there’s an explosion, as opposed to reading text without any voice work in a chat bubble, with a camera in a three-quarter view showing both the NPC and the player avatar before they have the control returned to them. It’s all about the fourth wall and Portal certainly puts it close, if not behind, the player.
    I can’t wait to see what other games take this example and run with it.

  3. May 10th, 2011 at 22:38 | #3

    Think about what that says though. Link is an adventurer. Despite the danger, he’ll take up arms to quest for a princess. Mario is determined as all hell. I’d give up after two castles. He doesn’t give up until he finds her.

    I don’t particularly like MMOs that try to incorperate personal story into the game. I think my biggest problem with RP realms is that I can’t actually interact with the story in many meaningful ways. I can’t change the course of anything on a global scale in WoW for example. I’m content to play it, but I don’t play on RP servers.

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