Art forms, Storytelling and Video Games

By Ewa Giera 

As we all know, storytelling has been around for a pretty long time. Over the years, it’s moved on from oral tradition, early forms of written, phonetic English, Shakespeare, over to the modern novel and short stories, and as some seem to believe, ending at film. However, the public is largely split over whether film is the endgame for artistic storytelling or whether there’s something more waiting for us to get noticed.

The ‘What is Art?’ discourse has largely dismissed video games as a standalone medium. This is partly due to the initial target audience being mainly children. Some, like Roger Ebert, state that video games cannot ever be an art form due to them being just ‘gameplay’, meaning that their interactivity prevents them from ever becoming art. However, looking from the point of view of a storyteller, games present themselves to us as a powerful storytelling platform without us having to dig deep.

Many mainstream games have relied on linear storytelling, a technique which is now becoming replaced by multi-choice systems – this allowed for a straight forward story, sometimes movie-like, although not in every case. Games like The Last of Us employ this very technique to its limits – allowing for a simply told, but also accessible story which becomes emotionally effective as we explore a man’s relationship between his present and his past. The game’s space for interaction isn’t damaging for the platform as an art form – as Ebert would say. When you hold the controller and play as the protagonists of The Last of Us, you become immersed in their world, you feel their struggles, their fears, you fight alongside them. This makes the film-like, subtler elements – such as the giraffe symbolism – much stronger when they cannot be conveyed through gameplay. The involvement of the player is still there and is undeniably amplified as compared to any other medium.

The element of interaction between the player and the game itself has been launched beyond any capabilities of the previous art forms with the arrival of choice-based storytelling in the gaming world. Heavy Rain is perhaps one of the first more innovative examples, where the gameplay is more simplistic in favour of the visuals, cinematic camera angles and the emphasis on plot choices driving the game. As we follow the protagonist of the game on a journey to find his kidnapped son, we find that controls change according to his state of mind – if he’s nervous, the options you can pick from jitter around the screen, blur when he’s drunk. It all adds to the immersion the player experiences along the way.  The choice-based system also maximises the replayability value – the choices you make drive the plot, sometimes skipping entire parts of the game in order to deliver a completely different scenario and ending each time you play.

Even games that are much more gameplay focused than Heavy Rain can be viewed as forms of art. Papers, Please – an indie puzzle game revolving around the life of an immigration officer working at a border control checkpoint in a fictional soviet country – demonstrates that a very simple and simultaneously intensive game mechanic becomes a catalyst for a display of a meaningful set of themes. Throughout the game, you are posed with many choices that can question your sense of morality, ranging from willingly splitting families apart, allowing human trafficking, or permitting entry to terrorists who believe that a revolution is in order to begin to improve the country. In this way, the game’s interactivity becomes the way for the art form to emerge. It asks important questions like who you are and to what extent are you willing to follow the law.

Finally, some games, ranging from Yume Nikki to The Path offer themselves as an artistic storytelling experience with the simplest gameplay possible. The Path follows the story of the Little Red Riding Hood, embodied as five girls, where each of them is tasked, one by one, to find the Grandmother’s house and stay on the path. However, as you stray off, you are bound to lose yourself within the forest without an ability to return, and then, eventually, to find the wolf – an embodiment of a personal demon, different for every girl. The best way to enjoy the game is to play it yourself – instead of focusing on gameplay just allowing the player to experience the storyline. This way, whilst becoming somewhat more cinematic, these games are entirely silent and without a clear end-point. Their themes become the most prominent element and demand the attention from the player. These themes demand an interaction, demand involvement instead of just asking for it, emphasising video gaming as the ultimate platform for creating art.

Both mainstream and indie games have become immensely popular with both young and older audiences alike, and it’s no wonder why. Video games have undeniably become one of the most approachable, relatable mediums that allow you to express yourself whist still maintaining authorial control. This freedom of expression and the sense of relationship between the author and the audience doesn’t destroy its potential for being an art form – rather, it acts as a centrepiece, a catalyst that launches even the simplest narratives into an emotional maelstrom. Regardless of how video games are seen by the critics, by the press, it is vital to note that there’s a reason why they’ve become so popular. And this reason is precisely the interactivity.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

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