Sunday Salon: Narrative computer games

The Sunday SalonI wouldn’t call myself a gamer by any stretch, but I’ve always played the occasional computer game. I was quite young when we had our first home computer (possibly an Amiga? I don’t really remember) and it was pretty much just for playing games on (a PC followed a few years later with its multifunctionality). I was never an obsessive gamer, tending to give up if I failed a few times.

Computer games have been enough a part of my life that I have never considered them a bad thing or in any way at odds with my love of reading. But it’s only in recent years that I’ve started to interrogate their value as a narrative artform. They certainly are an artform, that’s without question for me, but are they a form of storytelling? And if so, are they a good format for stories?

Well, yes and yes, though of course there are good and bad examples and even outright exceptions. Creativity is about stretching and breaking rules, right? Computer games combine visual art with immersive stories, putting the player in control, to varying degrees. So in a way they’re a cross between watching a film and reading a book; maybe the book has to be a choose-your-own-adventure for the analogy to work. Through Tim’s computer-game playing I’ve come to learn a lot about them, while rarely playing myself. (Tim could write a much more expansive, informed essay on this subject, but he’s not likely to ever do that, so I’m plunging in.)

Depending on the game, you may or may not even notice the storytelling. The Tekken games have quite complex stories, with each character given a history, but that’s pretty much confined to the intro (and occasional cut scene) and then you start fighting your friends and the story is forgotten. You can often skip the intro that a writer somewhere has laboured over and jump straight to the gameplay. However, with other games the story is integral and the game is played to follow the story to its conclusion. The success of those games lies as much, or possibly more, with the quality of the story as with the gameplay. Tim’s favourite examples of these include: Heavy Rain, Max Payne, F.E.A.R., Half-Life and Resident Evil. Then there are RPGs, which give you multiple smaller stories within the larger one, and even the larger one can go multiple ways, Tim’s favourites being Baldur’s Gate 2, Fallout 3, Borderlands 2 and Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. And there are games cleverly designed so that new stories are formed by the way you play them: Civilization, Frontier: Elite 2, Minecraft, etc.

Gone Home is a narrative computer game published by Fullbright.
Gone Home is a narrative computer game published by Fullbright.

Out of all the above, the only one I’ve played is Civilization, and the last time I played that was probably 8 or 9 years ago. However, in recent years I’ve discovered (again, thanks to Tim) that I like games made up of small, self-contained stories (preferably with very simple gameplay!). From the point-and-click comedy Sam and Max series to what have started to be called narrative games, such as the haunting Dear Esther, I can happily spend a Sunday afternoon absorbed in these stories, just as I might be absorbed in a book. They can be emotionally draining, by making you the person who has to make tough decisions – an excellent example being The Walking Dead. Or they can make you more of an investigator piecing together a story that has already happened, as in the very spooky Gone Home. I’m looking forward to playing new release Her Story today, which is apparently in this latter vein.

I would love to hear more discussion of the artistry that goes into games. They are so rarely mentioned in discussions of culture or storytelling, and that’s a real shame and a genuine omission. Of course, there are people and websites working to counter this by taking computer games and reviews of them seriously, notably Rock, Paper, Shotgun and journalists John Walker and Cara Ellison. Check them out.

Do you play computer games? And if you do, do you stick to story-free Tetris and quiz games, or do you, like me, search out the good stories?