If I were to ask someone about the literary merit of some video game’s narrative, I’d typically get either the blank stare of some worn academic or the confusion of a person who’s still seeing nothing but Pong or “Your princess is in another castle,” or a rolling bout of laughter. Narrative? In a video game? It’s typically just some thinly-veiled spiel that waters down to “beat the monsters, beat the game,” right? Nothing worth any significant dissertation.
While I’m admittedly biased towards the video game form, I’d argue that’s not entirely true. While many games’ plots fall into this hackneyed hole (I am so, so sorry, Pokémon, but this is you), storytelling in video games has developed in unique ways that ought to be appreciated. Take Undertale for example – a complete subversion of the “beat the monsters, beat the game” cliche. The player can choose to either befriend or kill the monsters, and the player’s choices affect which storyline the game follows. A story-focused game, it plays out incredibly like a choose-your-own-adventure book, much as games in general do (the player character, differing outcomes based on choices, a general storyline with variance within it).
The characters within it, though, are more fleshed out than some literary characters; over the course of a game’s several storylines, the player comes to find out that the skeleton they first meet as a comic character is not only familiar with their ability to save and load the game (a meta sort of story that I’ve never seen in any other form, especially powerful in its video game because the player themselves is the one using these mechanics), but a has a very serious case of apathy related to the player’s time related antics. Most of the characters in the short game go through more character development over its course than Bella Swan does in four books.
With the recent rise of entire subgenres dedicated to what is, essentially, prop-assisted storytelling in second person, the complexity of the narratives that feature in video games has skyrocketed past Princess Peach’s kidnapping addiction.
(In terms of comparison, the most clichéd fairy tales can receive considerably more scholarly attention than even the most unique plotlines in video games.)
It’s worth noting, too, that video games offer unique ways to present narratives that are physically impossible (or clunky to implement) in other mediums. The placement of optional NPCs (non-playable characters) and areas throughout the world offer the possibility of different experiences for different players. The element of choice video games offer brings wonders to world-building and replayability. Overall, the role of choice in reader immersion is a technique almost exclusive to the video game form of narrative (the exception being the unfortunately overlooked choose-your-own-adventure books), and a powerful one.
While I won’t claim that all video games’ narratives are underappreciated works of literary genius, I’d argue that the way they deliver their stories is worth study.
By: Xenia Greniuk