Video games stand apart from other forms of entertainment with one major distinguishing trait: interactivity. Films, books, art and music are all capable of telling an engaging story through the suspension of disbelief. All of these media forms utilize common elements of storytelling, and they are all capable of creating an immersive world. With this focus on storytelling and immersion, it stands to reason that videogames, with interactivity at their forefront, are capable of creating something much greater.
A simple narrative can be made so much more complex by nature of player interaction. Looking back at the early days of gaming, when storytelling took a back seat to gameplay, many players internalized their own narratives. Sure, Mario titles may have just been running from left to right across the Mushroom Kingdom to save Princess Toadstool, but to a lot of people, it was about much more than that. As technological capabilities advanced, so too did the potential for more explicit narratives. Those players who projected their own ideas onto the game in front of them were presented with solid ideas and characters, and worlds unlike any other to explore. Gameplay was, is, and always should be the primary consideration in game design, but never has it been more apparent that a strong narrative focus can add so much more to a game.
As the RPG genre took off, that narrative focus shifted front and center. Most early RPGs were presented in a linear fashion, pushing the player from point A to point B with various tangential destinations strewn along the path. Player interaction was present, but limited in scope, at least in regards to in-game mechanics. Yet to gamers of this era, there was an unmistakable charm to setting off on your own journey and playing a part in how the following events transpired. The fact that everything was already set in stone rarely weighs in on your mind when agency is handed directly to you, the player.
The ever-common silent protagonist played a large part in immersing players, and has remained a staple in gaming to this day. With the use of this trope, players were presented with a blank slate to project themselves on to. In most stories, a weak protagonist can utterly derail the narrative potential. Nothing is more distracting than a lead character with weak motivations or inconsistent traits. A silent protagonist presents two major benefits to storytelling in games. First and foremost is a direct point of contact for the player. This makes it easier for the player to engage in the world around them without relying on an existing character. The second point is that it allows the surrounding characters and world to speak for themselves. The protagonist may take a back seat to the action unfolding around them, because creating an immersive, believable world is the end goal. Forcing the player to be front and centre can detract from world-building, so this opportunity for development is very important.
Of course, silent protagonists aren’t the only type of main character around. Writing a strong protagonist is much more difficult than just leaving it up to the player, but that extra work can pay off. An engaging lead character can add a great deal of weight to the narrative, and can even serve as motivation for driving the player forward. However, video games manage to bring something new to the table, again through player interaction. Morality systems in games have been around for a while now, but the depth that they can add to a narrative is unquestionably major. On the surface, it can be a simple question of “Will Commander Shepard be an irreverent prick today?” but the real meat of the system goes much deeper than that. In any other medium, the actions of a character should be determined by previously established encounters and traits. The interactivity of videogames means that everything is considerably more flexible. Is your vow to uphold justice unflinching? Will any amount of good in the world quell your insatiable lust for destruction? That is entirely up to you.
This presents an enticing question to me though. What drives your morality in videogames? Videogame morality is generally measured on a sliding scale, with good, bad, and varying shades of grey in between. A well-written story and properly-developed world would generally serve to deter negative actions, but the ‘renegade’ route remains an ever-popular choice for gamers. Is it simple wish fulfilment in a world free of consequences to explore those occasionally questionable options? For those seeking solely to uphold justice and a high moral standard, why? Is it out of obligation for the world you’re fighting to save, or is it just that difficult to defy your stringent moral standards?
The answer to all those questions is that there is no answer. The flexible nature of narrative in games means that, in the end, there is no such thing as right or wrong. Your choices and actions are simply that. It’s this flexibility that makes a solid, story-driven video game stand out to me among this saturated world of entertainment. In the end, these are our stories to tell, our journeys to embark upon. Even in the absence of narrative, we provide our own.