Disclaimer: The following post contains potential spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, The Last of Us and Alice: Madness Returns.
The reality of a game is that it needs to be played to be experienced. It’s possible to watch somebody else play, whether it’s in your living room or a Let’s Play video on youtube, but the experience is not the same. The act of doing bonds us with the character in a way that has few matches.
We may watch our Arya Starks and Daryl Dixons, and may even identify with them, but none of what they experience feels as though it’s happening to us. When they take actions we don’t agree with, we can yell at the screen and feel the tension of whatever hopeless situation they’ve fallen into, but that’s as far as it goes. We are not passive when playing games – we take on an active role. Whether the characters are our surrogates in the game world or merely roles being played, being responsible changes how we react. Whatever the character does is because of us.
It’s impossible to go past Spec Ops: The Line for an instance of this. It is not a unique story, taking direct cues from both Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. You play as Captain Martin Walker, ostensibly sent in to Dubai on a rescue mission, following a catastrophic sandstorm. Before long, you are shooting at everybody that you come across, and then the game pushes you into a situation where you don’t have a choice, but must commit a heinous act – unleashing a napalm-like substance on other soldiers.
The game itself doesn’t give you a choice in that, though you are free to stop playing. As time goes on, the game becomes more hostile in its loading screens, blaming you moreso than Walker for the calamity wrought. When you find that you’ve inadvertently burned scared civilians alive, woman and children, you feel sick. You can’t complete the game without taking these actions, or the worse ones that follow. You can either continue doing horrible things, or stop playing. All you had to do was stop. The story itself is changed by playing it, since the player is no longer a passive viewer of horrors, but complicit in the events. We don’t feel absolved because the game gave us no way around the actions.
Playing through a game allows us to soak in the game-world. Exploring Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV does not necessarily add to the immersion in the game, but we may already be familiar with cities. There are tones woven through the various missions, though they are not embedded in the city as with some other games. Violence does break out randomly, but there’s no saturation of tone or novelty in setting, as there are in games such as Dishonored or Half-Life 2.
In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, there is an invitation to explore a city, a pair of cities from the future – to see the details that set it apart from what is known of the real world, and to absorb the sights and side-stories that wouldn’t make the cut in a movie with a similar main plot. There are characters throughout the street that present the state of the city, dialogue between NPCs that mirror the events that transpire within the world, and it all culminates in a very distinct setting.
It isn’t just the world that they build, but Adam Jensen too. There are choices for how Jensen responds in conversations, though there is still some autonomy in his reactions. He’s always gruff about whatever he does, but he’s either engaging or dispassionate, adding to the overall tone of the game. That involvement with the character turns him from a potentially stoic protagonist into a complex character, while simultaneously allowing the player a chance to bond with Jensen. It’s also not said outright what his past has been, at least not in great detail. The game does allow Jensen’s past to be explored via his interaction with other characters, often on side missions. It’s an organic way of letting the player learn about him without relying on masses of exposition.
Involving the player makes us bond with the characters. If Sarah at the beginning of The Last of Us was only present in cut-scenes rather than being played, would her character have seemed as likeable or real? Would the emotional investment have been the same if we hadn’t been able to step directly into her shoes (or bare feet) as she sauntered bleary-eyed around the house? The attachment to the character grows quickly, and may not have been as effective if the scenes took place in a film. It’s by playing the game that a richer experience is delivered and by playing the events rather than watching them take place, that richness comes faster. When she dies, we’re hit harder because we’ve been her.
While the punches through the rest of The Last of Us also hit hard, Naughty Dog had the time to build up the relationship between Joel and Ellie, and showed a pre-existing one between Joel and Tess. Being Sarah was necessary for her death to mean as much as it did.
Games actively involve the player in storytelling, by requiring the successful completion of gameplay segments before the next part of the story has been told. Are there any stories that benefit from being played, rather than being watched, as one would with film?
Hong: I could easily talk about Bioshock here but I think that’s a bit too much of an obvious example, so instead I will opt for something a little lesser-known. A game that comes to mind here is Alice: Madness Returns, a straight-forward platformer in which a post-therapy Alice has to come to terms with a horrific fire that killed her family.
Here, it seems there are almost two layers of storytelling: the obvious plot that happens before your eyes, and the story that’s told through the symbolism and metaphors you find in your environment. When you go through each of the levels – each representing an area of Alice’s subconscious, you collect memories and fight enemies that are an embodiment of Alice’s inner demons. Along the way you come across some unobtrusive but unmissable fixtures: disembodied dolls lying torn and bleeding in brightly coloured cots – what does this say about the perversion of her childhood?
Disturbing anatomical posters of babies gestating in the human skull and lungs in the shape of a squid line the walls of the cellar – what is this trying to tell us about her body, her soul? Though all these things invite us to question, there is nothing there to provide us with an answer: as is the way of the human mind. Another big part of the game is collecting ‘memories’ – pieces of dialogue from characters in Alice’s past, which reveal certain events in the lead up to the fire. Some of these memories require the player to go far, far out of their way and risk dying again and again – a metaphor for the way our own memories elude us, and the perils that come with each retrieval.
Had this game been a film instead, not only would the plot not translate very well but I think a lot of the subtleties and metaphors would be lost. By having the player interacting with the environment – running past those weird anatomical posters, jumping over a pile of doll heads, facing off against a malevolent nightmare-beast of Alice’s very own creation, there’s a real sense of being immersed in the world. Do you stop and ponder a piece of bleeding furniture? What do you think it means? Do you go out of your way to collect that memory shining off in the distance? In some ways, your decisions become part of the metaphor that the game is trying to create… something that simply wouldn’t be possible in a film or book.
Tash: There definitely are, and indeed all the games I mentioned earlier fall into this category. I believe there is a sense of ownership that occurs when you are playing a game, in contrast to when you are watching. When you are playing through a game, you are actively choosing how to complete a certain quest, or what happens to certain characters. The decision of what to do may only be a button press in games, but that button press holds more weight than can be communicated through words.
Darren: I’d say most stories benefit from being played. In order to convey tense situations and the need to scavenge to survive, The Last of Us has players sneak around enemies, confront them with maybe only a handmade shiv for defence, and rummage through drawers and cupboards for supplies. Because we are engaging in those actions through the gameplay, we too become desperate scavengers clawing for survival. We don’t just read it or watch it – we experience it. We engage closer with Joel and Ellie’s plight.
Jimmy: There was a great game last year called Spec Ops: The Line. It’s been compared to Heart of Darkness. There comes a point in the game where you must do something horrible in order to advance. It really benefited from breaking down the wall between game and player, so I guess any story where you want the reader to take ownership of their actions, make them feel like the character’s victory is theirs.
The White Phosphorous scene was chilling because I did it, and I knew I did it, and I hated myself for that, but it was that or stop playing and I wanted to know what happened next. I remember that being the first game I didn’t play for fun, but because I HAD to finish it.
Chani: Any story in a game benefits from being played if it’s done well. You spend more time with the characters and immersed in the environment. Bioshock as a movie would be awesome, but the story would have to be chopped and changed to suit the medium. You wouldn’t be able to explore the same places, see the same things, interact with characters and if they took it in a different direction, it wouldn’t really be Bioshock. At the same time though, it’s not like you could make a game out of Schindlers List.
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