Throughout our history as humans, we find a common theme throughout cultures, races, and even times. People have always told stories. It is who we are. Whether it was the Greeks telling legends about their gods, Romans telling war stories about their legionnaires, Colonials telling stories about how bad life was in England, Indians sharing knowledge through stories of spirits and family, or modern day people telling stories about anything through books, movies, or video games, storytelling remains a constant throughout civilization.
Focus on the medium of video games, though. There has never been another medium like video games in all history. It is a glorious thing that unites both the storytellers, developers, and the listeners, players, into a grey area that allows power to both sides. A developer can try his hardest to control every nuance of the story as it is told and may even be able to, although I would probably find such a game incredibly boring. However, the game, or story, is still only viable through the player’s experiences as the character. That said, it is still the developer who set the theme, characters, and overall guiding structure of that story.
In open world games, I can choose to abandon all responsibility and go on a completely different route. In more linear games, I still have to choose, in most games, how to progress. I went lethally stealthy in Deus Ex. I chose heavier weapons and explosives in Killzone 3. The beauty of gaming is that it revolves around choice.
Yes, there are games that offer a much more restricted choice and really constrict you to fewer options as you progress. Other times, it progresses as a shallow progression line that offers little story.
This is why I don’t, personally, like sports games as much. Sure, I can see a story develop as you create your own player and take him all the way from freshman year in college to the NFL Super Bowl, Pro Bowl, and retirement. People might become a little attached to that character they have worked on for so long. I just see a shallow story that offers little depth, and not much to build on emotionally. Again, it is another choice in which games to play.
I love football, and I’m completely certain that every last person who has any sense would agree that the Eagles are the best pro-team, but in video games, the only deep story in a sports game that I have found so far was in Fight Night: Champion. That was an amazing sports story that drew me into the game, which felt more like an amazing Boxing movie that I got to control. It comes full circle to what sets video games apart. Delving into these stories adds so much more attachment and connection with the characters than I have ever felt in a movie.
People have enjoyed movies for a long time. The hard-hitting emotional dramas that make us cry, the comedies to lighten our mood, they are all just stories we lose ourselves in. Video games are the next step with the degree of control and, in many games, customization allows players to really invest their own ideals, preferences, and even morals into the story we experience.
I’ve watched people play Skyrim and never steal a single thing. Their morality dictates that stealing is wrong and they won’t do it. Even in a game where, if they are successful, there is no gauge or bar to measure their moral choices like in other games. On the other hand, a friend, who I know would never steal in reality, has a Khajiit character that I’d never allow in my house. Turn your eye for one second and he’s already stolen everything but the kitchen sink, and he only left that because it was attached.
These stories allow us to explore and test things we might never do in our world because the rules are different in the digital worlds, simply because they are digital. Make a bad decision in a game and kill the wrong person? RESET.
Even if you don’t reset, that freedom to know that it holds no ramifications on us in this world seems to bring out many things that we would not normally do. The flipside is that the anonymity also brings out those hecklers you may or may not be annoyed by in online gaming. Many things get said or typed online in games that make me think, “Who are these people? I’ve never met anyone so crude and lewd in life.” You don’t know who they are, so why do they care?
This freedom is given by developers to help us understand a story or simply explore it as a complete test zone freeing us from consequences. Let’s not forget what our friendly neighborhood Spider-man says, though, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”
It might seem strange to think about, but consider tribal cultures like the Indians. You could usually find the storytellers to be chiefs or elders. The stories were commonly held and told by those with power. Translate that into today where stories still hold a lot of power. If you think stories don’t have power and affect on people, consider the recent petition that raised over $80,000 in order to change the ending of Mass Effect 3. You’re position in that debate doesn’t matter. That’s a good bit of money which demonstrates how heated and focused the debate has become. It also brings to light the idea that people are emotionally, physically, and even monetarily invested in the stories they hold to be close and important.
So, developers, this is your world now. Tell your stories and explore the depths of humanity in your games. Remember that people not only pay attention to those stories, they take them to heart. The Storytellers can no longer hide and say that a game is just a game and means nothing. We are a civilization built upon and reliant upon our stories to help us escape our world, explore ourselves, entertain us, and question our world. You are not just telling a story of a fictitious guy who may have changed the path and sway of the entire American Revolution, you are telling a story that inspires us to believe one man can make a difference, you are telling us a story about the honor and nobility of a man who may have put something else first and realized there was something bigger than himself.
We as humans need stories to survive. They help us construct who we are, what we value, and how we morally gauge things. Respect the right and responsibility of storytelling and entertainment as much more than meaningless.