Why Narrative Gaming Should Be Considered It’s Own Media Platform

(c) Irrational Games / 2K, image by Darhymes
(c) Irrational Games / 2K, image by Darhymes

I have been a gamer in the past. You know, the ‘when I was young’ times. Those times seem to be so long ago, although I still haven’t reached my forties yet. But still, at one moment, it just feels like it is not the pastime for you anymore. I loved playing my games, and as followers of this blog may know, I was especially fond of the old school adventure games. But then my career happened, got married, started a family… life happened. And at that moment, I felt indeed too grown up with games. You know the time when the youth is starting to consider you being an old fart… well, that time.

My wife and I moved to the US, I continued my career here, and besides using a laptop for all my development work, in 2007 I decided to buy a normal desktop computer again. Pretty much the fastest that money could buy at the time, and decided to buy two games with it. I have told this story before and won’t do that all again. But it is the last couple of years that I actually really can say that a game has found it’s own place in the world of media as a narrative medium.

I came across the following article why Mass Effect should become a television series and realized that the author, Justin Bolger, is absolutely right. But even if there would be a way how to adapt the complete galaxy built out in these games in even the time span of a television series, there would not be enough time to go so in-depth to give the whole created world it’s space. For people who do not play games anymore, or simply never got into Mass Effect, not only the story, but the whole galaxy, is so detailed, well written, and all based on such an amount of history, that there is a whole new level of depth to be uncovered.

Usually, when a movie was produced that was based on a game, you would more or less know that it would be a sure-fire-failure. Many popular games simply don’t have the narrative to build into a movie experience. The platforms of games and movies are simply not compatible. And most of the games that were actually picked up to be made into movies, were usually not the ones you would really want to see made into them.

And that is how many people who are not known with the world of games still look at it. Violent shooting games, brain dead stories, zombies, killing, rape and drug abuse. And for a while, I actually started to belong to these people, when first-person-shooters were just all about killing, and just mindless action. But when I came back into playing games again from my about 8-year hiatus, I noticed it is not a fair point of view. The Elder Scrolls series, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fallout, BioShock… just to name a couple, are simply stunning pieces of art. Well written, well acted, and even though violence has it’s place in these games, it comes with a moral valuation. That is that for people who really get what it is about, the violence is not always the right way to go. Also, more and more of these games really put a moral value again in the story and the way how the game works out, behave bad and you will suffer the consequences.

Pfffff… I hear many say. What consequences can that be? Well, let me tell you that some studios are so good, and I mean so very good at writing and putting emotion in their story lines based on your actions, that behaving morally wrong can hit you hard. Very hard. When in Mass Effect, for example, you lose a companion because of your stupid behavior, it is not something that is just something you push aside. And sometimes you have to make choices that really makes you pause, and rethink, because the whole relationship you have built up, the experiences of the story, just make the decision so very hard.

Now, there are of course a majority of people who simply do not care. They don’t play games for the story, they indeed just like the game playing experience, be it something violent like Grand Theft Auto, or something small and casual like Plants vs. Zombies. It is all about the experience you are looking for. Just like that you won’t read a love story if you want to read a horror novel.

But it has become obviously clear that a lot of game studios, AAA and indie ones, are targeting a smart audience, who like to be made to think. And love to be surprised and amazed and shocked on an emotional level. It is why I personally loved the ending of the original Mass Effect 3, which I though was the perfect ending of the trilogy. And I never played the extended edition; if a story has a satisfying ending for me, I don’t need to experience a rewrite.

But I also have been getting into The Witcher games the last year, catching up with the original game from 2007, and the newer one from 2010, which was the first time I noticed that there was a real fantasy story but completely oriented for the adult-player. The situations were different, motives were more real-life, and behavior felt very real. It was not made into some romantic view of Tolkien, but a harsh world that felt awfully real. Moral, motives, backstabbing, deceit, treason, politics, rebellions, sex and religion… a very dangerous mix worked out particulairly well. Especially the prologue of The Witcher 2 is simply amazing and unlike anything I had played before.

But my best example of how well and grown up the narrative of games have become is by mentioning BioShock Infinite. A game I picked up at Steam a couple of weeks ago. And I am not an avid gamer. I play in the nightly hours in the weekends when I am not spending time with my family. So only a couple of hours a week. But it is something to spend it with a game that really touches me. And I had heard BioShock Infinite was good, beautiful and unique. But I didn’t expect it to be like it actually was. I was actually held back because I know it was a first-person shooter, which I am not a fan of. But I gave it a go… and bit by bit I got intrigued.

Infinity was so incredibly beautiful, but the beauty, as it turned out, was part of the narrative itself. A world that looks so beautiful, sounds so peaceful, became the most terrifying décor in line of the story. The whole ‘shooter’ concept just became a way to keep the game element in there while being immersed into a story line about religion, racism, dimensions and space-time, and something very personal and very emotional which I will not get into.

But the more the story shows it strange and twisted backbone, the décor also changes in this terrifying version of itself, without ever losing it’s beauty. And eventually a story line that actually is not finished unless you play it a second time. Which I felt immediately compelled to do, since the ending is such an innovative plot, so extremely impressive but also very complicated, that you find more answers to the story by playing it again and seeing the details fall into place.

Narrative gaming doesn’t have it’s place in the movies, or even in a lengthy television series. The fact that it might feel that everything is about you, because you are part of the story line, makes it more emotional than a passive experience like TV or movies will ever be able to achieve in this way. It allows for a different kind of story telling, and I have to admit, in the last couple of years, I had more shocking and emotional experiences playing games than watching movies.

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