The Stories of Stories: Not an empty play

I have a secret. I am addicted to a good narrative … It’s funny because video games aren’t the first place you would expect to find any resemblance of a balanced and well executed narrative. Its very name, game, suggests something trivial, something purely for entertainment. In fact, I have been discouraged in past years from writing about games just because it doesn’t sound like an intelligent or serious topic.”

Take a ride in my time machine of geeky shame, will you? I wrote this in 2011 in response to Tufts’ supplementary essay question “celebrate your nerdy side.” While this does show how alarmingly little my interests have changed since age 18, today I am armed with the analytical knowledge Tufts has given me, and as promised from last week, I’m going to keep talking about video games and stories in a prolonged act of rebellion against my high school college counselor.

I still stand by it now, that the idea of the video “game” is slowly waning, or at least fracturing. There are always going to be games that focus on competition, whether it be between you and a friend or the AI. But even in games in which there’s some big baddie to beat, the real enjoyment rarely comes from achieving your ultimate goal. Games have become increasingly focused on exploration, relationships, a richly written environment, dynamic characters and, of course, a great story. Soon, I think, there will be games, and there will be something akin to “interactive experiences.” For me, even if I find gameplay to be fun or challenging, I really can’t get into it unless I care about what is happening. The game is how I play; the story is why I do it.

Large scale productions have their own writers’ rooms, just like TV shows or movies. Like non-traditional indie games such as the one I discussed last week, AAA (industry jargon for “blockbuster” titles with large budgets) role playing and action games such as the “Mass Effect,” “Dragon Age,” “Fallout” and “Bioshock” series deliver complicated, layered stories with dozens of moving parts in sci-fi, fantasy or alternate history settings, which the player must uncover on their own — often aided by excellently written characters with their own arcs and struggles, with which the player must help. But while these games are long and advanced by combative action, some games such as “The Walking Dead” and “The Wolf Among Us” (both by Telltale Games) have been released in episodes and are advanced primarily through dialogue and weighted decision making, branching the game off into several different possible paths and endings.

According to a 2014 survey published by the Entertainment Software Association, adult men, followed by adult women, now outnumber teenage boys in the gaming demographic, despite teenage boys and children being games’ stereotypical marketing targets. Following the lead of people who actually have money to spend, developers are now appealing to adult tastes in order to sell their products. AAA games can go for $60 or more upon release. The price tag is steep, as many games spend years and millions of dollars in development, but it’s well worth it for the hours (30, 50, sometimes up to 90) of story content they deliver. Perhaps it is because, as adults, we learn that that action without meaning is ultimately empty.