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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Video games change the way we experience stories

Stories are told best through the interaction and experience that video games can provide

I love stories. Storytelling is one of the most fundamental aspects of what it means to be human. Our culture is defined by the stories we tell and what we learn from them.

The natural progression of storytelling has evolved from shared tales around a campfire to the movies we see on the silver screen. And the next step in how we will tell stories is already becoming clear: video games and their interactive narratives.

Video games have only been around in their modern form for about 30 years, and they are finally maturing into their optimal storytelling form. The interaction they provide may not be as relaxing as kicking back and watching a movie, but a lot of times I don’t want relaxing stories. I want stories that’ll make me never want to leave that world. I want stories that will keep me up all night because I just can’t get enough.

When I was first introduced to video games, they immediately captivated me. The idea that I could actually be one of the characters in a digital world seemed too good to be true. Whether I was just a frog trying to cross the street in “Frogger or a clone trooper defending facilities on Kamino in “Star Wars: Battlefront II,” my ability to determine the player’s fate made video games captivating. I was the one who “died” or the one who “lost.” The character on the screen was as much me as I was him or her.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but having agency over my experience made all the difference. I could finally understand all of the motivations of the characters in my control. I could understand the frustration of characters, the struggle it takes to beat a game and that final feeling of exhilaration once winning.

The game that opened my eyes to the full potential of storytelling was Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us.

I remember my time with “The Last of Us” well. The story of Joel and Ellie’s journey to end a zombie-like outbreak in the post-apocalyptic United States may not sound special, but it most definitely is. It’s a story I’m proud to say I’ve only experienced once — were I to go back and play it again, I fear I would ruin the distinctness of my memories. Still, its impact has stuck with me nearly a decade later. It’s a dark, beautiful story that feels like a permanent part of me. Joel and Ellie’s tale is the baseline for me as I experience new stories across all mediums.  

One moment that sticks out in my mind is the environmental storytelling I came across about halfway through the game, in the form of a boy’s journal. I found myself in tears as the boy told the story of the outbreak: the first signs of chaos, his school being cancelled, his parents arguing with each other. And ultimately, the boy was forced to drive out to the woods, remove the collar from his dog and let him go free because the wild was where he belonged.

Most people who played the game probably didn’t notice these random pages of a boy’s journal scattered across an ordinary house. But I did. And that’s why that moment was so special to me. That’s why it brought me to tears. Those pages didn’t alter the main narrative of the game, but they were a reminder of what the world had become. Those pages reminded me of the deteriorated humanity in that world.

This elevated emotion and immersion is what makes games so powerful. The ability to make games feel like a personal story, like in these delicate moments about a boy and his dog, is why storytelling feels more visceral in games.

Video games give you the freedom to enjoy immersive and interactive stories and play them in the way that you want. You go from a passive observer to being actively involved at the epicenter of stories when you experience and interact with them.

The future of great storytelling is in video games. And it is only getting better. The industry just needs to do a better job of welcoming new gamers to enjoy this groundbreaking ways of experiencing stories.

Written by: Calvin Coffee –– cscoffee@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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