Readers Write In #605: Video games as a narrative device

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Readers Write In #605: Video games as a narrative device

By Hari PR

We live in times where the word ‘gaming’ has assumed a negative connotation, thanks largely to the proliferation of ‘online’ gaming companies wanting players to stake money and use their ‘skills’ to play. There is another category of gaming, the traditional video game, the creators of which put in a lot more effort in making their games, and treat it as an art (well, for the most part.)

My earliest exposure to video games was as a kid back in the 90s ,when the likes of Mario and ‘Duck Hunt’ were quite popular. These were easy-to-pick-up games, and were quite novel and fun back then. Eventually, though, the novelty wore off, and life happened.

A few decades later, recently, I got myself a new laptop, which was supposedly powerful enough for ‘gaming’. Out of curiosity, I browsed for a cheap game to try, and hit upon one by name ‘Disco Elysium’.

And I was hooked. It’s a murder mystery game, where you get to play the detective in charge of the investigation. And like any murder mystery worth its salt, the focus slowly shifts as the game progresses, and you realise that the murder mystery was only the tip of the iceberg, and the game is trying to make a larger point about society, and as you approach endgame, it hits you that it is the protagonist’s psyche, and his disturbed past that was the real mystery all along. As the game got completed and the credits started to roll, I got the same satisfaction that I would have got upon the end of a gripping movie.

Disco Elysium got me interested in exploring the medium of video games as a narrative and story-telling device, and I found that there are quite a lot of games that can give a good novel or a good movie a run for its money. A unique thing about video games is that there is an element of interactivity- as a player, you get to ‘control’ the narrative, and in some games, your choices impact the final act, whereby the ending in your second play-through could be different from the ending you saw the first time around.

Video games also lend themselves to the interesting concept of ‘interactive movies’. There is this game called ‘Her Story’, where again you play an investigator, and the gameplay just involves searching for video clips by their tags. Each video plays for a few seconds, and as you watch more of these clips, the story starts coming together. In effect, this is only a movie, but one in which each player each player sees a different sequence of scenes. I played this game and asked my partner to play it too, and we arrived at the same ‘climax’, but through different routes. There was a reveal that I figured out only towards the end of my gameplay, which my partner figured out right at the start, and her subsequent searches (and hence the corresponding video clips) were different to mine. I was quite fascinated by the way this game/interactive movie had been planned and acted out (it has only one actor throughout.)

In BR’s articles, one thing that is often pointed out is that a good film is one whose expression cannot be replicated through books or other media (the visual grammar, etc.) There is this game titled ‘Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons’, which does something similar with the video game medium. There is a very touching portion towards the end of the game, and it’s a thing that can only be experienced by actually playing the game. The feeling cannot be reproduced in any other media, be it movies or books. Saying what it is will spoil the entirety of the game, but for the curious, Google is your friend.

Of course, just as there are all types of movies, there are all types of video games. My fascination is with games that tell a story, but there are games where you just mash buttons and fight AI enemies, there are games which are notorious for ‘micro transactions’ (in-game purchases aimed at parting you with your money), and games which are aimed at satisfying gameplay rather than a narrative. 

Video games today are where movies were a few decades earlier, and maybe the ‘Citizen Kane’ of the video game isn’t much farther away. We shall wait and see. For now, though, in the realm of recreational media, it is a fascinating alternative to the book and the movie.

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