If there’s one thing to take from this console generation, it’s that the gaming landscape has changed. Five years ago, who would have thought that we could buy all of our games digitally or that smartphone companion apps would tie us into the game world? Who would have thought that video games would ever rival movies and books as a storytelling medium?

Some might say that last sentence goes a bit too far. While game narratives have certainly improved, critics will point out that when compared to films or novels video games are still playing catch up – as established storytelling mediums. However, when we look closely it becomes clear that video game storytelling isn’t so maligned, it’s just a different beast than what we’ve come to know.

“Immersion.” Every gamer knows the word and many are already sick of hearing it. While “immersion” may have been overused the past few years, it retains importance to this debate. When it comes to storytelling, games have an advantage that neither films nor novels are capable of replicating: interactivity. Mainstream novels and films are dependent on character development in order to keep the reader interested – as they lack the interactive experience that games offer. The video game adaptation of Dimitri Glukhovsky’s novel Metro 2033 is a fitting example. The game itself shares many similarities to the novel, in that the overarching plot of Artyom’s trip to Polis remains largely intact. However, the novel places a great importance on who Artyom is, his relationship with the other inhabitants of the Moscow Metro and his own past. The novel spends time on Artyom’s origin – a plot point that was never touched in the video game adaptation.

Video Game Storytelling Techniques

In the game, the player projects themselves onto Artyom. The game makes use of moral choices, some of which are never clearly stated, and secondary objectives to build Artyom to how the player sees fit. Metro 2033 is also a premiere example of environmental storytelling and, rather than focus on the characters, 4A Games’ depiction of Metro 2033 uses the environment to create exposition and engross players into the world. This is a storytelling device that books – and to an extent, films – are incapable of incorporating.

Interactivity in games is important because, even without strong characters, a game’s story can still find success. Bungie’s Halo franchise comes to mind here as the plot – when compared to more “robust” narrative-focused mediums – lacks depth. The lack of a multi-faceted narrative doesn’t stop gamers from falling in love with Master Chief – who lacks personality and only spouts a few lines of dialogue throughout Combat Evolved. By all accounts, gamers shouldn’t be interested in the Chief, yet when the time came to play as the arguably more interesting Arbiter in Halo 2, fans were upset. This speaks to how powerful interactivity and environmental storytelling can be – as players become attached to games and worlds even if they are objectively “empty.”

This doesn’t mean video games can’t tell stories in a more traditional method. While games like Metro 2033 unravel their stories subtly, other titles like Heavy Rain and Mass Effect put narrative at the forefront of the experience. Both of these games place emphasis on characterization, a common trait of films and novels. However, if Heavy Rain is any indication, this type of storytelling must be executed flawlessly. Heavy Rain, while an ambitious experience, suffers from many flaws in the way it conveys its narrative and, as a result, stumbles in marrying story with the strengths of the medium. Games can pull off this type of storytelling; however, it’s difficult to find a game that can do it without repercussions.

Video Game Characters

However, when games combine both of these methods, the result can be really special. Yager Development’s Spec Ops: The Line is probably the best example of a game that understands the strengths of the medium. The Line shares a few similarities with titles like Heavy Rain and Mass Effect, with the opening two hours placing an emphasis on the characterization of Delta Squad. What does Spec Ops do different? Rather than depending on traditional story methods, the game uses them in combination with environmental storytelling to better convey the narrative. The moral choices and gameplay all work together to pull the character into the world – the story and the mind of Captain Walker.

The next paragraph contains minor SPOILERS for Spec Ops: The Line – as we look closer at a specific moral choice:

In Spec Ops: The Line, the player at one point faces a hostile crowd and, as they begin to close in, Walker (the player) has only one option: shoot. At least, that’s what I thought. In my second playthrough of The Line, it became clear that the player could refuse to the shoot the crowd, shooting towards the sky or ground instead to scare away the citizens of Dubai. This moment serves to push the story of The Line forward, to have the player ask who they are and why they are doing what they are doing. The characters in the game played a role in this moment; although, it was in tandem with a number of gameplay and visual techniques.

Games, as a medium, are still young when compared to films and books. But as the industry grows more popular, we’ll continue to see a shift. Perhaps games as a whole do need to improve their narratives, but as it stands games have some advantages over other entertainment mediums – allowing for users to directly interact with the experience. Games have the capability of telling intriguing stories – we just need more developers who are willing to take risks and push boundaries.

Follow me on Twitter @AnthonyMole.