The universal domination of video game storytelling by the methods of film came as no surprise. Every art form begins imitating its predecessors while the creators, critics and general public try to figure out what exactly this new toy does. Early films amounted to little more than plays. Television shows mimicked vaudeville and theatre. The earliest literature imitated the forms of spoken poetry. Each of these mediums only thrived in an artistic sense once it took command of its unique capabilities. Until then, no one except for a few oddballs and diehard fans will take the medium’s artistic merit seriously.
As mentioned before, video gaming seems incredibly close to reaching that point. At the vanguard of this movement stands Mass Effect. This series created a new standard in interactivity via the unprecedented amount of customization and choice given to the player throughout the series. Perhaps because the players and industry realize how much they enjoy the greater interaction between them and the game, the gamer community has taken to lambasting any games that lack such player control (even the Mass Effect series itself when the ending left them feeling cheated). Even overall positive reviews of Final Fantasy XIII lambasted the lack of choice or interaction between game and audience. Because of this backlash, Square-Enix has begun to move away from the linear, movie-like stories of the past Final Fantasy games in the subsequent XIII-2 and promises even more in the long-awaited Versus XIII. Atlus’s recent Catherine and earlier Persona 3 and 4 further reinforced the importance of player choice in shaping the story of each game, showing that Japan can change with the times as well.
A game does not even need immense amounts of dialogue or complicated plots to tell a story interactively. Dark Souls stands out as an example of how to do so on a more subtle level. The entire environment and all of the characters create a feeling of isolation. The immense, empty ruins and forest surround you at all times. Everything–even plants–might try to kill you. You can occasionally receive help from outside sources, but such assistance is fleeting and leaves you vulnerable to invasions from players far deadlier than any monster. The NPCs in the hub area will all either betray you or turn into mindless undead without warning. Players are trained to distrust everything and everyone and constantly worry about whatever terrible death lies around the corner. At no point does the game feel it necessary to explicitly say, “You are completely alone,” but it does not need to; the interactions between the player and game elicit the feeling.
Other methods we have started to see are interactive cutscenes, some of which have begun to blur the line between cutscene and gameplay. Heavy Rain made an entire game out of such quicktime events that combined with permanent deaths to give the events a sense of immediacy and draw the player emotionally into the action. The infamous knife fight in Resident Evil 4 had more in common with a mini-game than anything else, not to mention it realistically demonstrated the deadliness of such combat via the relentless stream of quick reactions, each one necessary to avoid death. The even more infamous microwave hallway in Metal Gear Solid 4 uses something as simple as button-mashing to make players feel at least a hint of the desperation Snake does. They start to want it as much as Snake does because nobody wants to have to redo that hallway AND the preceding cutscenes again. By the end of the hallway, the most intense button-mashing only allows Snake to weakly crawl just as the player’s fingers and thumbs start cramping up.
All these artistic methods will become the new standard in game design in coming years. Even games that strive for awesomeness instead storytelling will adopt them, much as how we find special camera techniques and effects in action blockbusters and stylistic, artsy dramas. Players demand the ability to play their games rather than watch them. Looking to the past of older art forms shows that this transition is inevitable. Looking to the present shows it has already begun.