What Shakespeare Can Teach Us About Game Storytelling

SPOILER ALERT: The ending of a four hundred year old play based on actual historical events that you probably read in high school is spoiled.

2013 was a great year for video game storytelling.  Not simply because some incredibly written, acted, and designed games were released, but because many discussions regarding game stories weren’t concerned simply with how well games told their stories, but with how they told them.  The integration of gameplay and storytelling seemed to finally become a staple of video game discussions.  You couldn’t read a forum post or comments section for games like Bioshock Infinite or The Last of Us without seeing somebody use the term “ludonarrative dissonance”.  It’s common when talking about a game to describe the gameplay and narrative as two discrete elements, to say, “The game’s story is bad, but the gameplay is good,” or vice versa, but over the past year it seems that conversations increasingly focused on how one interacted with the other.

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Length and Pacing in Games

The length of a game is always one of the first topics discussed when a new game comes out.  How long does it take to beat?  How long if you want to do all the extra stuff?  These questions are usually asked under the assumption that the more time it takes to get through a game, the better.  We gamers want the most bang for our buck, no matter what.  No other mass visual media really draws this question like games do.  We have an expectation that a movie is going to be between an hour-and-a-half and three hours.  A TV show lasts either thirty minutes or an hour.  Obviously the difference between games and these other mediums is that games can have such a wide range of lengths.  The differences in length between movies or shows seem rather minimal when contrasted with the wide variety of game lengths.  It’s not uncommon to see two hour video games and it’s not uncommon to see games that last hundreds of hours.

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Gaming’s “Game of the Year” Problem

Spike TV’s annual gaming awards show, now called VGX (putting a meaningless X in the title to make it seem “cool” is the least annoying part of the show) aired on Saturday. A quick search online will reveal that the general consensus is that the show was an unbelievably terrible train wreck of unfunny, insulting quips at gaming’s expense and awkward interviews with industry execs so they could sell their latest products.  But I’m not interested in getting into that. One, because you can find many many other people talking about it in great detail and offering a lot of great solutions to try and fix the show elsewhere and, two, because I think the show is a symptom of a larger problem that has created other problems in the game industry.

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The Metal Gear Solid Torture Scene

Video games are growing up.  We’re dealing with more mature stories, we’re addressing important topics like racism, sexism, crime, violence, love and so on, and bridging the gap between those stories and themes to gameplay is more and more becoming a major talking point when discussing games as art.  Say what you will about the Metal Gear Solid series’s storytelling (and I certainly plan to at some point), but there’s one sequence in the original Metal Gear Solid that I think is the perfect example of using gameplay to tell a story, to make you feel for a character, and to experience what that character is going through.  It’s a fantastic use of video gaming’s interactivity to make players empathize with a character and further an understanding of an important and still relevant issue today.

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Go See Frozen

I’ve been called cynical, snobby, even curmudgeonly, because I tend to view movies with a more critical eye than my friends and family.  No offense to video games, but movies have been and are my first love.  I’ve never had any other entertainment or art medium affect me as deeply as film does.  So years of watching all types of movies and reading about criticisms, techniques, and styles I tend to look at movies more analytically than just whether I liked it or not.

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