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The evolution of storytelling in video games

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The evolution of storytelling in video games

Graphic designed by Marianna Bacallao.

Graphic designed by Marianna Bacallao.

Graphic designed by Marianna Bacallao.

Graphic designed by Marianna Bacallao.

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Video games have evolved as a storytelling medium since the millennium, coming into their own and creating stories only possible through an interactive platform.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Choose-your-own-adventure games have gotten more sophisticated both in terms of story and immersive world building.

“Life is Strange,” one of the most notable examples of the genre, follows the story of Max Caulfield, a high-schooler who gains the ability to turn back time.

The storytelling is largely gameplay-driven. Rather than sitting through cutscenes in between bursts of action, “Life is Strange” gives the player more choice in both dialogue and action, creating a more immersive story that hinges on audience involvement.

Heavy foreshadowing and important clues are hidden in mundane background conversations and graffitied on vans — even forgetting to do something as trivial as checking the computer in a friend’s room can result in a death. The attention to detail in-game begs attention to detail from the player, and the story is better and more engaging for it.   

As these games have become more prevalent, more critical theory has developed on the structure and conventions of the genre. “Undertale,” an indie game developed almost single-handedly by Toby Fox, received critical acclaim and wild popularity for its metafictional takes on choose-your-own-adventure games.

Playing off of standard role-playing game mechanics, the player can gain experience by killing monsters. Where most games implement this without consequence, “Undertale” judges the player harshly for these murders, calling into question why the violence at the center of most video games is never really considered violence by the player.

While there are dozens of choices that affect the player’s progression through the plot, there are three main routes: “Pacifist,” where the player kills no one, “Neutral,” where the player kills some monsters and “No Mercy,” where the player kills everyone.

Trying to restart and explore multiple endings gets tricky because there are certain characters who remember the player’s actions from previous save files.

On “No Mercy” runs, it’s also revealed that these characters have fourth-wall-breaking knowledge on the mechanics of their own game, aware that the player has the ability to restart the story and kill their loved ones as many times as they want.

“Undertale’s” main draw, and what makes it such a fascinating addition to the video game canon, is that the story is largely informed by its game mechanics, making it untranslatable to any other medium.  

Broad Adventures Games

While linear story games don’t allow much room for individualization, developers have still innovated their storytelling techniques in order to hold a player’s attention for 20+ hours.

This article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning “Kingdom Hearts,” a sprawling multi-platform adventure franchise, the story of which has been split over 11 games and developed over a decade.

The complete timeline and story of these games have been notoriously hard to explain, mostly because it’s a series meant to be experienced rather than told. The narrative stops holding the audience’s hand early on, forcing them to think critically about what they’re shown and not shown.

The strongest games of the series have begun in the middle of a climactic turning point, often to the player’s confusion, and have been good about withholding crucial information until the exact right time to reveal it. These storytelling techniques, combined with the games’ affinity for hiding foreshadowing in plain sight, rely on the player’s intuition and attention to detail to tell its story.

Puzzle Games and Platformers

Expanding off of their repetitive predecessors, modern puzzle games and platformers are packaging their basic mechanics within complex, compelling stories. One of the most prominent recent examples is the hit game “Portal 2.”

An interesting facet of the “Portal” franchise is that the puzzles are directly tied to the story. The player character wakes up with amnesia in an abandoned laboratory. In order to understand what’s going on, the player must use a dimension-warping gun to progress through the laboratory.

The “Portal” games interweave puzzles with the plot to ensure the player feels a need to complete the puzzles and move the story forward. Getting frustrated and quitting “Portal” games isn’t an option if the player wants to find out what happens at the end.

Over the course of the last decade, video games have emerged as a diverse and engaging medium for storytelling, creating stories only a video game could tell.

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The evolution of storytelling in video games