Video games have, as of late, become the medium for telling a story, next to Netflix. Stories have become increasingly heavy, increasingly unique, and increasingly higher budget in this realm. And that’s great. But in a lot of cases, most games never actually use the medium to their advantage; stories, instead, are awarded as merely a prize for finishing a level. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget you’re not watching a movie. And that can be an issue.
Games have great potential to tell a story in a way movies just can’t, and not in the sense that publishers and producers won’t allow it, but because (just like some movies) the stories just can’t be told in another medium. Fewer and fewer games actually use this to their advantage. So let’s list some games which do.
I’m usually not a fan of RPGs. Not in the sense that there’s anything wrong with them, but rarely can I ever get immersed in their world like they expect me to. Either it’s the dialogue options or the dialogue itself, or the world just doesn’t feel quite real in some way. But the worst is when you’re bombarded with terminology and expected to know what they’re talking about or learn it the hard way: reading. (Shudder)
Vampire: The Masquerade does the same thing, but it does it in an interesting way: It makes fun of you for it. The characters repeatedly call you out as a newborn vampire who has no idea what he’s doing, and they lead you in circles and never give you straight answers almost like they’re toying with you. Because they are toying with you. V:TM-B confuses you deliberately so that you can latch on to whatever rope you can find and hope it pulls you to safety, and it does something magical with it. You get to really experience their world and in the short amount of time you spend in it, you get to grow in it. It becomes incredibly personal, actually reliving your avatar’s “childhood” in a video game for an extended period of time, and really makes the conspiracies and subplots feel like they concern you, even if in the grand scheme of things, some of them don’t.
My experience with Vampire: The Masquerade had me start off really intimidated, confused, relying on everybody else for help and answers, but by the end of it, between trying to keep everything in check and trying to keep myself from getting killed, I grew up a bloodthirsty badass who slowly walks away from explosions and never teams up with anyone. Technically, it was one of the bad endings. but it was no less satisfying to walk away from that blown up building and walk off into the sun...rise?
One of the most interesting aspects of Max Payne is also one of those things that you might not actually notice the first time around. Ironically, it’s television, the world’s most demanding attention hog.
Max Payne is an action-packed third person shooter which has you stylishly dodging and dishing out bullets in slow motion through the snowy winter streets of New York City. It’s a very story-heavy noir game that doesn’t skimp on the gameplay, and even has the titular protagonist provide world-weary, cynical commentary on everything around him.
The television repeatedly plays footage of all sorts, most notably the children’s cartoon Captain BaseballBat-Boy and the soap opera Lords and Ladies. Both are usually seen after a shootout between you and some armed thugs. There’s a reason for that.
Max Payne was once a respectable family man with a bright future ahead of him. Anybody who played the game (or even heard of it) would know that’s a recipe for everything to go very wrong. Long story short, the protagonist finds himself in the middle of the criminal underworld with no hopes of ever escaping the dreary reality, even if he killed everyone ever involved. It’s not a question of whether he comes out alive or not, it’s a question of the main character’s psyche, which is completely shattered, and only highlighted by the innocence implied by these TV shows. They are a constant reminder of just how dark and grim Max’s world has become by contrasting it with TV shows that are probably watched by happy, blissfully ignorant families around New York City. The fact that Max can never actually sit down and watch these shows at least via cutscenes except for a single time shows a sense of disconnect between him and a quiet life of watching TV with his wife and daughter.
Gunslinger is told through the perspective of Silas Greaves, an aged bounty hunter with a scattered memory, as he tells his tall tales of youth to a bunch of folks at a bar in hopes of getting free whiskey. It’s a great storytelling setup that opens the game up to a lot of surprises. One minute you’re stopping a bank robbery by sniping enemies from the roof before barging in from the front door. Then you’re told “no, that’s not how the story goes!” And you have to stop the bank robbery all over again, this time by sneaking around the back. And then you have to do it again because everybody else was wrong and it’s up to Silas to set them straight.
But hands down the best part is when you’re having a fight during a train robbery and Silas has to go relieve himself just as you get into the meat of the battle. With nobody there to continue the story, you find yourself stuck in the same cart, going in a loop, with nothing to do but listen in and overhear the other bar folk calling old man Silas bonkers while he’s out of earshot. You go through the cart about five or so times when you hear Silas zip up his pants and sit down back into his seat. Suddenly, you open a door to finally find a different train cart, bullets flying, whizzing by your ear, explosions and sticks of TNT everywhere as the story continues.
In a game that’s essentially non-stop action with hilariously delusional storytelling, it’s an opportunity for you to catch a break and let it all out: both your laughter and water.
Double Agent was not the strongest game in the Splinter Cell series. Its level design was bland and uninspired, its story wasn’t told entirely coherently, and its main character was balding. It was, however, a pretty ambitious title in that in both versions (the Generation 6 version was so much better, mind you) there was a “morality” meter which had you try to keep up appearances both for the villainous JBA and the EVER SO KIND, GOOD, AND LOVING NSA (please don’t kill me) in order to delve deep within the heart of the enemy operation. Many parts of the game gave you choices, some of which were rather obvious, but some which were disturbingly personal.
The game takes a break from gun/tech porn to pull you into a very real situation in which the JBA orders you to kill Cole Yaegar, a hostage who has been horribly bruised and beaten by the JBA moments prior and is now bound and gagged. Here, you are presented with a choice: you can either shoot him to gain JBA trust or miss him to gain NSA trust, both situations which result in the loss of trust in the conflicting faction. But here’s the twist: It’s not a dialogue option. Double Agent takes a step further and puts the gun in your hand. It shifts to a first person mode where you have to actually take aim and fire. Sam Fisher isn’t shooting the innocent hostage. You are.
It really caught me by surpise. I was so frozen at the sight that I waited too long to pull the trigger for either option. The JBA stepped in and did my “job” for me, and all I could do is sit there, profusely sweating, as both factions lost their trust in me, and left me with a loaded gun and a nameless corpse.
I never played a military video game that actually made me appreciate the gravity of the situation some soldiers have to go through. Heck, I’ve never played a military video game where I even remotely sympathized with any of the main characters, they’re all that badly written. But this one scene was absolute hell, and I mean that in the very best way. Whatever the motives of either faction, or Sam Fisher for that matter, didn’t matter. There weren’t even story consequences for your decision in this case. It was just raw, internal struggle and helplessness, despite being the one with the gun in your hand. It was really something else, and it was an experience that never could have ever been emulated in a movie. It’s a prime example of a game actually using gameplay to play out a scripted scene that actually has some sort of emotional weight, and it’s weight that can only be achieved through actually “being” there.
Hotline Miami is a game that throughout its entire campaign had taken me for a ride I could never forget. I know that this is an analogy nobody likes, but it’s important: In the sense that Citizen Kane is the “Citizen Kane” of movies because of its use of every shot being absolutely deliberate and tells the story in a way only its selected medium ever could, Hotline Miami would in that case be the Citizen Kane of video games: Nearly every moment in the game’s story has actual impact in its narrative, surreal though it may be, and all of it was done in a way that could only be told through a video game.
The place where this becomes clear is the “sudden stop.”
To anybody who hasn’t played Hotline Miami, let me start at the beginning. Hotline Miami is an extremely arcadey mass murder simulator where you barge into houses full of unsuspecting, faceless gangsters in increasingly brutal ways. The more brutal you are, and the quicker and more effective you are, the higher your score. The screen flashes, your score counter goes higher, you get graded at the end and congratulated on every kill. It’s fast, it’s fun, it’s nuts, it’s stupid, it’s harmless, it’s all great.
Then you get the last kill, and everything stops.
There’s no flashing lights. No upbeat music. No points. Just a digital hum in your ears. You have to go back through the entire level to get to your car, walking past all the blood and bodies you leave in your wake. It’s a real wake-up call to your actions, and a stark reminder that something is very, very wrong. It’s a feeling that you first shrug off in the first couple of levels, but every time you beat a level it’s the same thing: absolute quiet. Just a digital hum in your ears. Something is very wrong.
And maybe you have something to do with it.