Friday, July 12, 2013

Emotional storytelling in video games

Having played video games for most of the last 30 years, it never ceases to amaze me to see how they have evolved over that time. Looking back at my earliest gaming memories with simple games like Demon Attack on the Atari 2600, the fact that a game can stir deep emotions in me still blows me away. They've moved beyond the simple "bleep bloop" of those early games. Those kinds of games still exist, and they're still fun (albeit far prettier). Nowadays some games are emotional experiences, like watching your favorite movie or reading a classic book. It's hard to believe it's the same hobby I took up so long ago.

The first game to really move me was Final Fantasy 3 on the SNES (which is actually Final Fantasy 6 in the series). 3/4 of the way through the game a (literal) world shattering event changes the entire landscape of the world, and your entire party is scattered, and a single character wakes up alone on a deserted island. I sat stunned at what had just happened. Even a game of fairly simple sprites had moved me to silence.

Years later, I remember showing off Metal Gear Solid on the Playstation to my parents (who had always seen games as "for kids"). To them video games were Mario. I don't know if seeing MGS in action changed that, but it opened their eyes to see gaming wasn't just moving around a fat plumber and jumping on turtles (although you could still do that). Years later, after I was married and had a kid, I showed them the intro to Uncharted 2. I don't know if they were as blown away as I was, but they definitely seemed surprised that games had come that far.

Recently I played two games that, for me, are the pinnacle of what video games can deliver as a storytelling medium. In The Last of Us you play as Joel. After a very tragic and emotional prologue (which ironically is totally spoiled by the game's box art), the game fast forwards 20 years and we see Joel dealing with life after the apocalypse has wiped out much of humanity. He's clearly been shaped by the events 20 years ago and his life since then. He's not a very nice guy. Eventually he meets Ellie and agrees to take her across the country to a group trying to find a cure. Through the course of their journey together, and after many tense, terrifying, and emotional experiences, their relationship evolves. You don't need to be a parent to be moved by their relationship, but since I am one I couldn't help but be effected by it. I smiled at their banter more times than I can count, and I got angry at Joel when he belittled Ellie or discounted her ability to contribute. This world made Joel a hard man. And seeing Ellie try and break through that was great to witness in a video game. The whole game from beginning to end is one of the best gaming experiences I've ever had, and the story moved me in ways games rarely do.

After finishing The Last of Us I played last year's critically acclaimed series The Walking Dead. Like the TV show, it's based on the popular comic book. It has a cast of new characters (and a few from the comics have cameos), but it's an original story with all new characters. Even the art style has a graphic novel quality that looks amazing. The game spans 5 episodes in season 1 (season 2 is coming out this Fall), with the 400 Days episode, which just came out a few weeks ago, that acts as as a bridge to season 2.

At the start of The Walking Dead, your main character Lee stumbles across 9 year old Clementine, who's parents were out of town when the apocalypse broke out. Clementine had been left with a babysitter (who is now dead), and is all alone to fend for herself. Not wanting to leave her, Lee takes her with him. Over the 10 or so hours of season 1 (which spans a few months in the game world), the relationship between these two characters grows and deepens. Lee doesn't have children, but he tries his best to care for and protect Clem (as he lovingly calls her) the best way he knows how in this violent and deadly new world they live in. Since we're making choices for Lee, like whether to save one person over another, to show mercy to someone else, or to be truthful about Lee's past (or to lie), the relationship dynamics can change dramatically. It's fascinating to see that in a game.

Unlike The Last of Us, the zombies really only play a minor role (although there are plenty). They're more of a backdrop. In the foreground are the characters and how they react to the events around them. Some I was immediately drawn to. Others I was annoyed with and wanted to leave them behind. But even if someone I didn't like was bitten, it was heart-wrenching having to decide what to do. Even more so if it was someone I had grown fond of.

As season 1 was drawing to a close, I had become attached to Lee and Clem. And I had started to become anxious about what was going to happen to them. I hoped for a happy ending, but I feared it would end tragically. I won't say how it ended, but I will say when it ended I was completely satisfied. It was like finishing a good book. As the end credits rolled, I set the controller down, took a deep breath, and marveled at the experience I just had.

Games have come a long way in 30 years. The Last of Us and The Walking Dead are prime examples of how this medium can elicit the same emotional response as any other form of entertainment. And while games about the zombie apocalypse might not be for everyone, these games show what games can be as an art form. With the next generation of systems on the horizon, I think these kinds of experiences are what will set great games apart from mediocre ones. Graphics won't see as big a leap as in previous generations, but I think these games set the bar high for what games can be. I can't wait.

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