Interactive Storytelling: The Strength of a Medium

May 12, 2012

Electronic games are the soaring phoenix above all other mediums. Sure, some over-zealous film student might squawk to his disinterested pals that no medium will ever beat the visceral immediacy of cinema, but videogames, being a visual medium as well, have all of the elements needed to be just as engaging, if not more so.

As for their nerdy cousin, the aging and boring book, who really reads anymore? Books have their own strength regarding introspection, but the average media consumer doesn’t want to spend 30 minutes reading a scene that takes two minutes to plow through in a visual medium. In addition, videogames have had an era of text-based games that could effortlessly compete with the various novels out there, so who really needs a bulky tome cluttering up their domicile? To put it clearly and simply, videogames are the most attractive and challenging medium to write for and are, in my opinion, the most rewarding to the consumer. If you need any convincing, look no further than the mind-boggling possibilities that accompany the ace-up-the-sleeve of all videogames: interactive storytelling.

Imagine this: you’re a scruffy, pimply, self-conscious teenager taking a girl out on a date for the first time. You have no idea what to do that you’d both enjoy so you end up falling back on the stereotypical movie date. You grab some soda for you and your date and you get seated. The dark of the theater and the booming bass of the speakers get you stoked for the film. The woman on the screen is navigating a dark hallway. You know that she has two little children back home who rely on her.

She’s human to you, and for some reason you feel responsible for her. You WANT to make sure she’s ok. Then, out of the shadows, a robed man with a knife appears and brings an immediate threat into the picture. Your date screams out “turn around!” The girl on screen responds, sees the robed man, and starts running! She finds two doorways. Your life is in her hands. What now? Two hours later you step out of the dim theater after safely guiding your heroine to safety and your date asks what would have happened if you chose the other doorway. You say you don’t know, but you’re curious to find out.

With videogames telling such rich stories, which way now for cinema?This scenario is a basic look at how videogames are superior to film: a sense of ownership over the characters and the need to constantly be paying attention in order to guide them safely through their challenges. If this film were a normal movie, you’d just be vacantly staring and watching the action unfold, but having control adds a layer of enjoyment.

Now imagine comparing the outcome of your viewing with a friend who also saw the movie. You both ended up with different endings and different relationships to secondary characters. This concept builds curiosity and inspires folks to go back and see what they could have done differently. What if Al the plumber lived through act 4? Would the heroine have married him instead of Steve the used car salesman?

It doesn’t have to stop there though. Downloadable content has made episodic storytelling possible for the gaming scene. We can see this in action in the recently released The Walking Dead game by Telltale Games, where the player guides the protagonist through the zombie apocalypse and his actions have reaching effects in the following episodes. The popular Mass Effect series by Bioware has the same appeal, although each installment is a full length game. Even the recently announced Black Ops 2 is rumored to have a branching storyline. Developers are just now catching on to this wonderful tool and I think it’s going to catch on like wildfire soon.

#As videogames have challenged our hand/eye coordination and strategic skills in the past, they are now poised to challenge our morality and worldviews, forcing us to make difficult choices outside the realm of good or bad or black or white. In the wake of the conclusions we earn for our characters we reflect and wonder “what if”.

Your move, film.