Many gamers, myself included, are often found guilty of trash-talking movie adaptations of video games. I think maybe, just maybe, that it’s because video games are starting to become much better at telling stories than movies are.
There are two primary reasons that explain why people love gaming: pure enjoyment, and the want for an immersive experience. The latter reason has become more and more prevalent since the SNES era when games like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger proved that JRPGs weren’t just about fighting monsters and leveling up anymore. It was about having an engaging story and getting players to do what they rarely did in video games: actually feel for the characters you were playing as and become a part of their world. This is what separates video games so distinctively from movies. When you watch a movie, you are simply a passive observer. Sure, you feel for the characters and you root for them when they fight the bad guys. But you’re never part of the experience. You just never feel like you belong in their universe and there’s simply no connection between the viewer and the movie itself. All a movie can do is tell you a story, and you either like it or you don’t.
Video games do essentially the same thing, but they take it one step further. Video games force you to have a controller in your hands and give you free reign of the character you’re playing as. Using Chrono Trigger as an example, Crono is a silent protagonist and is meant to act as an in-game representation of the player (that’s you!). You even get to name him. It’s a pretty effective method of creating an immersive experience because players get to project their own thoughts and imaginations onto Crono himself. Things like what his voice would sound like and what thoughts he might have towards events in the games are all blanks filled in by the player. As the game progresses, you connect with the various characters you meet along the way and you develop a friendship with them. You, not Crono. It becomes easier for players to get attached to the people you meet and actually care about the world you’re trying to save.
Games like Persona 3 and 4 also feature a silent protagonist and you get to choose your character’s responses when connecting with your in-game peers. Chrono Trigger and Persona all tell a pretty linear story that the player can’t really affect. Well okay, Chrono Trigger has a couple of variations in its ending depending on the player’s actions but come on, we all know what the canon ending is. My point is, despite the linearity in the stories of my JRPG examples, they’re already much more immersive than any movie because of the player participation that is required to drive the story forward.
Unlike movies, video games also have the advantage of allowing players to actively decide what happens in the story. BioWare’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age are great examples of such games. In the Mass Effect trilogy, you take control of Shepard and you have the power to shape him into whatever character you want right from the get-go. Shepard can be a boy-scout paragon or a badass renegade, Shepard can save the rachni queen or kill her, Shepard can choose who to sleep with, Shepard can choose to cheat on his girlfriend in the second game.
All these choices that define Shepard’s character are made by the player. And that’s not all. The events in Mass Effect and their outcomes are determined by the choices you make and have a very direct effect on the endings, at least for the first two games. What better way to get a player emotionally involved in a video game than the ability to change up the narrative of the story?
It’s not just the ability of making important decisions in a game that gets you attached, it’s also the freedom to explore the game’s universe. Open world games like Skyrim give you the freedom of travelling across the expansive map and allow you to do the main story missions at your own leisure. You can glean so much information about the world itself just by walking around and picking up bits of dialogue from NPCs (“I used to be an adventurer like you but then I took an arrow in the knee.”).
The ability to explore a world can also be used as a narrative tool as we’ve seen in last year’s Gone Home. The gameplay is very minimalistic; all you do is explore a large house and piece the story together through things that are left around the place. You don’t meet any characters, you just read about them and find their belongings strewn around. And yet it still hooks the player in because you feel like you’re actually investigating a mystery here and you just have to explore every nook and cranny of the house to get the full story.
Let’s be real. Who would pay to watch a movie about a silent protagonist who spends three hours wandering around a large house, reading newspaper clippings? If Hollywood made an adaptation of Gone Home, I guarantee you that every artifact Kaitlin finds will be accompanied by a cheesy 10-minute flashback showing you explicitly what went on with it. Gone Home doesn’t need any of these bells and whistles because the player already has a stake in the mystery, a motivation to keep exploring and uncovering the story.
All of these things make good video games. Heck, they’re great narrative tools in storytelling that translate to really outstanding games.