The Most Powerful Storytelling Medium


By Jonathan Salas
Since the time that man first used his lips to make intelligent sounds, we have been telling each other stories. These stories have served a myriad of purposes, whether it has been to entertain, teach, or educate, and since then, we have been striving to make our stories better. However, it seems, at the time, that the ways we tell those stories have reached a pinnacle. Now, that is not to say that stories won’t get better, but that the mediums will remain the same. Again, that is not to say that the mediums won’t become better (better movies, better books, etc.), however, it seems that, as a society, we have had the same standards of storytelling for quite some time. One last disclaimer, then we’ll get started! While this is entitled ‘the most powerful storytelling medium’, that is not meant to discredit any others, or to say that, definitively, this is the only way that everyone should experience story. We all have our personal preferences, and we all have our medium which we prefer, however, let me take a moment of your time, and make a seldom made case for my favorite one.
Okay, now that we have that out of the way, I want you to think about one of your favorite stories, like Harry Potter or the Three Little Pigs. Now, take another moment to consider why it is that that is one of your favorite stories. I would guess that it is the same thing that every great story has in common: power. The power to make us feel happy, feel sad, feel love, feel hatred, or feel excitement. These kind of stories are the ones that stick with us, the ones that we love to share with our friends, and even shape our personality.
I think that we can accept that Star Wars, or more specifically, the story of Luke Skywalker, as one such powerful story. This may be different for each of us, or you may be indifferent to the story of Star Wars altogether, however, bear with me as I use this as an example.
The story of Luke Skywalker is a powerful one because it has elements to which we can all relate. The feelings of wanting to be more, wanting to know exactly who we are, struggling to try new things, struggling to fight our own self doubts, and other similar emotions invoked in the story are familiar to all of us, which is one reason why this story has such great success. Another reason is because, when we watch a movie or read a book, we imagine ourselves as the main character. We imagine what we would do, what we would feel, and how we would react. But what if we didn’t have to imagine? What if, instead of watching the story of Star Wars, we could participate in the story? Imagine your anguish at finding out that Darth Vader is your father, imagine the feeling of comradery as you shot down TIE fighters with Han Solo, and imagine the feeling of triumph as you watch the Death Star explode. This is the beauty, the power, and the great advantage of a video game.
I know the stereotypes, and I’ve heard every argument against video games. But for those who have not experienced modern storytelling through this medium, I would encourage you to give it a chance. To go back to our previous example, we all felt a great feeling of triumph when the Death Star exploded. Now, imagine that feeling amplified with a sense of accomplish, and being able to sit back in your chair and think “I did that. Today, I saved the galaxy from the most dangerous weapon ever created.” If you have never experienced this feeling, then you are missing out immensely. And to round the topic back, that is why video games are the most powerful storytelling medium.
Allow me to continue on with another point by highlighting an example that is a bit lesser know than Star Wars: Mass Effect. Mass Effect is an award winning video game trilogy created by Bioware, and tells one of the greatest stories ever told. However, this is not the only strength of the Mass Effect trilogy, or why it earned its fame. Mass Effect’s strength lies in decision making. Allow me to give a spoiler free example of this:
In one mission, you meet a doctor, whose help is critical to your success within the main story. However, he is currently running a clinic for those afflicted with a particularly nasty plague, and doesn’t want to leave unless you help him. He then also very briefly mentions that he is short staffed because his assistant is missing, presumed dead. However, while progressing and helping this doctor, if the player goes off of the predetermined path, that is where the assistant will be found. When you find him, he is being held hostage by thugs, because they believe that he is the cause of the plague. The player then has several options; to either try to calm the thugs down, or attempt to intimidate them. Eventually, the thugs will agree to give up the assistant as long as the player promises to let them leave peacefully. They then turn over the assistant, and the player then has the option to either let the thugs go, or gun them down. When you return to the doctor, he will express gratitude for having saved his assistant, and will interject his opinion one way or the other on your handling of the situation. He then agrees to leave with you, and the assistant stays behind to run the clinic.
It is also possible to never find the assistant, and the doctor will still leave with you, however, you will hear news that the clinic was closed, and the areas was overrun by criminals. However, if the assistant is there, the news will be that the area is healthy and doing well once again, and that crime has in fact dropped in the area.
You still with me? Okay, great! I know that that was quite a bit to read, but keep in mind, this is not only a side quest, but a side quest within a side quest. It is a very small portion of the game, however, within that area, your decisions have a huge impact. And this is one of the smallest decisions to make in the game. The player is not told the story, or doesn’t even experience the story. The player creates the story. Therein lies the strength of video games that no other medium can even come close to replicating. Video games can present us with a world, set us loose, and allows us to create our own stories. Do you want to save the galaxy? That’s possible! Want to be a rogue that robes everyone blind? Sure, but be quick! Want to meet new people and quest together as a group? Jump right in!
The world of video games can do more than simply present us with a story, but rather, it allows us to step into another world like nothing else can. It allows us to take our fantasies of being heroes, cowboys, superheroes, rogues, and play those fantasies out, exploring and interacting in an immersive way unique from any other experience. Mass Effect is just one example of many games that allow us to dive into unknown worlds and make impactful decision, while also presenting us with lore, dialogue, and all the elements of storytelling that we are used to.
I know, storytelling through video games is not perfect, and there are plenty of flops out there, just like any other industry. However, if we open our minds a bit, and allow us to consider video games as the amazing and powerful storytelling medium that they are, then we will be able to create more immersive experiences for ourselves, and the storytelling process will continue to improve.

    One Comment

  1. Anthony Salas SrFebruary 13th, 2017 at 9:20 am

    Very well said. You almost had me wanting to upgrade my PS1.

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