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Video game stories don’t have to suck

From Firewatch to The Witcher, the medium is getting a lot better at storytelling

It’s been said so much now that it’s become cliché: "It has a good story, for a video game." Games have garnered little respect over the decades for the stories they tell, and for good reason. Video game narratives were, and often still are, largely afterthoughts, more of an excuse for the action than a contribution in their own right. Even I have to admit that as much as the tragic love story of Final Fantasy VIII impacted me as an impressionable teenager, in retrospect my adult brain can hardly make sense of it.

But the cliché — that game stories stink — isn’t true anymore. Sure, there are still games with terrible plots, but the existence of the Transformers movies doesn’t mean film is a poor vehicle for storytelling. Same holds true for games. Not only has the quality of narrative in games improved — better writing, more believable acting — but so has the breadth. Gaming is interactive, and designers have been leveraging this capability to tell the kinds of stories that simply wouldn’t fit so comfortably in another medium.

Credit an overdue focus on narrative by game developers. Whereas gameplay was once the be-all and end-all of the medium, with story tacked on near the end to explain how you get the from bank robbery to the train chase, many developers now approach games as a narrative problem: we have a story to tell, so how can we craft a game to tell it best? The poster child for this kind of thinking is Telltale Games, the studio behind critically acclaimed series like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. These games play out like interactive TV shows; instead of testing your ability to fire a gun or swing a sword, they ask you to make tough moral decisions.

Oxenfree

Oxenfree

The studio’s influence can be seen in a pair of recently released games, Oxenfree and Firewatch, both helmed by former Telltale writers. Oxenfree is a delightfully creepy tale about a group of high school students who head to an isolated island to party, only to end up in a strange Lovecraft-inspired timeloop. It’s a game that’s built atop hundreds of conversations. The kids chatter on endlessly, and as protagonist Alex, your job is to lead them. Aside from some light puzzle solving, you complete the adventure by chatting and making choices on behalf the group. The dialogue feels like a natural part of the experience. You’ll be in conversation while you wander around the island, exploring caves and scaling rocky cliffs. Unlike games like Mass Effect or Fallout, there’s no break in the action for dialogue. You talk while doing other things. You know, like in real life.

Firewatch also hinges on dialogue, but ditches the band of kids for a tale about solitude. You play as Henry, a man who takes on a job as a fire lookout at a national park in Wyoming as a way to escape his recent past. He’s alone for much of the game, but there’s a constant voice in his ear; at all times he carries a walkie-talkie that he uses to talk to his supervisor Delilah. The pair’s relationship grows naturally over the course of the game, and it all happens through extended conversations. You feel like you really know Delilah by the end of Firewatch, and it’s because through Henry, you speak with her for hours, deciding which jokes Henry will tell and when he’ll prod into her personal life.

The Witcher 3

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

These games were made by relatively small teams, but the lessons of Telltale — or at least the deep appreciation and enthusiasm for story the company shows — is starting to trickle down into blockbusters as well. Sure, the Lara Croft you control is a lot more bloodthirsty than the one featured in cut scenes, but many other AAA games have stories that feel more integrated into the experience. Instead of having a writer work on the story on their own, a number of studios now have writers working alongside the rest of the team from the very beginning of the game. For example, Mary DeMarle, executive narrative director on Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and its predecessor, is one of the top decision makers on the game. In these cases the results speak for themselves: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, a massive role-playing game, managed to tell a thrilling, violent fantasy tale to rival Game of Thrones, while the Deus Ex games use clutter-filled environments to help flesh out their cyberpunk mythos in an organic way.

Even games that try to emulate film and TV are getting better. Until Dawn combines the most cliché horror movie tropes imaginable, but breathes new life into them through interactivity; it turns out actually controlling characters in a horror movie is a lot more fun than just yelling at a screen. The episodic Life is Strange, meanwhile, was a time-traveling teen drama that I enjoyed more than any television show last year. Again, it comes down to interactivity. I felt more closely connected to the characters because I had a say in their fate.

Just like any other medium, games still have their share of awful stories. But the point is that that’s no longer the default. A game doesn’t have to have a bad story just because it’s a game. In fact, the medium offers up a range of new possibilities, new types of stories that can be told in completely new ways. And these stories aren’t good for a video game. They’re just plain good.