Videogame as a storytelling medium

One day, when I was carrying out a few quests in the snow-covered region of Dragonblight in World of Warcraft (WoW), it somehow struck me as an odd experience in terms of storytelling. I have been enjoying this world built for the online videogame for months, and all of a sudden it felt as if it is an interesting, albeit imperfect, rendition of “multiverse”. Suppose for a moment that you are given a quest to slay some evil, undead dragon; you might be an influential mage who summons a number of friends to mercilessly strike down the abomination, or a lonesome crusader who struggles to dispose of the monster only with your sword, although the latter version may be a heck of a burden. There are literally thousands of quests like this available in WoW, some of which, at least, the players have to muddle through in order to empower their characters to the maximum level. Players of this online videogame may begin one of those tasks with the same settings (for instance, “we have this villain X hiding in the forest to the southeast…”) and outcomes (“we give you this reward Y for taking care of the X problem”), the means to achieve the results are largely up to each of the players. Each player is bound to have his or her version of experience with certain jobs (“I struck down the bastard with ease” vs. “it was so hard that I had to fight the same target five times”), which consequently results in thousands of different stories for each player.

It reminded me of the time when I read the Korean edition of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (the Korean translation can be found here) by Roberto Calasso a few years ago. What impressed me yet also what I did not completely understand back then was Calasso’s interpretation of ancient Greek mythology as a tree-like system of different versions of stories and anecdotes, rather than a canonical set of legends à la Thomas Bulfinch; there would be a lot of variants in how Zeus kidnapped Europa or how Theseus killed the Minotaure in Crete, yet all those variations are valid in each of themselves (for more detailed information on Calasso’s book, please read Ivar Hagendoorn’s review). This rings somewhat salient of what can be experienced in an online videogame like WoW. Perhaps, in the official, canonical lore which would be later filled in by Blizzard Entertainment (the developer of WoW) the evil monster A had been terminated by a valorous hero named B, but in your own experience, you may have killed A some time last week with a few of your friends, probably during a late weekday night session or a long weekend raid. It is not just you, though; thousands, possibly millions of other players have done the same job in each of their own ways. Maybe you or anyone else’s name will not be credited as the slayer of A next time Blizzard updates the background setting of the game, but it is significant that you have your own version of the story.

I am not stressing that WoW reaches some unprecedented pinnacle of storytelling in videogames, although it is an excellent entertainment title in its own merits. The level of storytelling, in terms of conveying deeper implications and themes through a sophiscated storyline, is better accomplished in more traditional, single-player videogames such as Planescape: Torment, Silent Hill, Grim Fandango, or BioShock. In fact, some single-player videogames like Fallout and Grand Theft Auto espouse an “open-ended gameplay” which allows their players to choose which tasks to do in order to follow the storyline that there may be little difference between those games and WoW.

There are apparent limitations to grant freedom within the in-game world though; even in the likes of Fallout, while the player is at liberty to choose the order of which quests to do, even skip some quests entirely, he or she is still obligated to follow the primary storyline which is fixed overall. You may choose to do a quest or not in WoW, but you cannot change the outcome of each episode; for instance, you cannot convince a villain to repent its wrongdoings or turn it to your own side, other than the given goal of simply killing it. Even midway through a quest, you would be confined to certain settings or availability of resources to do the job, so the rate of variation on a certain lore is kept at bay, likely to be caused less by designers’ intent on controlling the integrity of stories, but instead by the lack of resources to extend the boundaries of the in-game sandbox. However good an open-ended gameplay may deliver to videogame players, it would still be of little merit to enable them to modify even the most crucial elements of the videogame as it may break the basic structure and also be costly and time-consuming (for example, inserting different outcomes in each of the quests in WoW would require an almost infinite amount of budget).

Up to this point, I am thinking of another question that should be addressed in the videogame world, probably not now but some time in the future. As seen in titles such as Planescape: Torment or Silent Hill, the level of narratives in videogames these days was hardly imaginable in the days of Asteroids and Pong. We would witness more and more of storytelling, increasingly sophisticated, in videogames. Yet the notion of assorting a variety of those games, with or without stories, into a single category, a single concept would turn out to be misleading at some point. Strictly narrative-wise, treating Planescape: Torment the same as Pong and Tetris, because they are both “videogames”, would be equivalent to asserting that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series is on the same level with the earliest films of the Lumière brothers, because they are both “movies.” I am not saying that Tetris or the Lumière films are inferior or of less production values. The history of motion pictures have progressed so far that the oldest films taken by the Lumière brothers, like a train incoming from far away or a group of workers walking out the factory door, would be considered as short “video clips” today rather than “movies.” You may play your favorite movie and your home video on the same DVD player, but usually you do not think that those two are the same, especially in terms of narratives or artistry. A similar notion can be applied to videogames as well. Some videogames have achieved a level of distinction on par with some movies and novels that they may not deserve the same nomenclature as other electronic entertainment titles, aside from the fact that all of them can be played on the same electronic equipment. Probably in near future videogames may start to differentiate themselves from one another, which I consider is necessary for some of them to be recognized as a legitimate medium akin to motion pictures, literature or music.

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