Books and movies have very linear stories, and that’s completely alright. There are some incredible stories that have inspired people everywhere, and I don’t think I need to explain why movies are such a huge aspect of our entertainment today. Books are also just as inspiring, and there’s just so many of them, with so many incredible stories and series that have spawned and have ingrained themselves into cultures everywhere.
There’s a slight problem with that linearity, however, and that arises when we ask ourselves, “What if?” Unless that question can be answered using the information provided directly from the story itself, we are left to our own self-indulgence through our own imaginations and theories. There’s not really any way for us to see how a story might’ve changed if a character decided to say “No” in a situation. Some books have managed to actually give its readers this type of control, like the Choose Your Own Adventure series, or Twisted Journeys series. Thing is, there’s an entire medium that revolves around this level of control, and also allows their audience to grow more intimate with its characters and stories simply because the audience has been given that control. Welcome to the world of video games and interactive storytelling!
I personally find this to be my favorite medium of storytelling. Sure, games can also be insanely fun because of their gameplay, and I can’t deny that I revisit some games for this reason, but I mostly find myself playing the games for the intimacy that I just can’t find within other mediums. You’re playing as one of the characters within the story, seeing the world as they do and watching it change around them. There’s also that freedom that comes with nonlinearity, which allows us to get answers to those “What if?” questions from the games themselves—provided we are given those opportunities to ask them. You get to decide how your character responds to a situation, and you get to watch the consequences play out in front of you.
I think one of the most important games to talk about that takes advantage of this interactivity is the game Façade. You play as Andrew and are invited to Trip and Grace’s apartment for some drinks, but their conversations turn sour as it’s revealed that their marriage is crumbling. You, the player, type out what you want to say, and your decisions ultimately lead up to the final outcome of the night. The amount of possible scenarios isn’t endless or anything, but the fact of the matter is that the player has an incredible amount of control over the situation. They may decide to save Trip and Grace’s marriage, or they could say something that could get them kicked out of the apartment; it’s all up to the player. That’s an incredible amount of freedom that we haven’t seen since, especially considering this was released in 2006 (though there are definitely games that look prettier). I’ve got a link to its website and download below.
For a more recent example of a game that takes advantage of this kind of storytelling, I’d like to talk about Undertale. I remember seeing it blow up everywhere on so many different social media platforms when it came out in 2015, all because of how much control you had over the outcome of the story. It doesn’t have quite as much freedom as Façade, but the player still has a massive amount of control over how the story plays out. A common trope of role-playing-games (RPGs) is the concept that monsters and enemies are just obstacles, ways for your character to grow stronger through leveling up. Undertale gives these monsters personality and will change the world around you if you decide to wreak havoc. It’s entirely possible to “beat” the game without taking a single monster’s life, while it’s also possible to “beat” it by taking the life of every monster you meet. The world changes drastically depending on how far you lean in one direction over the other, while also sporting an incredible cast of characters that are also insanely funny. The score of Undertale is also incredible as well, I’m leaving a link below to a live performance of its soundtrack below if you’re interested.
These are just a couple examples from a massive industry, and the games I’ve talked about all embrace that nonlinear aspect I praised so much. This isn’t to say that I’m completely against linear games at all, far from it. My personal favorite narrative is from a game called Hollow Knight, and while the gameplay allows you to explore the world in a nearly nonlinear way, its plot is much more linear than the likes of Undertale or Façade, with very few of those “What if?” situations. Still, the game presents an incredibly deep story extremely subtly (some people even recommend taking notes on the story on your first playthrough). There’s entire communities of people that came together to string together what they believe is the story’s canon, which is a testament to how deep the story goes. Not only that, but the game itself is also animated entirely in 2D, and its soundtrack is also absolutely amazing. I’m also leaving a link down below to its soundtrack.
Keep in mind, these are just three games in a massive and evolving industry. There’s plenty of other games out there with their own incredible stories. These are just some that I’ve cherry-picked. Here’s a short list of other games and series you might consider looking into:
The Elder Scrolls: If you’ve heard of this series, it’s probably because of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I cannot stress enough how enormous these games are and how much care went into expanding the fantasy world of The Elder Scrolls. Just to give you an idea as to how much time went into it, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has 337 books in it, and it’s entirely possible to go through the entire game without reading a single one. That’s just ONE game in The Elder Scrolls series.
Telltale Games: This was a company that specialized in games that played out more like movies. While they’re no longer in business, one of their most beloved games was The Walking Dead, which was based off of the comic book series under the same name. Characters will remember what you say to them, and some of your decisions can drastically change the game if you aren’t careful.
Dragon Quest: This is the series that basically started the RPG genre, which is known for being one of the most story-driven genres in gaming. This series isn’t well known in the West, but in Japan, it’s a completely different story. There was a popular rumor that a law had to be passed in Japan stating that Dragon Quest games could only be released on holidays so that kids don’t skip school and adults don’t skip work. It’s just a rumor, but there’s no denying how popular the series is there. Dragon Quest XI is the most recent game in the franchise and is also loved for its story.
Other series/games you should look into: Uncharted, The Last of Us, Bioshock, Metal Gear, The Legend of Zelda, Mass Effect, Horizon Zero Dawn, Portal, Silent Hill, God of War, Half-Life, Earthbound, To The Moon, Xenoblade.
You like Star Wars? Take a look at Knights of the Old Republic.
Are you a fan of Disney? Take a look at Kingdom Hearts (be warned, the series has one of the most confusing stories out there).
I guarantee that there’s other games and series worth considering out there, and I bet I’m going to get some flak for not listing some games or series, but I feel that this is a good starting point. Ask some of your friends and peers what their favorite video game narratives are. There’s plenty more that could probably be added to this list.
If you’re interested in diving more into more interactive stories, I highly encourage getting into some of the games I mentioned, but just be ready for some of the challenges that arise with them. Games are called “games” for a reason, and many of the games I listed above can require some dexterity to get through them. Façade thankfully doesn't require much of the player other than their ability to type, and games like The Walking Dead don’t require much from you other than some decision making, as they’re focused solely on the stories themselves. Your dexterity gets tested in more action-heavy games like Skyrim, Bioshock, and even Undertale, as you’ll be required to attack or dodge quickly to progress through the story. One of Hollow Knight’s selling points is its high difficulty, and while I personally love its challenge, I know for a fact that if I were to give it to my parents, they’d find themselves stuck early on because they’re not used to playing video games. People will sometimes stop playing games because they’re too difficult or just don’t want to devote their free time to it.
These problems can technically be alleviated by watching videos of people playing through said games, but the intimacy I praised before is arguably lost since the viewer is no longer playing and controlling the game, and is instead watching it. Some of these stories are jam-packed with content, but that content requires you to interact with it, which can lead to some insanely long stories. Some of my personal favorites span over 60 hours of gameplay, but that takes a lot of time and dedication that people aren’t always willing to give (I know of a friend that has 500+ hours in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and he says he still isn’t finished with everything the game has to offer). Façade doesn’t take too long to get through, Undertale takes around five hours to get through, but it requires at least three different types of playthroughs to experience the “full” story.
I think I expressed my passion for video games enough. If you feel you’re willing to sit down and experience that kind of intimacy for yourself, I highly encourage giving Façade or Undertale a shot. Façade is completely free and Undertale has a $14.99 price tag. Take a look at the list of games I mentioned as well, you might be surprised at how incredible some of their worlds are. I also encourage you to consider what your stories would look like without the linear restrictions set by books or movies. What would they be able to see and experience with that kind of freedom? How would the story change if they were allowed to change just one scenario? Could you implement some kind of control in your work?
If you’re interested in game-making as a hobby (or maybe even a major), Media Arts and Science: Game Design and Development might be something to consider. Take a look at those classes and see if you’re interested in taking your stories to the next level.
This medium is the next step to immersing ourselves in incredible worlds. Get gaming and see just how much that control adds to a story.