How video games tell us stories

May is National Storytelling Month, and we never underestimate the power of a good story.

For our latest trailer for Unknown Worlds Entertainment, Subnautica: Below Zero, we crafted a short film about the mundane daily grind becoming increasingly dangerous as our hero character finds himself fighting for survival on Planet 4546B. To date, the trailer has reached over 2.8 million views on the official YouTube channel, earning huge acclaim with the legion of fans of the game.

But what is it about the trailer that works so well? REALTIME’s Art Director / Director of the trailer Stu Bailey, puts it succinctly: “We latched onto small details as being relatable. So, sipping on a hot coffee before the daily grind begins, with the steaming aroma wafting up your nostrils, or beating down into the icy ground as warm breath vapours escape through your mask. It all adds to the viewer experience, and it matters a lot!”

When a game gets storytelling right, no one can resist it’s appeal. Video games also have a unique advantage in that you’re not only viewing a story, but also participating in it. Whether they be roller-coaster journeys or winding paths of discovery, let’s explore how video games tell their own stories.

A linear narrative

Video games have always drawn inspiration from the world of film. Hideo Kojima has talked at length about his love of Taxi Driver and how Solid Snake was inspired by Robert De Niro’s character in The Deer Hunter. Video games are just another medium we can use to take players through a twisting narrative – a heart-thumping action set piece from Uncharted or a tender moment from Telltale’s The Walking Dead.

Naughty Dog has long been a special feather in Sony’s wing, and The Last of Us Part II may well have been their magnum opus. This standout from 2020 elicited fierce and deep emotions as it weaved a dark tale of the fruitless outcomes of a dogged pursuit of revenge.

And Neil Druckmann, the game’s director, wanted to draw out this response: “The whole thing was constructed in such a way as to say, in the beginning of the game, we’re going to make you feel such intense hate that you can’t wait to find these people and make them pay.”

“So the exploration with this game is how can we start with that state and then make you reflect on it? And then maybe, maybe… if something happens in the world outside of the game, there’s some of that is left over so you at least pause and say, OK, what is it like to be in this other perspective?”

It was a deeply personal story for many, highly lauded by critics, but leaving some conflicted with the nuance of the ending. What video games can do that you don’t see in other mediums is put you in that perspective, in a position to reflect. In EA’s Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, we pondered responsibility and fate, in a game where nature and oppressive industrialisation juxtaposed one another.

2K’s Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line asked us if we’re really in control of ourselves, twisting the player’s position on its head. The Stanley Parable, the video game equivalent of an M.C. Escher painting, played with our expectations even just walking down a corridor. Linear games guide you and take you on an experience like no other.

Open world, open mind

But video games thrive when we drive the narrative. When where we go and who we talk to is in our hands. You might think that a game where you can go wherever and do whatever would be directionless, with the story taking a back seat. But it just presents an opportunity to tell a story in a different way.

For Bethesda’s big open-world ventures, such as Skyrim and the Fallout series, it’s less about drawing out this narrative, but creating something each player will find unique.

In an interview with Time, Todd Howard said: “I think it’s up to us to make all of those avenues meaningful for what they are.”

“I think there’s always going to be this huge percentage that the majority of our players never see, but when they talk to somebody about it, that moment of sharing their experiences, they end up different and that’s a really good thing.”

Creative director behind Watch Dogs: Legion, Clint Hocking, put it well: “It’s our responsibility to look at the things that are happening in the world around us and have something to say about that, to create something that’s meaningful, that people can look at and engage with, and it speaks to the world that they live in.”

Open world games still have something to say; a story to tell. But how they go about it is different, but no less engrossing. Then there are games with no apparent story but dripping with lore. FromSoftware’s games, such as the PS4 exclusive Bloodborne, relish in creating a world where you have to work to uncover the mystery.

As The Guardian puts it, the world is “leaden with dread and portent” and “uniquely inhospitable”, and therein lies its appeal. Drawing from gothic and cosmic horror, if you want to know exactly what is behind the terror, you have to look for it yourself. It’s a completely player-driven exploration.

Stories will always be important to humanity. It’s how we connect with one another, passing lessons through the generations. Video games are now part of that and can deliver compelling narratives on par with literature and film. With so many creative people behind the scenes, we’ve only just begun to tap what we can achieve with storytelling in video games.

At REALTIME, storytelling is at the heart of what we do. If you want to discuss your next project, get in touch with me at [email protected].