There are those who argue that a great stage play could focus on nothing but dialogue, while a great screenplay could do without dialogue at all. Both film and stage are capable of producing similar narratives, but each has its own strengths. The video game, like film, is a visual medium, but it leaves open infinite possibilities for storytelling. A game’s story is told not just through graphics and text or dialogue, but also through gameplay, mechanics, and technology.
Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier 2011) is a game in which you, as one of several characters, must keep your finances afloat while running a food cart and living your life. It features retro, side-scrolling graphics and the story is told largely through text narration. Although the look is primitive, like early, text-based adventure games, the story is serious, even existential. The progression of the story through narration is the player’s primary focus.
The Graveyard (Tale of Tales 2008) is a game that places emphasis on an abstract audio/visual experience. In the game, you play an old woman. You walk through a cemetery, sit on the bench, and hear a song about death and illness. If you pay for the full version, you have the possibility of death. There is no backstory, just a single moment without context. There is no text or dialogue, apart from the song lyrics, yet the game still communicates a strong message. The laboured movements of the woman, the stark black and white images, the crows and other ambient sounds, the melancholic song, and the way the woman patiently waits on the bench, all add up to a visceral experience. On the game’s website, the creators describe it “more like an explorable painting than an actual game.” In the free version, an old woman waits for death, then leaves to live another day. In the full version, death arrives. Through exceedingly short and simple gameplay, the game communicates a deep meaning.
Both of these games can be seen as existential tales of profound sorrow and loss, one communicated through narrative and the other primarily through visuals. Storytelling is not limited to text or visuals, however. Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, for instance, let their own narratives fade into the background so that the players may create their own life and story within the game. In his article, “A Touch of Medieval: Narrative, Magic and Computer Technology in Massively Multiplayer Computer Role-Playing Games”, Eddo Stern notes how the interplay between characters becomes so compelling that the backstory is of little consequence (6).
Game mechanics and technology play a role in the story, too. Like in pen and paper role-playing games, game mechanics sometimes clash with the fantasy, and characters may converse in or out of character. One player might appreciate specific map coordinates, while another player may prefer the fantasy of in-game directions to a location. A common annoyance is when players disconnect from the game when faced with a perilous challenge (8). One game represented the “save game” feature as the character camping for the night (8).
Stern asserts that the players direct their own stories to such an extent that any game “downtime” is unsettling due to the sudden loss of narrative control (9). What lies at the heart of these games is not so much an elaborate backstory, but the “corporate rationing of power” that keeps players locked into a competitive challenge (12).
The stories in the first two aforementioned games are conveyed in different ways, but they are effective, emotional stories that are part of a concrete product. In an MMORPG, which is more like an ongoing service than a finished product, backstories are developed for added context, but the real story, your story, has no end.
Cart Life. Richard Hofmeier. 2011. Video game.
The Graveyard. Tale of Tales. 2008. Video game.
Stern, Eddo. “A Touch of Medieval: Narrative, Magic and Computer Technology in Massively Multiplayer Computer Role-Playing Games.” Ed. Frans Mayra. Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference Proceedings (2002): n. pag. Print.