Special Interest: Video Games: The Most Underrated Way to Tell a Story
Written by Journalism Staff Reporter Eli Mattingly
I’m a person who adores all forms of artistic expression and has a deep personal love for every form of storytelling, as I aspire to one day tell the stories I’ve crafted over the years in whatever medium I decide to pursue. But I doubt it will ever be just one. I have always been enamored by the incredible potential with film, with both the limitless possibilities with visual language, incredible feats achieved with only dialogue, and the stunning performances that have been displayed by truly gifted actors. I am also infatuated with the possibilities of literature. Being able to paint an exquisite picture in the reader’s head with just words, and the lack of limitations on both the length and focus of the story. But one medium of storytelling I feel that is often overlooked in the public eye is that of video games. They are often not seen as groundbreaking innovations and heartrendingly beautiful pieces of narrative brilliance, but more simply fun and entertaining ways to pass the time. I agree that not every game is trying to be the Citizen Kane of its medium, and often it is just trying to supply fun and entertaining gameplay with minimal or no story, such as Call of Duty or Minecraft. But that does not mean that the medium is incapable of producing some truly remarkable experiences. There are amazing artists who have poured their hearts and souls into their work, and they have not gotten near the recognition they truly deserve. So, I will discuss a few of my personal favorite games, and what makes them truly exceptional in hopes of rectifying this issue.
The first game I would like to discuss is a game called Subnautica. The game takes place in the distant future, where humans have gained the ability for interstellar travel and the colonization of other planets. The game begins when the main character’s ship, the Aurora, crashes onto an unknown world categorized as 4546B. The planet is essentially all ocean, with very little land above water. The player must survive in this alien world teeming with life, some of which is not too friendly. From a glance, Subnautica is simply just a survival sandbox game, some even elect to call it Minecraft underwater. But that is a gross understatement of what the game truly has to offer the player. You see, Subnautica is easily the most terrifying game I have ever played, and that is all due to one factor that Subnautica completely mastered. Immersion. When the player is first introduced to the world of 4546B, they are in an area known as the safe shallows. An aptly named biome as it is the place with the least number of hostile creatures, and the sea floor is the closest to the surface. However, as the player progresses further into the game, the crafting recipes for the more complex items begin to ask for things that are harder and harder to find, forcing the player to explore outside of their comfort zone. This is when the atmosphere of the game really begins to take shape. There are dozens of areas of the game that suddenly drop off and go substantially deeper than before, leading to moments that truly made my stomach sink. As the player ventures deeper into this vast world, the environments become more alien and unfamiliar. That accompanied by the giant and deadly sea creatures known as leviathans roaming certain biomes creates a massive amount of dread for the player. But the player keeps going as they get more confident, and their curiosity eventually overpowers their fear. The developers cleverly use this natural curiosity to begin to unfold an admittedly simple yet highly effective narrative. They leave giant alien structures dotted around the map for the player to discover, causing them to only become more curious. They prompt questions like “What is the purpose of this building? Who built it? Am I really the only intelligent creature on this planet?” all questions that have answers as the player progresses. The player will also notice that some of the fauna seem to be infected with some kind of disease. As the player explores deeper into this alien ocean, they get a slow but interesting trickle of information. It is gradually revealed that an alien race far beyond our level of intellect once inhabited this planet to research a disease that was killing them off. And they found a creature on the planet excreted a substance that cured it. However, in their arrogance they killed most of them off, and could not get more to hatch. So, the game ends with the player discovering the last adult of this creature and helping its eggs hatch, curing the planet. We get a heartfelt scene of this creature, who stayed alive far longer than it should have been able too, playing with its newborn children, waiting for them to escape confinement, then collapsing and dying. Subnautica brilliantly utilizes the player’s own natural curiosity of this beautiful and terrifying world to convey a story of an alien race who believed they were too powerful to be touched going extinct as they were too pretentious to simply listen to the creature they were desperately experimenting on. It is a fairly simple story, and it is by no means a brilliant narrative, but this subtle story coupled with a vast and endlessly enthralling world makes foa marvelous experience I cannot help but recommend.
Subnautica’s story is simple but putting it alongside an amazing world to explore made for a wondrous adventure. But it is not the only way to tell a story through this format. That is where the next game I wish to discuss, Valiant Hearts, comes in. Valiant Hearts is a game about World War One, and how it can affect and change people by focusing on a handful of individuals. The gameplay is casual, as it is mainly a puzzle-solving adventure game, but it is never afraid to tell a realistic story of how war can affect people. We focus on the main character, a Frenchman named Emil, alongside his German son-in-law Karl, an American soldier named Freddy, and a Belgian nurse named Anna. All the characters are slowly connected to one another throughout the story, as Emil and Freddy meet in war and quickly become close friends, while Karl and Anna meet as Anna was Karl’s nurse when he got injured. We go back and forth with these characters as they do everything they can to aid in the war effort. As we do so, we slowly get attached to these characters and their struggle, especially Emil, as we sometimes get a narration from him of a letter he sends his daughter. However, things take a turn when Emil sees a commanding officer forcing soldiers into a battlefield raining with bullets, forcing them to die. Emil cannot stand for this, so he hits the commander in the back of the head to stop him, accidentally killing him. This makes Emil a traitor and leads to a scene that is one of the only three scenes in the media to make me cry. We get the final narration from Emil as he is escorted to his execution. Emil reads aloud his final letter to his daughter, detailing what is about to happen to him and why. He apologizes that he could not make it home and that he failed his son Karl, whom he presumes to be dead. As he reads, we see Emil being escorted by a general to his execution. All the soldiers, along with Freddy, salute the general, but once he passes, they take off their hats for Emil out of respect. We get the final part of Emil’s letter to his daughter as he gets tied to a pole, with his heart-wrenching last words of “Though I failed Karl, I know my sacrifice has not been in vain. I fought for my country and my liberty; my honor is assured. Since it is the will of God to separate us on earth, I hope we’ll meet again in heaven. Keep me in your prayers. Your loving papa, always.” As we hear that last sentence, we see Emil bound to the pole, blindfolded, and a gunshot rings out as we then cut to black. This scene worked so well because of the experiences the characters and the player have gone through. The immense wrong that has been committed, the dissatisfaction with how Emil is being unfairly killed. None of it would have worked as well if we had not suffered alongside him, if it were not for this being a playable experience.
Valiant Hearts' story is complemented beautifully with its game play, and Subnautica’s story is just another element to add to the immersion and excellence of the experience, but what if a game developer got creative with the storytelling possibilities of the medium? What if the fact that it was a video game was a part of the story? A developer decided to ask those questions and created the game Undertale. Undertale has gathered a bit of a reputation with what the internet has done to overexpose it to people, and make it seem like only a nuisance. However, the game itself is still a fantastic masterpiece. Undertale is built like a standard 16-bit RPG, with its classic blocky graphics and combat system, like Pokemon. But it separates itself from other such games by using every stereotypical element of an RPG of this nature and working it into the story. The game starts with your character face down in a bed of flowers. You then run into a talking flower, who at first glance, seems like the stereotypical tutorial character that teaches the player the rules of the game. but it takes a sudden turn when the talking flower tricks you and just wants to kill you. But you are then saved by the actual tutorial character, who is aptly named Toriel. This subversion of the genre is just one of many the developers cleverly implement to enhance the story. The player then progresses, and it is explained that you have a choice when you encounter enemies. You can kill them to gain XP, and thus get stronger, but you can just have a chat with them, sort out a problem, and spare them, with the game heavily suggesting that the player do the latter. Most of the time in games like this, the player would just slaughter enemies without question as that is just how the game usually works. But here they are treated like random goofy people that inhabit this world. They do attempt to kill you, but they feel more misguided than malicious. As the game continues, you meet even more of these strange yet delightfully charming characters that you can either kill or befriend. This clever story building aspect alongside the game’s goofy and clever writing results in an unapologetically entertaining and investing adventure. As you continue down the rout of pacifism however, more serious tones begin to show. It is made clear that to escape this world of monsters and get back home, you will have to kill their king to give yourself enough power. Right after this bombshell is delivered to the player, they are stopped in the Judgment Hall by a character named Sans, who explains a few things. The term XP in this world stands for Execution points, and LV stands for Level of Violence, as it is a way to measure how much harm you have put onto others. If you have kept true to pacifism, Sans tells you that you have a choice of what to do about the final fight. You can try and kill the king, and go home, or spare him, and remain stuck in the realm of monsters. If the player keeps with the philosophy that has led them to this point, they are met with a final ending sequence with twists, turns, a true final battle where all the friends you have made help aid you in defeating the boss. After this ordeal, we get a heartfelt sendoff with these characters saying one last goodbye, and the game ends happily after.
This is not the only ending Undertale offers, however. All that I just described is the main ending of the game, but at the very end of this route, a character pops up and has a little chat with the player. It is explained that there are other ways this story can turn out but why alter this? You got the best ending where you saved everyone. Not a single life was lost. You can go back, but everyone would be happy if you just left things here. This is a brilliant bit of reverse psychology. The game prompts the player to think, “Well, I did get the best ending. But I am curious what happens if I take a different approach? I’m curious.” The game does not force you to do anything, it is just the morbid curiosity of the player that motivates them to see what happens if they decide to kill instead of befriending the monsters. This is known as the genocide route. The most brilliant yet horrifying part of Undertale. The player may not expect too much when going into this rout, but Undertale becomes an entirely different game. The atmosphere takes a massive shift. You become the villain of this story. Everyone who was once your friend is now completely terrified of you, and the game makes sure you know what you are doing is awful. With the droning music, the now completely evacuated areas of the game, and the main characters being either afraid, completely enraged, or heartbroken at what you are doing. This playthrough is also exceptionally good at creeping out the player with little touches, such as the switch from second to first person perspective when interacting with things as you approach the end of this route. It goes from things like “you examined the box” to “I opened the gate” with sinister red coloring. This plays into the story, but it is also a way of making it known that the character you play as is not responsible for these actions, you are. That is the brilliance of Undertale. It is not just a simple RPG, every decision the player makes plays into the story and the outcome of the game. Undertale is both a beautiful game about silly characters who you help and befriend and a reverse horror game where you are the monster. It is a fascinating and groundbreaking concept executed brilliantly through the only medium in which it could have been created.
That Dragon, Cancer
Clearly immensely creative things are capable with this medium, as Undertale has proved. But there is one final game I wish to discuss in this article, as it is getting a tad bit long. I wish to discuss the third time a piece of media has made me cry, and the one that made me cry the hardest. a game known as That Dragon, Cancer. That Dragon, Cancer is not a video game in the traditional sense, a better descriptor of it is a beautiful avant-garde experience regaling a tragic story. The game tells the story of a family whose youngest son, Joel, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer at twelve months old, and the four years of fighting the family had with Joel’s cancer. a battle that Joel unfortunately lost. It is a gut-wrenching story, but one that was told in the most impactful way possible. The tragedy is told with breathtaking imagery right out of a child’s imagination, contrasted with very plain depictions of moments throughout Joel and his family’s journey. The struggles, the victories, and the defeats. I would love to go into detail of the game’s events and imagery, but I know simply talking about them would not do them justice. I will try and steer as clear of spoilers as possible in case anyone has interest in experiencing this masterpiece. One recurring motif is that of the dark and pulsing black cancer cells that often invade peaceful and sweet moments, exemplifying how the cancer affected the family’s lives. The title of the game is explained in a sequence where Joel’s father attempts to explain to him what cancer is. And Joel’s father chooses to explain it as if it were a fairy tale, with Joel being the brave and valiant knight, and the cancer being the big bad dragon. The game has many moments of joy with sad undertones like this, but it is not afraid to give us unflinchingly sad moments, such as when Joel was still a baby, and he was going through chemo, and we are met with the visual of Joel’s father holding him close to his chest, trying to comfort Joel through his wails and coughs of pain. But the moment that is the saddest is at the end of the game, after we go through the final sequence, and it is made clear what happened to Joel, the screen fades to white, and we are met with an actual picture of Joel, looking happy as can be. I watched a silent playthrough of the game to make sure I do not miss anything in this section of the article, and I cannot help but cry whenever I see Joel’s face. That Dragon, Cancer is the most emotionally powerful game I have ever played with its elegantly simple graphics, its visuals, and its unflinching portrayal of this family’s pain, sadness, and grief, alongside their happiness with what time they had with Joel. It is truly an unforgettable experience.
Video games go unnoticed when discussing storytelling mediums, and sure, many video games just aim to be enjoyable little romps with fun mechanics, but they can be so much more. Videogames have such incredible storytelling potential, with it being really the only narrative where second person is viable and not overtly cumbersome to write for, the power of a player’s choices have a tangible effect on how events play out, and the most effective way to immerse a consumer of the narrative into a fantastical world beyond their imagining. They can lead to completely terrifying yet awe inspiring worlds such as the one in Subnautica. They can give an unapologetically realistic portrayal of how devastating war can be with charming and relatable characters you do not want to let go of like in Valiant Hearts. They can take a drastically different approach in structure and make elements the player normally would not question such as a save point, leveling up, or even the choice of fighting or sparing enemies having a monumental effect on what the player experience is like in Undertale. Or you can have a beautifully devastating depiction of a wonderful family going through the trials and tribulations of having a beautiful baby boy with terminal brain cancer, like in That Dragon, Cancer. Limiting the medium by simply denoting that all games are like Call of Duty, 2K, or GTA is truly a gross misunderstanding of what it can be. It is a storytelling medium where thousands of artists pour their unfiltered creativity and splendor into an experience unlike any other. It gave way to some of the greatest and most resonating stories ever to exist. I have only scratched the surface with what I have covered in this article; it is a medium with that much potential. I only hope that I was able to expound enough for some to recognize this medium as the gateway to truly resplendent and impassioned works of art.