Updated: Feb 15, 2021
Welcome back, everyone. In the last article, we investigated the major strides in video game storytelling that occurred between the 1980s and the 2000s, which were often facilitated by improvements in technology. I made the argument that storytelling in video games can indeed match that found in books, TV, films and live theatre – if you know which games to look for. In this, the second and final entry of this mini-series we will investigate the further strides in video game storytelling and the technology that has enabled them. Let’s dive in.
The 2000s - New Technology
The 2000s to the mid-2010s saw several major leaps in video game technology, which provided new and improved tools for storytellers to aid them to practice their craft. Some of the standout examples include HD graphics, WIFI-enabled consoles, digital downloads and the introduction of Blu-Ray discs.
Full voice-acting had become the norm, as were professionally recorded soundtracks with real instruments and vocals. Some OSTs (Original Sound Tracks) - such as Halo 3’s - were performed by full symphony orchestras with a vocal chorus. Blu-Ray enabled these recordings to be replayed in lossless 7.1 surround sound. This empowered storytellers to use music to reinforce their stories with greater clarity and precision than ever before.
Halo 3 Full OST
In-game music has come a long way since the days of Frogger 'et al
Video by Halo Evolved
Body Language and Facial Expressions
Half-Life 2 added two additional tools to the storyteller’s toolkit, namely realistic physics and dynamic facial animations. Character’s expressions and body language could now be used to convey emotions and show 'tells'.
This is something 2011’s LA Noire would later use to great effect. In this Film Noir inspired detective title the player must question witnesses, potential suspects and other persons of interest to gather information, all the while determining if the people you are questioning are telling the truth, have been intimidated into silence or are being deliberately deceitful. The interviewee's facial expressions, body language and speech patterns often revealed more than their words did - whether they meant to or not.
Half-Life 2 E3 2003 Tech Demo
In 2003 this was truly next-gen
Video by HalfLife2E3
The early to mid-2010s saw in-game storytelling reach its zenith. Motion Capture technology or ‘Mo-cap’ allowed for even greater fidelity in portraying body language, facial expressions, etc. Beyond: Two Souls was a superb demonstration of this, even if its gameplay left something to be desired.
Another PlayStation exclusive combined this with fantastic gameplay and exceptional worldbuilding, characterization, and storytelling. That game was the magnificent ‘The Last of Us’, who’s prologue sequence is one of the most gripping and emotive introductions to a video game ever. I shan’t be commenting on its sequel since I haven’t played it - I do not own a PS4 so it is not currently possible for me to do so.
Halo - Are the Games Better than the Books?
No article about video game storytelling would be complete without mentioning the Halo franchise. Although Halo’s UNSC (United Nations Space Command) was clearly modelled on the USCM (the United States Colonial Marine Corps) from Aliens, and the Halo rings were likely inspired by Larry Niven’s 1970 novel ‘Ringworld’, it remains an original IP with some genuinely novel concepts. Perhaps most original of all was the portrayal of the Covenant, one of the franchise's primary antagonists. The Covenant is a multi-alien species theocracy unified by a common religious belief. Their antagonism towards humanity was framed as a holy war, a concept that is very rare in science fiction in general, and near unheard of in video games.
The portrayal of the Covenant’s leadership as being dogmatic religious fools who had been led astray by their blind devotion to the now-departed Forerunners was a masterstroke of storytelling. It is discovered that everything the Covenant believed about themselves, their Forerunner ancestors and the nature and purpose of their ‘holy relics’ - the titular ‘Halos’ - was wrong. Worse yet, it becomes apparent that their devotion to this misinterpretation of events had led them down a path that would have led to their own - and everyone else’s - extinction in the very near future.
This revelation was immediately followed by an artful portrayal of the collapse of the Covenant’s society, and its inevitable descent into a civil war between those that could accept the truth, and those that chose to cling to their faith. This was a bold move on developer Bungie’s part that could easily have backfired since openly questioning and mocking religion - even a fictional alien religion - may have been a sensitive and controversial subject for some.
Halo’s lore, worldbuilding, and storytelling - not to mention commercial success - resulted in award-winning author Greg Bear being commissioned to write three prequel novels, Cryptum, Primordium and Silentium. This Forerunner Trilogy focused on the Forerunners and their conflict with ancient space-faring Humans, the fate of the near-extinct Progenitor race and their relationship to the parasitic organisms of The Flood. Much of this ‘retconned’ what had been established by that point in the games and previous spin-off novels.
The trilogy went on to cover the Forerunners’ doomed attempts to hold back the subsequent Flood infestation and concluded with their self-inflicted extinction. The latter was the result of the Forerunners activating their galaxy-wide doomsday weapons - the Halo arrays - in an attempt to wipe out the Flood and anything the parasites could use as hosts - the Forerunner's themselves included.
For me, this is when the franchise ‘jumped the shark’. I could willingly suspend my disbelief with Halo’s lore up to this point, but the sci-fi tropes in these books - and thus every game in the franchise that followed them - were simply steps too far. I shan’t go into details here as I wish to avoid any further spoilers. Suffice to say for now that despite being an avid reader and audiobook listener, my dislike of Cryptum was such that I could not force myself to read or listen to more than a quarter of it, and that I have not touched a Halo game since Reach. (Reach being the last Halo game to be released before the Forerunner Trilogy.)
To my mind, this is an example of the storytelling in a videogame being superior to the storytelling in a book. My five-year-old Pacman playing self would never have expected to write such a sentence. It shows just how far we have come.
2015 saw mid-tier ‘AA’ studios create masterpieces that stood head and shoulders above most contemporary AAA releases. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a shining example that richly deserved the 250+ game of the year awards it received. Being based on a series of books and remaining faithful to the source material ensured its storytelling, worldbuilding and characterisation were superb.
This era also saw the return of the point and click adventure and interactive graphic novel concepts, with the aptly named Telltale Games leading the charge. Telltale created the heart wrenching interactive graphic novel Telltale's The Walking Dead and the hilarious point and click adventure ‘Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Adventures’ (Which my youngest is currently obsessed with.)
A standout title from the modding world was FreeSpace Blue Planet, an unofficial continuation of the FreeSpace saga created by the Hard-Light Productions (HLP) modding community. Two simplified versions of its story, ‘Morrigan in the Sun Glare’ and its sequel ‘Morrigan in Shadow’ were featured in the 2014 and 2015 editions of ‘The Year’s Best of Military and Adventure Science Fiction Stories’ short story anthology books. Much of the mod’s story and lore was written by the now published author Seth Dickinson, who has also had a hand in shaping the lore of Destiny: The Taken King. With in-game storytelling of this calibre becoming more and more common, the future of videogames as a legitimate storytelling medium looked assured.
Opening Cinematic of FreeSpace Blue Planet: War in Heaven
I genuinely still get chills from this
Video by Fabian Woltermann
The Late 2010s to the Present Day
Unfortunately, recent(ish) events have conspired to prevent this. There has been a notable dip in the quantity and quality of video game storytelling these past five-or-so years. One reason for this dip in video game storytelling is the dip in the number of big-name single-player video games being released. Many of the large studios have been focusing on Multi-Player gaming, often at the expense of the single-player element, assuming the game even has one. Why? Because online microtransactions, loot boxes, and ‘games as a service’ monetization practices generate more revenue for the publishers. Multiplayer games are generally focused on gameplay, with little thought given to story development or characterization.
This is especially true for the recent glut of ‘Battle Royale’ games such as Player Unknown’s BattleGround, arena shooters such as Overwatch, and ‘asymmetrical multiplayer games’ such as Predator: Hunting Grounds. In these games, storytelling is largely absent.
The storytelling and characterisation in the handful of AAA single-player games that are being released often leave a lot to be desired. There has been a noticeable trend towards historical revisionism and ‘wokeness’ (for want of a better), usually to the detriment of the game’s storytelling and sometimes even its gameplay. Titles such as Mass Effect: Andromeda, Battlefield V and Wolfenstein: Young Blood are all examples of this, and all have been panned by gamers and independent content creators alike.
There have been a few rare exceptions of course. The Celtic mythology themed Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice was another masterpiece from an AA studio. Its inclusion of psychosis as a character trait, story element and gameplay mechanic is revolutionary. This ably demonstrates that video games can engage with such weighty and difficult topics just as well as any other medium, and perhaps more so, due to video game’s innate interactivity.
As technology continues to improve, the storytelling potential of video games may increase. Truly photorealistic NPCs with superb Motion Capture technology - which might be capable of leaping over the uncanny valley - could create characters that are more believable and relatable than ever before. If twinned with VR, Dolby Atmos soundscapes and even haptic feedback devices, the potential for total immersivity becomes clear.
With luck, the current trends of Multi-Player focused games and woke identity politics infused Single-Player campaigns will run their courses and be left behind. In some respects, this has started already - there has been a noticeable uptick in the number of big-name single-player games being released in the last twelve months.
I also predict that we may see more games based on existing non-video game franchises. Being able to draw upon existing characters, lore and worlds - not to mention a pre-existing fan base - can make the task of creating and promoting a video game easier for both developers and publishers.
I remain cautiously optimistic that in-game storytelling will continue to improve, and that the notion that video games are as legitimate a method of storytelling as any other medium will become more widespread.
This has been my two cents on the subject. I’m sure there are many other titles, or even whole franchises, that I have not listed here due to time and word-count restraints, or my not being aware of them.
But these are just my thoughts on the subject. What are yours? Do you consider video games to be a legitimate storytelling medium? If you can think of any other examples that could have been included, then please tell me and gamers everywhere about them in the comments section below.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to online multiplayer. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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