Dylan Taylor | 3 April 2017.
With the release last month of the newest entry in the Legend of Zelda series, Breath of the Wild, talk has turned again to the artistry of video games. The idea that interactive entertainment can tell interesting stories, or that it is capable of being considered “art” in the “high-brow” sense of the term, is a contested one. It’s a contest, though, that has seen the scale weighted more on the side of the defenders in recent years . Within the field of the humanities, where scholars typically study traditional forms of storytelling, how does one make sense of where this newer medium stands? How can one, who has grown up with video games, and who considers literature and the art of storytelling itself to be one of humanity’s highest achievements, come to terms with their appreciation of both?
I have often found myself grappling with the value of a form which, in many instances, puts little emphasis on creating an original story and much more on recycling the tropes on which a given game’s genre demands. If Ocarina of Time, a game widely heralded as the greatest ever created , and noted especially for its strong story, were to have been written as a piece of literature, would the narrative be considered anything special? I can’t say, truthfully, when thinking of literary works within the fantasy genre, that it would. Moving beyond genre—when thinking of the works of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Virginia Woolf, for example—the comparison becomes almost preposterous. And yet, there is still something about Ocarina of Time (and Final Fantasy IX, Braid, Okami, and Golden Sun, to name some others) that invites consideration of its narrative. What is it about video game storytelling that allows even the simplest of stories to so capture the imagination?
I believe that what makes video games so interesting is the form itself and the ability for the user to interact. In our own lives, which can often feel less exciting or “original”, we may find ourselves mythologizing our own stories, becoming powerfully drawn to, and affected by, events in our narratives. This narrative combined with our own first-hand experience lends anything we feel, from within the contexts of our own lives, a special sort of significance. A similar experience of first-person interaction finds a direct representation in the format of video game narrative. By having the ability to do things as simple as pick up a rock, run through a field, examine the pastoral beauty of quaint towns tucked amongst mountains and farmlands, or watch characters walk back and forth and decide whether or not to engage with them, all while exploring, fighting, conversing, and problem-solving, the experience of storytelling within a video game can deeply affect its players, even when the stories themselves are simple or conventional. For it is not the story itself that gives a game its power—not on its own, anyway. The impressive thing about the video game form, and indeed other interactive forms, is that a vivid explorable environment is all that is needed to give rise to the feeling of being a part of something profound and deeply-affecting.
To move through the minimalist spaces of Thomas Was Alone, through the darkness of Limbo, through the evocative landscapes of Ico, Silent Hill 2, Journey, and Shadow of the Colossus—to do so at one’s own pace and as one personally chooses—is to experience a form of storytelling that is inherently personal. Creating an atmosphere, then, is the video game’s great narrative strength. This is something it could be said to share with great works from other major storytelling media. What is it that we come away with after reading a great work of literature or after viewing a film? What is it about certain works that causes them to transcend the moment in which they are physically experienced, to hold a tremendous lingering power over our thoughts, a power more profound, at times, than the directness of actual words or images? It is mostly, I would argue, atmosphere.
There can be an artistry, then, in even a simple Nintendo game like Pikmin, if it is able to give its players a sense of atmosphere that remains during and after its playtime and evokes something that feels meaningful. The fusion of art and design, music, story, character, and that crucial ingredient—the ability to interactively control—allows video games to build this atmosphere and create impact in ways different to other forms of media.
Defences of video games as forms of art can strain themselves by attempting to equate video game stories with those of other media. Perhaps that is part of the problem. We do not need to find excuses for why video games should be able to reach the same poetic heights of Dante or to tell a tale as well as Homer, or even of Hemingway. In such cases, we should admit that video games lose the battle. If we are able to acknowledge that a critique of video game storytelling requires a different form of measurement, due especially to the central importance of its interactive element, then it may prove less difficult to validate the medium’s narratives.
It is worth noting that, as with films and novels, the majority of video games that are available are admittedly not of the highest quality and do not aspire to be anything beyond entertainment. There is perhaps no medium that is inherently artistic. But when done right—when developers of video games create out of the same intellectual and emotional determination  that fuels the artists who have created great works within more traditional storytelling canons—video games can become something with a unique narrative power. By coming to terms with this, it becomes easier to accept stories within classic video games, even when they do not compare, qualitatively, with the stories in literature and film. There should be no reason, then, that either form is invalidated by a measured and self-aware appreciation of both; Mass Effect and Kafka, while not of the same world, may exist within the same cosmology of experiences.
Dylan Taylor is currently working towards his MSc in Literature and Society at the University of Edinburgh, and received his BA in English from the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research interests include the relationship between literature and philosophy and the history of ideas.
Article Edited by Harry Leonard.