Since time began, people have used storytelling in order to achieve one of our primary goals, that of survival. It’s funny, isn’t it? We use stories to entertain, but we also use them to teach us how to live. Imagine the dawn of civilization: one person finds enough food to feed their tribe. They race back to the others and convey to them the tale of plenty. Was that not a story?
The ways that we’ve gone about telling story have grown and changed in incredible and marvelous directions. In the beginning, it was grunts and gestures. It would eventually progress to elaborate pictograms, as we shaped our grunts and gestures into thousands of different spoken languages. We’d then take that spoken language a step further; the written word.
Simple pictograms – ancient cave drawings and Egyptian hieroglyphics are the most recognizable examples – go on to become paintings, and simple language would grow to become speeches, plays, impassioned poems and histories. All of these things have grown out of one simple idea: the need to share and express information with our fellow human beings. To tell story.
I’ve always found it fascinating that story is unique to human beings. No other creature on this planet shares information in the same way that we do. Even then, a lot of that information can be open to interpretation and debate a great deal of the time, due to the abstract nature of some of the ideas that we exchange.
Each form of storytelling has a very exact reason and purpose. Through the written word, or through voice, the nature of that story is to tell another human being about an event, be it fact or fiction. Using visual media, such as television, graphic novels, and film, we not only tell the story, but also show it to our audience. It is one thing to be told a story and another thing to have visual stimulation accompany it. I am reminded of my youth and hearing about the storming of Omaha Beach during World War II, with the film Saving Private Ryan being released a few years later. I recall the reactions to the realistic depictions of that beach landing and how it had a major effect on audiences. Through powerful visual feedback, we end up having a significant effect on how people take in that content.
These visual focused forms of storytelling have shown us incredible value, but not without complications. They allow us to communicate those complex ideas in new ways, but even then there can be a disconnect between the information and the audience. Signal to noise ratio, so to speak. Video games challenge that problem of noise by doing something that those other forms of storytelling can’t do: they allow the viewer to be a part of the story. Every single experience that a player has in the game is deep, personal, and intimate. As far as the brain is concerned, the things that a player has done in a game isn’t happening to someone else; it’s happening to them. They are deeply entrenched in the narrative and very much a part of that world.
Video games have grown over the past several decades and they’re telling better and more engaging stories. I doubt that there are many people who will be able to find any kind of incredibly deep meaning behind Tetris, Peggle, or Bejeweled. Those aren’t the experiences that I’m referring to, and a medium should not be judged by all the things that have happened through it. As there have been many different books, films, and songs written for all kinds of peculiar, experimental and zany purposes, just as many have been created that have changed the course of history.
A well known example of this is Isaac Asimov’s Runaround, which introduced the idea of “The Three Laws of Robotics.” With it, he put forth a powerful idea about the future of the development of artificial intelligence. Its impact was so great that those laws are considered and applied today in the real world, because the potential consequences could be dire. In 2007 the South Korean government would begin to form its ‘Robot Ethics Charter’, discussing the guiding principles and ground rules for the future of robotic development. Furthermore, Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report asked an existential question that has plagued humans since we could study and understand the abstract: do we have free will?
Video games have the capacity to be as complex as these narratives and to share thought-provoking, world-changing information in a similar way. Atlus’ Catherine explores the idea of what a relationship is like for a man. It allows women to cross the gender barrier and see what kind of hardships exist for many men when it comes to intimacy. Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain allows the player to explore the pain and anguish that nearly destroys a parent after the premature death of one of their child. Activision’s Call of Duty series is, for some people, merely a way to pass the time. But for others it gives them a new understanding; the tiniest inkling of what is meant when we say “war is hell”.
Video games are so young that we’re only now beginning to understand what they can do. Do not misunderstand me when I say that video games are the final frontier of storytelling. Games allow us to live the experience, but this current incarnation is just the first step onto that unexplored frontier. Like other expressive storytelling arts, games have struggled, and will continue to struggle through a long period of growth in order to reach their full potential.
We’re hardly done with the medium, in fact we’re just beginning. The ways we input data and interface with those systems are incredibly rudimentary right now. Who knows, maybe in 50 years we’ll be playing some other game where we can interact in all ways through all of our senses, in a way that might be indiscernible to the way that the human mind processes information. I’m incredibly excited to see the new directions that VR is going to attempt to take with storytelling. I think that many of us have some fond memories of watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and seeing the holodeck and the possibilities that come with that. Current virtual reality technology such as Microsoft’s HoloLens and Oculus Rift are great jump-off points, but I do not believe that they are the be-all-end-all of where we can go with storytelling. VR is definitely the beginning, but surely not the end.
The beauty of video games is that we will be able to share and experience ideas, realities, and existences that we have not been able to create in any other environment. It might teach us an important trait that often gets overlooked; empathy. Understanding for our fellow man. We won’t just say “Walk a mile in another man’s shoes” as a metaphor. It’s starting to get to the point where we can make that exact thing happen.
I don’t know where we’re going to end up with video games, and with all the technological advancements, it’s difficult for anyone to make a fully accurate prediction. But in a world of storytellers, it’s a vast, open plain of possibilities where we should all be scrambling to stake our own claim.