Once Upon a Time

Storytelling is as old as we are. And there’s a reason it’s called storytelling as opposed to storywriting. The earliest stories were spoken aloud and repeated through the ages. These exact tales are mostly lost to us, although their echoes live on in myths and legends, peppered through our collective subconscious, popping up here and there as things we “know” but can’t explain, or archetypes that persist for millennia, across multiple creative media.

Why does the hero always save the princess? Why, for that matter, is there a hero at all? In order for a story to have meaning, it must be identifiable. What do you care if some idiot goes chasing after a silly tart? You care if you can see yourself as that idiot, or that tart. The meaning for young men, then is clear: If you are strong and brave, you will find your own true love. Why is this important? Because if you don’t find your love (or “a love”) then you will not procreate and your family/tribe/species will die out. That sure makes a silly story about a hero and a princess seem a lot less silly when you realize the fate of the entire human race rests on its perpetuation through the eons.

Stories are not mere entertainment. Sure, they serve that purpose, but the best of them inform. Sometimes they inform wrongly, as in the myriad tales from various pre-astronomic societies that tell of a fleeting romance gone bad between the sun and the moon, explaining why the two rarely share the same sky. Yet even knowing the faulty science behind such creation/explanation myths, one can’t help but marvel at the romanticism of them, and take at least some pride in the knowing that humans will strive to understand and explain their world even if they’re incapable. (One wonders what natural phenomenon we of this age are misinterpreting.)

Look closely at ancient maps of the earth. Even as late as the 1800s, most of them have sea monsters scrawled into the vast, dark places representing the farthest reaches of the oceans, as if, along with coral atolls, giant sea-serpents were common features. Did sea monsters really exist back then? Perhaps not, but early sailors learned to their peril that the sea could be a treacherous place. Ships set sail and never returned, or lost all hands in a storm, and were found drifting, empty and still as the grave. When you consider that man sailed the seas for thousands of years before being able to dive safely even a few feet beneath the waves, it makes perfect sense that even those who knew the sea intimately would fear the unseen (and imagined) dangers that lie beneath – and tell stories to warn of the danger.

Stories inform. They help humans relate to a world that’s at once confusing and potentially dangerous. And this is what videogames have in common with the ancient stories of our forebears. In any game there are a series of actions you must accomplish, tasks to complete. How do you know what to do, when and for how long? There’s a story.

An alien artifact discovered on Mars has opened a dimensional gate. Monsters have taken over the space station. You’re the last of the space marines in charge of security.

This is the story of Doom. What it lacks in depth, it makes up for in directness. There is no ambiguity in regards to what you’re supposed to do in Doom. Wouldn’t be, even without the half-page introductory text because we’ve all seen stories – other stories – about space marines shooting monsters. Think Doom had a non-existent story? Tell that to the part of your imagination awakened by the experience of prowling those darkened corridors. At the point you grabbed the controls, you became a new part of the story – the narrative in your own mind.

And we have now arrived at what videogames have brought to the table: The creation of user-interactive stories, the second level of the storytelling power of the newest of media. Once the game is finished telling you its story, you’re given the opportunity to jump in and make it your own. And the greatest game, the truly phenomenal from a storytelling perspective, allows you to change it. Save the princess – or don’t. That’s storytelling, story-living, at its finest. And one of the reasons videogames are the fastest-growing media in history.

This week, in Issue 236 of The Escapist, “Once Upon a Time,” we celebrate storytelling in games. Enjoy. Tell your friends.


Russ Pitts

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