Be the hero of your own story
Full of sap. Sentimental. Downright corny. If there’s a video game story (or really any other media, for that matter) that’s going to make me cry with pure emotion, you can bet your bottom dollar that I’m going to love it. As the world becomes an increasingly gruesome dumpster fire that burns more and more each day, the media can be a welcome respite from the chaos.
Don’t get me wrong here, I like dark and provocative stories in certain contexts, but sometimes what you really need is something that knows what it is and leans as hard as possible into this fantasy. I’m not talking about dragons and wizards, but about another kind of fantasy – game fantasy (although there is some overlap between these two). Let me explain to you.
State the obvious here, but when we play a video game we are engaged in very active play: pressing buttons to manipulate what we see on screen and interacting with the game systems that designers have put in place to provide us with a fulfilling game. live. We love exploring the constraints of these systems and using their rules to create scenarios where we get the best.
Another kind of game
But when we add the storytelling elements of a game – the setting, the characters, the plot, etc. – we engage in another type of play: make-believe. Similar to how a child might play princess or knight, there is something inside of us that enjoys the fantasy of being someone else. It’s the same thing about us who loves immersive experiences, which can include anything from an engrossing movie to an enveloping real-life experience like going to Disneyland or a Renaissance Faire. In these scenarios, we allow ourselves to shed our identities and put on new ones – something that can be incredibly freeing – and we do the exact same thing when we allow ourselves to indulge in the fantasy of a video game.
A lot of games tend to be genre fiction pieces like sci-fi, fantasy (we’re talking about the dragon and wizard variety now), and even westerns, and that’s because genre fiction is particularly effective in helping us get out of our own heads and into something more like an adventure. The best genre fiction knows what it is and leans into it hard, and by that I mean its creators understand the conventions and tropes of a play’s respective genre, and instead of avoiding them, they adopt these conventions wholeheartedly and without irony. What’s even better is when a game’s mechanics allow for emergent storytelling, because when we create our own story beats without any scripted help from the game, we feel even more ownership of our own narrative than we do. let’s play.
Think of the rousing speeches delivered triumphantly over the Normandie’s intercom in Mass Effector the swell of music when you first lay eyes on the magnificent pirate ships that you know hold treasure Uncharted 4. These moments could definitely be considered corny or over the top to some, but giving in to these indulgent moments is what really helps us feel like we’re living our dreams as a space commander or treasure hunter. People joke about games like God of the war being nothing more than a power fantasy, but honestly, that’s what it’s supposed to be, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
The blank slate
In other media, having a Blank Slate protagonist can be more problematic, as they can seem bland and uninspiring most of the time. But in games, having your main character be a hollow shell can actually be a big advantage, because given the nature of the game, players already tend to project their own character onto that character.
There are instances where having a more specific character can be just as affecting – my go-to example is always The last of us, because this game does a great job of using gameplay, especially how intense and heartbreaking it can be at times, to make you feel the characters and the journey they go through. If you let yourself go with the fear and despair that some of the most intense moments in this game present to you, suddenly the emotional highs and lows hit a lot harder.
give in to fantasy
When we talk about games having such an emotional impact, I think that’s why. Surrendering to the story, especially in such a strong and sometimes personal way that games demand of us, can mean some truly moving and rewarding gameplay and storytelling experiences.
Not all, but a vast majority of beloved classic games give in to one form of fantasy or another. Pokemon: go on an adventure with companions who fight loyally by your side. The Legend of Zelda: Become the stoic, loyal and heroic warrior who saves the princess and the rest of Hyrule. Stardew Valley: move to a quaint seaside town and live the peaceful life of a farmer while making friends and finding love. The list goes on and on – there are an endless number of little fantasies like this and an endless number of games that help us make them come true.
As adults, we don’t have a lot of opportunities to pretend, but we do have video games. Having a consistent place where we can go and be a hero or fall in love with an imaginary friend for a while might seem silly to some, but if we’re willing to let go of the part of us that cringes a bit and kiss the cheese , engaging in the game can be an incredibly rewarding experience.
Story Beat is a weekly column covering everything and nothing related to storytelling in video games.