Interactive Narratives: Video games for the rest of us
Humans have been playing games for a long time: at least thousands of years. Some of the earliest games ever invented used simple pieces and boards, such as the Game of Twenty Squares in ancient Mesopotamia and Hounds and Jackals in Egypt. We’ve come a long way since then, and have since invented such things like roleplaying games (Dungeons & Dragons, Vampire: The Masquerade) and wargames (Warhammer 40k, Heroclix) that have elaborate rules, detailed game pieces, and nuanced mechanics. Even our board games have progressed remarkably: RISK, Monopoly, Scrabble, and Settlers of Catan have rules that are complex and allow players to strategize.
During the last several decades, we have also invented video games. Unlike board games and card games, which have been staples of family game nights and social gatherings for generations, video games have often been seen as distractions or diversions. “Gamers” are seen as nerds, anti-social or socially awkward, and obsessive. Video games themselves have long been seen as addictive, cheap fun with little cultural value.
Yet, in recent years, video games are becoming more mainstream and diverse. As technology progressed, new things became possible and more complex, engaging, and visually appealing games began to be made. Space Invaders, a simple-yet-challenging game with a bare-bones “story”, eventually gave way to blockbusters like Halo, Final Fantasy X, and the Zelda series that have stories, characters, and narratives worthy of any novel.
Indeed, the dominant trend in video games seems to be towards complexity: more processing power and better graphics means more detailed games that are longer in duration and wider in scope. The concept of an “open-world” game where the player can go wherever they like has been around for a while, allowing players to invest time and energy in exploring the game world and mastering it, much like they would the real world.
Some video games, like EVE Online, are so well-developed that they even have “fictional” economies worth significant sums of real money. For example, the going exchange rate between the US Dollar and EVE’s InterStellar Kredit (ISK) is approximately 125,000,000 ISK to $1, and the total monetary value of all ISK in the game was estimated to be over $24,000,000 in 2013. Consider that Tuvalu, an island country in the Pacific Ocean, has a Gross National Product of about $40,000,000: this means that EVE Online’s economy is roughly equivalent to a small country.
The “Bloodbath of B-R5RB” was an interstellar battle in EVE Online which took place throughout January 2014. It involved over 7,500 players and incurred damages totalling over $300,000 in “theoretical” value (Wikipedia). Given that players had to spend money and time to acquire those assets, an argument can be made that real economic losses were incurred as a result of this “fictional” battle.
Although all of this complexity, nuance, and strategy is impressive, many people have no interest in being part of an intergalactic empire or spending dozens of hours slaying monsters in search of the best loot. Some people just want an easy escape and an engaging story.
The good news is that some video game developers have been putting a great deal of time and effort into crafting elegant and easy-to-play games that run very much like interactive stories. In these games, players don’t have to master skills or level up their character: much of the “playing” is done by simply walking around the game world and interacting with objects and characters.
Two of my favourite games of this type are Firewatch, a 2016 release from Campo Santo, and Dear Esther, released in 2008 and re-released in 2012 by The Chinese Room. Both are ideal video games for the “non-gamer”, and play very much like movies or interactive books. The stories are driven by dialogue and narration, and the games can be completed in a short number of hours (much like a movie or short novel).
Henry is a park ranger in Wyoming’s Shoshone Forest, responsible for spotting fires, tending to the needs of the wilderness, and enforcing campground rules during the summer of 1989. He lives in a lonely watchtower, deep in the forest and away from society. His only contact is his boss, Delilah, located in the next watchtower over and accessible by walkie-talkie.
Firewatch is the story of what happens that summer. You play as Henry, the first-time ranger who discovers a mystery deep within the forest. Throughout the summer, which proves to be somewhat tumultuous, you have to deal with missing persons, the (metaphorical) ghosts of rangers past, and the challenges of the natural world.
The game, although it requires some interaction and exploration, is not difficult or “lose-able”: the focus is on having an experience, not on winning. This alone makes it a very different type of “video game”, more akin to a movie or a book than a traditional game.
My only hint would be to enjoy the journey, as any mystery can only be solved once. Take a few pictures along the way – you’ll be glad you did.
Dear Esther is an enigmatic narrative set on a lonely island, which completely abandons traditional gameplay in favour of a story-driven experience. All you have to do in this game is follow the path laid out for you: as you progress, a voice will read fragments of a letter. Over time, the story will become clear.
This game is difficult to describe without giving anything away, to be honest. It is a simple, yet well-produced interactive experience that pushes the boundary of what games can accomplish.
Playtime: 4-5 hours
Interaction Required: Low-Moderate (walking & clicking)
Narrative: Wilderness adventure, mystery, conspiracy
Ending: Bittersweet, unexpected, reflective