Video Games and the Art of Storytelling

I remember a time when I laughed at people who thought video games were art.

Then I played a couple that proved me wrong.

I remember playing a point-and-click game at age twelve that sent me spiraling down the crazy thought process of nihilism. (I know some people could handle that better than me, but I freaked out when I first really considered the concept). It was a video game about a young businessman who just… gets bored of it all. So bored that you could just click and point for him to walk out of his car and pet a cow in a grassy field. He just didn’t show up to work. He threw coffee at his cruel boss. He laughed and stared up at the sun.

And then, once you’d pointed and clicked through every task, he went out the front door. He left his wife. And he “flew” off the balcony of a building. Meaning, to be free…

He had to die. It was called Every Day the Same Dream.

Wow, dark subject matter for a 12 year old to handle, huh?

Still following that free list of point-and-click computer games, I found another one. A little boy. You had to solve puzzles to continue onto the next “magic shadow realm”. I helped a fisherman find his pole. I laughed as I followed his little sister who’d morphed into the shape of a magic fairy.

And then… I found out that all the characters were dead of some horrid tragedy and this was just some fairy ghost land I’d been walking in.

Now, this might have spawned by fascination with the grotesque. I stopped reading the happy fairy tales, and I started to research everything I could about the ghosts. The monsters beneath the bed. The creatures from other lands that looked just like us, but with a few things missing. (Or perhaps a few things they wanted to take from us altogether).

I didn’t want fairy tales, not exactly. I wanted fairies with sharp teeth, princesses wielding knives, and heroes who did bad things once in a while.

I watched a lot of famous YouTube gamers in high school. I was battling some really bad mental health issues during that time (wow, nine hours of sleep a week and extremely unhealthy body issues tend to do that to you.) I’d spend hours watching people like Jack Septiceye, Markiplier, and Pewdiepie (before the drama, back when he was still growing his Bro Army). I’d watch their horror play-throughs especially. I was too scared to play the games myself, but I still wanted to see the stories. I wanted to see what happened if the little girl slept over in the haunted mansion. I wanted to see how the school ended up filled with ghosts. How the insane asylum opened its doors again to its unsuspecting victims. How little dolls wielded knives and fairy tales got twisted.

Like watching a scary scene in a movie through splayed fingers, I’d follow the play-throughs along as they screamed and button-smashed their way to victory.

Video games… they had stories.

A little girl in a gory battle to defeat her wicked stepmother. A young woman trying to soothe the evil lover who was trapped in her house. A sister trying to coax the spirit of her dead sister to rest after a suicide.

And these were just the horror video games.

I tried out others that people recommended to me. Gone Home. The Wolf Among Us. Life is Strange. Hell, even Bioshock for the creepy atmospheres (though they really could’ve chilled with the fake blood machine).

I remember watching a play-through of Beyond Two Souls and marveling at how truly like a movie it was. Jodie Foster voicing the character with all the conviction of a girl who truly had her twin brother with her the entire time, who just wanted to live. Who wanted to escape her reality.

I remember playing Assassins’ Creed: Black Flag and singing the sea shanties in my sleep, wishing Captain Edward Kenway and my crush, Captain Kidd/ Read, could’ve just sailed together for eternity. Wishing I could’ve been there with them, bringing justice to the unjust like some pirate superhero.

With the visuals, however simple or complex. The interactivity that put you in the character’s head. The cinematic quality of movement, sound, editing, and subtle shifts in mood and customization.

A video game is living, breathing art. And that’s why people criticize it.

It’s probably not surprising that I’m now a Film and Digital Arts major. I’ve studied history of cinema just as much as I’ve geeked out over creating a simple square on a screen for Digital Arts (or even added music into a simple Processing Program and watched my sprites dance about the screen).

Brief film facts, much abridged. Cinema, when it first came out, was little more than moving horses and “scandalous” lewd flashes of ankles beneath skirts. Now, it has all the prestige of high art in fancy film festivals or award shows.

Video games have the same bad reputation now as cinema did then. Just “shooting laser beams” or “senseless story violence”. Like cinema, or hell, even the 18th century novel, it “demoralizes our youth”. But video games can be so much more than that. It can tug at your heartstrings, change entire viewpoints on life itself.

A video game is like a second skin. A virtual cybersuit you can escape to just as easily as in Ready: Player One. 

Video games are art too.

Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.

Leave a Comment