It’s official: I’ve now completed two Halo games in my life. I played some co-op with a friend a long, long time ago, but just once — and I was terrible. Then I played some Reach a while back. But the motivation to actually finish a Halo game came from playing co-op. Legendary difficulty is really brutal, especially for someone as bad at FPS games as I am, but as long as one person stays alive, the other respawns when it’s safe. That’s led to a few instances of keeping one person in safety while the other charges into danger.
Recently I played the indie iOS game Heartbeats, developed by Kong Orange. I was looking for a little sci-fi puzzler, and that’s exactly what this is – although “little” might be selling it short. Sure, it’s not a lengthy game, but it’s challenging and full of heart. It feels important somehow.
The game breaks up the story and puzzles by individual screens, each telling part of an old man’s story as he looks back on his life. It’s an intergalactic tale, good for my sci-fi itch. Every screen is beautiful with hand-drawn illustrations that help tell the story and are involved in the gameplay in some way, because each screen is also its own puzzle.
Weaving a good story is a major achievement for a video game, and it seems that lately we’ve become a little obsessed with this. While we gamers still love our side-scrolling platformers and the modern versions of them installed on our smartphones, there’s been a trend in recent years: We want stories. We want cinema. This is especially true when we’re going to throw down $60 for a game we’re going to play on our flashy new consoles with the great graphics, as displayed on our big, HD TV screens. Let’s have an experience.
That can be a very good thing, particularly for people like me who love stories in any form they come. I love reading and watching television series and going to see films because storytelling is my thing. That’s why I’m a writer, too.
Before I knew how to physically put letters on a piece of paper to make a sentence, I told stories into my mom’s tape recorder and found things around my house to create sound effects. Even as a little kid, I knew I wanted to create an experience — something exciting and filled with noise.
Years later, that’s what drew me to video games. It wasn’t so much the gameplay mechanics for me; I didn’t grow up with those side-scrolling platformers. (It’s sad, I know.) For me, video games offered an entirely new type of storytelling experience, because they were visual and auditory and immersive in a way I had never encountered before. They were interactive.
That’s what you see a lot nowadays: video games with interactive stories. The games themselves are always interactive, obviously — but now that personal involvement extends to how the tale plays out.
The Telltale episodic games are obvious and very popular examples: In these games, you select dialogue options and actions when prompted to progress the story in a unique way.
I’ll admit, I sometimes wonder just how unique my experience is — would things have turned out that different if I had gone to the other house first, or if I had been a jerk instead of polite in this conversation — but whether or not you have a lot of agency in these games, you are certainly set up to feel that your choices matter.
BioWare is also known for giving players decisions to make. In the latest games, dialogue wheels make it clear whether each selection is heroic, polite, aggressive, or even a little bit evil. It’s exciting to craft a character who is badass enough to headbutt a big, burly alien character or punch out an intrusive reporter during an interview. Or maybe you prefer a more noble type.
Seeing the consequences of your actions down the line can be satisfying and/or surprising. Characters live or die. They love you or hate you. The world changes based on whether you helped someone or not. And that’s only for the smaller choices.
The Witcher series is another known for decision-making. Unlike in BioWare games, you don’t create your own character — you’re playing as Geralt, a known anti-hero type from Andrzej Sapkowski’s books. However, even while dialogue options keep Geralt as badass as he is in the books, you can choose the direction his personality will take. More importantly, you decide who you want to help and which path feels right for you… or for him. In The Witcher 2, you choose rather early on whether to rescue an elf who once tried to kill you or aid an old friend; each option leads to an entirely unique path for most of the rest of the game.
In these instances, you, as the player, have a sense of ownership over the adventure. Although you’re obviously stuck within strict parameters — a certain type of gameplay, an already-created world, a specific premise or set-up — you are still creating your own experience, at least in some ways. And any amount of agency can make the experience of playing the game feel meaningful.
Agency Instead of Story… Or As Story
The question is, do you really need agency to create a meaningful experience? It seems that a lot of game developers are using player agency as a way to make their games more compelling. Having decisions to make can make a video game feel much more exciting to the player. Because we all love to have a say in things, right?
In a way, these video games that give us decisions are actually doing something much more: They’re giving us the power to become storytellers ourselves. That feels good.
Some games have player agency with very little real story. Or perhaps there is a story, but the freedom you are given to go your own route is what’s most important. The Elder Scrolls games are like this. Sure, they have stories — interesting ones, in my opinion — but you can choose which ones to pursue and even ignore them entirely if you prefer to just explore and see what’s out there. All the while, you’re leveling up your character and gaining accolades for your actions. Whether or not you’re following the stories provided to you — either the main questline or a side questline that allows you to become head of Winterhold College, a decorated soldier, a homeowner, etc. — you’re creating a life story for your character.
People like Skyrim because of that agency. The freedom to explore. The seemingly limitless options in how to level your character or quests to pursue. It’s about discovery and empowerment more than any meaningful story experience. Sure, becoming the leader of the Thieves Guild is exciting, but it’s a rather shallow experience on an intellectual and emotional level. The story isn’t what it’s about — it’s about being able to pursue the quests related to that storyline, engage in the gameplay, learn some new skills, and then reap the rewards that go along with becoming the leader. You can do that over and over in The Elder Scrolls games, mastering specific skills and becoming important in a variety of different questlines. But, at least in my experience, few people play Skyrim and say, Whoa, that was a great story.
The sense of agency allows that feeling of something being epic. Maybe the story is good — maybe it’s not. But you feel it is that way because you played a role in it. You affected it in some way, and that makes you feel important as a player.
However, too much agency can feel overwhelming. Even if a game has an intriguing adventure, such as Dragon Age Inquisition, it can be easy to lose sight of what’s going on in the midst of all of the side quests and chaos. Open-world games are usually the ones to commit this crime — if you want to call it that. I care about story above all else, so losing track of where I am because of too much freedom is actually a negative thing for me. I want to be a little reigned in sometimes.
Just Tell Me a Story
So what about good storytelling? Is that an entirely different thing than agency or liberty? I’ll be honest here: Sometimes in Telltale games, I feel like I’m being babied a bit — like they’re throwing a silly choice at me that’s not going to mean anything down the road, just for the sake of keeping me involved. They want me to keep pressing buttons so I feel like I’m doing something, but really, the game is just telling its story in its own way. And that’s okay.
When I read a book, I trust the author to tell me a good story. That’s their job. When I watch a film, I feel the same. But when I play a video game, I think about a lot of other things, like gameplay and the agency I’ve been talking about.
You know what would be cool, though? If, once in a while, I was only concerned about enjoying a good story in a game.
When it comes to video games made with the sole purpose of telling a fantastic, memorable story, the best example that comes to mind is To the Moon. It’s a role-playing adventure game by Freebird Games that I reviewed here a while back. It’s not cinematic, exactly. It features 16-bit graphics. But it made my cry. I heard that it would, I was doubtful, and then it did. It’s a simple adventure with simple gameplay and almost no real sense of agency. Sure, you’re picking up clues and solving puzzles to progress from one chapter to the next, but the story is obviously already created for you and has a definitive ending. You can sense that going into the game.
That’s what I liked about it. I knew from the start that I was going to be treated to a really good tale, in video game format. That’s exactly what I wanted. The result was an emotionally-affecting experience that I still remember and recommend to people years later.
Another great story I’ve experienced in a video game is the one spun in The Last of Us. Here, again, you have no real agency, and that actually plays a big role in the ending. (Spoilers to follow.) You’re stuck in Joel’s shoes, and you know his issues. His hang-ups. His past tragedies and the things he wants from life. You feel that way, anyway. And so in the end, when he lies to Ellie so she doesn’t go through with a heroic surgery, just to save her for reasons you may deem selfish, you have to go through with it. You may even understand where he’s coming from. Maybe you agree with him — I’ve heard a lot of players do, but I wonder if it’s because they had to kill those doctors to save Ellie themselves. What if the game had forced you to do something else? Would you agree with that instead, because you’re acting that out? Having to do something makes you feel connected to the action somehow, even if you didn’t get the opportunity to make the decision for yourself. I was shocked at what Joel did, but I forgive him for it because I was him. The game gives you no agency, but that just makes Joel’s actions and the entire story all the more surprising and compelling.
Agency and storytelling so often go hand-in-hand, it can be hard to remember that you can enjoy a compelling video game with just one or the other. However, while agency can sometimes compensate for the lack of an engaging tale, it seems to me that storytelling is able to stand on its own very well. A video game’s tale doesn’t require player involvement in order to be absorbing.
A truly good story — one that you remember, that affects you, that means something — is a rare thing in a video game. And it’s something I’m always looking for, whether or not I get a say in it as a player.
Recently I played the first episode of Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones series with my boyfriend. It was difficult — first of all, because I had to wait an entire month until after we were both back from the holiday break and could play together. (He’d already downloaded it, so it was waiting in San Francisco. Otherwise, who knows what I would have gotten up to over the break…)
But you know what’s more difficult than waiting weeks to play a game you’ve been looking forward to for months? Playing a game — specifically a Telltale game, with moral decisions to make that require quick thinking — with someone else.
I’ve always played Telltale’s video games solo. The only time I kind of, sort of, played with somebody else was when my sister sat next to me, knitting away, while I played the first episode of Tales from the Borderlands. I think I asked her opinion about dialogue options two or three times, but only when I felt like I wanted the help. (She was the one who chose to “blow his mind” rather than “break his heart,” for instance — I just didn’t know what I wanted to do there, because both options sounded so good!) Still, I was the one with the controller in my hands, so I felt very much in control of the whole experience. That playthrough will be my playthrough, and nobody else’s.
It must be rare to find two players who play a Telltale episode in exactly the same way. One of my favorite things to do after playing an episode is discuss all of my choices with my coworker who is also a fan. We often end up on opposite sides, with him preferring a more good-guy route than the road I usually walk. After completing a Telltale episode, you can also see your stats compared to the community at large; for instance, it will tell you something like, “You and 41% of players chose to do this-or-that,” so you know where you stand.
With all of the available options and decisions, it’s clear that they can add up to a very unique playthrough unlike that of any other player.
In fact, I don’t like to go back and replay Telltale games. My first playthrough is canon and it’s all I need — it’s me. While it’s interesting to see how others play, I’m always secretly glad that their choices are theirs and mine are mine. Telltale Games is all about creating a personal experience. A feeling of exclusive ownership, to me, is what makes the experience feel rich.
However, when I played Game of Thrones’ first episode “Iron from Ice” with my boyfriend, we passed the controller back and forth. I played for 10 or 15 minutes, then let him play for the next segment. We didn’t time anything; we stopped at natural break points and made sure we were both getting our fair share of gameplay time.
At first, this was really fun. Playing with someone else made the game feel more dynamic somehow, and we both laughed a lot. Hearing his opinions added some depth to my own thoughts on the game as we went along as well. We had to think fast before the dialogue option timer ran out, and it was exciting to say exactly what you wanted without necessarily considering the other person’s possible response — a time limit can do that to a person.
But early in the episode, my boyfriend chose to draw Gared Tuttle’s sword instead of going back to save his father. I like playing a badass character too, but I have to be honest: I secretly wanted to see what would happen if he had gone back to his father. That’s what I would have done, but my boyfriend had the controller at the time, and he chose the other option.
I didn’t say anything. Whatever. I didn’t care that much. This was going to be an interesting experience, seeing how my boyfriend chose to play.
As we passed the controller back and forth for two hours, it became clear to me just how differently we approach decisions in the game. He tended to want to be “right,” saying the “right” thing in a conversation to please whomever he was speaking with. Because he hasn’t played any Telltale games before, I had to let him know that there is no “right” choice in these games — you just play it how you feel it, and sometimes you’ll run into surprising outcomes.
Meanwhile, I tended to want to choose options I found most interesting. Sometimes a clever answer actually wins admiration from others, as was the case when I was playing as handmaiden Mira speaking to Margaery Tyrell. Margaery seemed a little more impressed by Mira’s careful responses than Cersei had been when Mira just nodded agreement over everything. (That had aroused a bit of suspicion.)
When it came to Ethan Forrester, my boyfriend wanted to focus on war, strength, and attitude. I had wanted to make Ethan more diplomatic and careful, but with the controller in my boyfriend’s hands for most of his chapters, we ended up with a character who acted like a champion and didn’t take shit from anybody.
To an extent, I really enjoyed it. Had I been watching the show, I would have found this Ethan intriguing. It’s always fun to watch a character in TV whose youthful bravado might get him into too-deep water. Having no control over it, you want to see how the storytellers are going to play this one out. However, as a participant in the game, I found myself cringing just a little, once in a while, over my boyfriend making Ethan super tough where I would have been more lenient.
At the end of the episode, I could count several conflicts and conversations that I felt proud of — the ones over which I had assumed control. But I could also think of many portions of the game where I was an observer rather than a participant, and what the characters did tended to surprise me or even upset me. Those were my boyfriend’s choices.
I could let that get to me — this should be my playthrough, my choices — but my boyfriend and I agreed to play together, and that means sharing control and responsibility for each decision one of us makes.
One of the perks of playing together is the little thrill when one of us would shout out an answer exactly as the other person selected it, revealing where we already think alike. Seeing the outcomes of those moments was particularly rewarding. But there’s always that chance that when you shout out a response, the other person isn’t going to like it, or will have already selected something totally different. That happened just as often, and probably more often, than we chose the same response.
But that’s the beauty of the Telltale experience. And relationships, I guess. People play differently. As for the out-of-left-field shockers… Telltale throws lots of them your way anyway. But once I also let go of my expectations of how the episode should play out — minute by minute, choice by choice — I was able to look back on the experience of playing with someone else as something truly surprising.
Some sci-fi is incredibly rich and realistic. Especially when reading it, I’m able to visualize exactly how the world and all of its inhabitants — including alien races described as being completely different than anything we know on this planet — appear in this fictional universe. I get really into it.
However, when watching sci-fi and TV movies, things can get in the way of that suspension of disbelief. Things like shoddy special effects, cheesy one-liners, alien characters obviously covered in weird cosmetics and prosthetics.
It seems like Telltale Games has been releasing all kinds of games lately — so many that it’s hard to choose which one to play first. While I have big plans for their take on Game of Thrones, I couldn’t wait to play the first episode in their Tales from the Borderlands series.
Based on Gearbox’s Borderlands video games, this Telltale Games entry has been on my most-anticipated list since I first heard about it. Maybe it’s because I already knew I loved the gritty, sci-fi worldbuilding that’s like a slightly unhinged partner to Joss Whedon’s Firefly. I was looking forward to spending more time in this rundown world of guns and psychos, and Telltale’s knack for storytelling could only make the experience even richer. (Minor spoilers to come.)