Since the days of Donkey Kong, video games have evolved to tell powerful, compelling, and involved stories. I hope that, slowly but surely, we’ll move away from days of wildly inaccurate and histrionic media reporting about video games and to a place where the richness of the stories themselves can be considered with more detail.
For those unfamiliar, digital narratives present an amalgamation of traditional storytelling and film — but with the unique and compelling dimension of the player’s direct involvement in advancing the stories. Player agency can be thought of both as the choices players make within the digital world and as the very fact that the player must be involved in the physical playing of the game. Our personal choices and preferences shape how we learn about and experience the digital world of the game.
During my University Forum lecture, I’ll share examples of digital narratives across a number of overarching categories, and I’ll dive into the important thematic and symbolic elements in these examples. Here, I share smaller moments in which the video game effectively build tension and created a strong emotional response in me as the player. They illustrate well the richness of this new storytelling form and why it is worthy of analysis in the same way we study literary classics and Oscar-winning films.
1. Elizabeth dancing in Battleship Bay in BioShock Infinite
BioShock Infinite is one of my all-time favorite games. It is also a game punctuated by emotionally heavy and very dark moments. This moment, fairly early in the game, is one of the last light moments. Elizabeth, a young woman who had spent the first 19 years of her life confined to a tower as a medical research subject, comes under the protection and care of Booker DeWitt. The player assumes the role of Booker. Elizabeth sees a group of people dancing and playing music and, poignantly, it is the first time she has experienced this. She joins in, and there is a powerful moment at which the player, as Booker, sees her dancing, joyous and happy, against the backdrop of a sunny sky. Once the player gets through the entire game and explores the entire narrative, this one peaceful moment becomes all the more powerful.
The clip also gives you hints at how twisted, racist, and terrible the outwardly beautiful citizens of Columbia are.
2. Ellie plays a deadly game of cat and mouse with David in The Last of Us
Please note that the last couple of minutes of this clip are bloody and some may find them disturbing.
Ellie, 14 years old, is a survivor of a pandemic that decimated most of the world’s population. She is also the surrogate daughter and ward of Joel, the player’s avatar. She is at once brave, filled with teen bravado, and painfully vulnerable. She is captured by David and his band of survivors, who turn out to be cannibals. Worse still, David is a pedophile and turns his sights on Ellie.In this tense and nerve-wracking sequence the player takes control of Ellie as she tries to evade David in the ruins of a restaurant filled with broken plates and glass. If the player isn’t careful and missteps, David will hear and immediately head toward her. To kill David, Ellie must quietly sneak up behind him. All the while, David actively stalks her and taunts her with phrases like, “Run, little rabbit, run!” He is a chilling antagonist and the scene is remarkably powerful.
3. Choosing between Ashley and Kaiden in Mass Effect
The Mass Effect series is marked by player choice. These choices range from where the player’s avatar, Shepherd, will fall on the good-bad spectrum all the way up to choices drastically shaping the entire storyline. This scene involves deciding which crew member to save and which to sacrifice. Both characters have been with Shepherd since the start of the game and both are given distinct and complex personalities, so the choice is truly no-win. A player might choose based on which character he or she simply likes more, or by which one might be more useful down the line. This isn’t a situation in which the character is later resurrected in some fashion. Dead is dead, and this choice ripples across the game.
4. Trying to salvage Chloe’s childhood in Life Is Strange
Life Is Strange centers on 18-year-old Maxine (Max) in her last year of high school, who’s discovered a limited ability to “rewind” time, as she calls it, in order to change the course of events. While that might sound a bit silly, the game handles it with great sincerity. Max looks at events and choices through her teenage eyes, and the player is often presented, therefore, with some less-than-ideal choices. One major plot point revolves around Max’s best friend Chloe, who has grown reckless, sullen, and angry since the death of her father. Max uses a great deal of her power to “rewind” the moment of Chloe’s father’s death. In her mind, this will fix everything. Yet as adults, we know nothing can ever be that simple.
This section ends with Max going to visit Chloe, only to discover that her best friend has been paralyzed in a car accident. As the story continues, Chloe has her father with her alive and well, but she is gravely injured and her respiratory system is shutting down. Her parents are her primary caregivers and hopelessly saddled by medical debt. Max comes to realize that this alternate world was never meant to be and restores the original timeline.
5. The Hansel and Gretel sequence from Silent Hill: Downpour
The Silent Hill series is at its best when it uses the horrific nightmare world of the eponymous town to reflect its protagonists’ most tortured thoughts. Such is the case in this segment from Downpour, where the gamer plays as Murphy, a convict who deliberately committed a crime so he could be sent to the prison where his young son’s murderer is housed. Murphy makes a deal with the corrupt guard Sewell for access to his son’s murderer, who he then kills. Sewell finally comes to collect his favor, demanding that Murphy murder another officer, Coleridge, who plans to expose Sewell to authorities. When Murphy refuses, Sewell follows through with the plan and frames Murphy. Coleridge doesn’t die right away and instead lingers, in a vegetative state, for a number of years. His daughter Anne, herself a police officer, becomes trapped with Murphy in Silent Hill andsees him as a Bogeyman. She doesn’t learn until the end of the game that Murphy is innocent. Murphy, for his part, sees his son’s murderer as the Bogeyman. Both are haunted and broken. While Murphy is trying to escape Silent Hill, he is forced to work through a puzzle where he sets the stage for a performance of a play based on Hansel and Gretel. Once the player gets all of the puzzle elements in place, the stage is engulfed in a storm and literally comes to life as a haunting female voice sings out. The player eventually reaches a cottage in the woods and here, a puzzle reveals the image of a young girl. This is clearly Anne, and it reinforces the theme of the game that everyone can become a monster and everyone is haunted.