On the whole, video games are not good at delivering traditional narratives. They usually have far smaller word-to-minute ratios compared to film or prose which can spread a story thin, they’re usually forced to centre around action setpieces which limit where narrative can go and force its pacing to suffer, and character motivations usually remain limited to revenge due to the nature of combat as core mechanics. As a result narratives in games tend to be long, drawn out and comparatively weak.
Still, there are a few select narratives in video games that stand above the crowd, that take advantage of their interactive nature, and do things that would definitely have less impact if attempted by a book or movie.
The Beginner’s Guide
The Beginner’s Guide, on paper, is a pretty simple story. A person made some games, another person tells you about those games, and it turns out he broke the first person’s trust by doing that. While the events of the game are well written and delivered, with strong use of the unreliable narrator, the real reason the narrative works is because the interactive nature of the medium makes you complicit by action in the betrayal of trust central to the game.
You’re not just watching someone experience projects they were not meant to show to others, you’re actively engaging with these precious, private creations that were never yours to experience. By the time you’ve learned this fact, you’ve probably spent up to ninety minutes looking through every corner of them, trying to glean everything of value you could from them.
If you then go and tell others about what you experienced, you continue to be somewhat complicit in the game’s narrative.
The Beginner’s Guide makes real use of its interactive aspects to make the player guilty in a way static media simply cannot.
Undertale is a game which, depending on how you play it, uses your mechanical video game choices not only to shape the direction of the narrative but also to tailor the difficulty of its progression. Where a choose-your-own-adventure book could make you the villain of its narrative because you chose to kill innocent characters rather than show them mercy, what it would struggle to do is make later progression more punishing as a result of that choice.
Where Undertale would struggle to work as a choose-your-own-adventure book, yet flourishes as a video game, is its ability to know if you’ve experienced it already without having to ask you. To force your time with it to an abrupt end and make it so that opening the game back up has permanently changed what’s in front of you. The ability to make progression such a labouriously tough task that, upon completion, you had to have shown the kind of dedication and determination the character within the narrative is meant to have shown. The ability to then commit the main character of the story to a fate they cannot back away from, and knowingly point out that the person experiencing the narrative couldn’t have stumbled into that situation, that they had to work towards that and commit to making it happen.
Where books can offer branching narratives, Undertale shows how connection to the player character can be reinforced by tying gameplay choice and progression to its story.
Silent Hill 2
Where Silent Hill 2 shines as an interactive narrative is in the ways that the game watches your actions as a player and, without asking you outright questions, tweaks the ending to your view of the character.
Players who spend most of the game with the main character at low health will see an ending where James Sutherland’s lack of care for his own survival manifests as a version of the character fighting with suicidal urges. Players who spend large amounts of time with a woman who is a lot like Sutherland’s missing wife, rather than searching for that wife, will get an ending where he ultimately replaces his wife with this new woman. Replaying the game and seeking additional items will lead players to an ending where Sutherland cannot accept his wife’s passing and attempts to bring her back from the dead.
This kind of nuanced and unadvertised reading of the player’s actions, and interpretation of this into changing the character’s motivation, is a really nice way to give people endings to the game that feel thematically fitting to their reading of the character, but do not do so in a visible or obvious manner.
In Her Story, the entire thrill of both the gameplay and the narrative lies in the way the game is structured. Players are given a police station computer database which can be used to search for interview clips centring on a single case. The search bar begins with the word murder ready to search. Players are then free to explore whichever narrative threads interest them.
Clips are not provided in order. Finding clips that seemed irrelevant but suddenly might mean something important becomes a whirlwind of word searches and note shuffling. Meaning can be altered depending on the order clips are seen, or if they are seen at all. Conclusions can be drawn without seeing of all clips in the game, and even finding every single clip doesn’t promise that firm conclusions will be found.
Her Story only works as a video game because the core thrill involved is exploration of a narrative in a truly freeform manner. As a player, I found myself having to return to the game every time I discussed an interpretation with someone new. A new take on the game meant a whole new lens through which to explore the narrative, and completely changed the path I attempted to carve through the clips involved.
Simply put, Her Story would be a far less interesting if presented in a linear structure. More than that, even in a scrambled order (a-la Memento), the narrative would be weakened by being forced to explore it only in one set order.
So, those are some of our top picks for games whose narratives would be harmed by translation to other media, and that take true advantage of the interactive potential of video games. Think we missed out a strong example? Let us know down below.