I know I’m rather late to the debate on whether or not video games can be art or tell compelling stories, but I just finished playing Braid and I think that makes me entitled to talk about some of my observations. Today, I want to talk about three games that have intrigued me with various brilliances.
Really, the entire Myst series is excellent, but I’ll keep my geekery to the first installment. Myst does three things remarkably well: It has great world-building, it immerses you into the story, and it provides a chance for moral exploration through decision-making. Let’s look at each of these.
First, world-building. Because of its very premise of worlds accessed through linking books, Myst lives or dies on world-building. Thankfully, the creators are self-proclaimed world-builders, so this has always been one of the game’s greatest strengths. Every world (or Age) feels unique and separate from the others, and you can read the in-game journals to get a feel for each Age’s origin story. And like the best world-building, Myst doesn’t force you to know the details. You can come to know the worlds through exploration and observation, or you can dive into the writings and do deep research if that floats your boat.
Next, we have immersion. Myst has been both applauded and panned for its choice to make you, the player, the main character. Gamers are sometimes confused by this decision, wanting to know who their character is. Non-gamers feel at home, not needing to pretend to be another person, and that’s the brilliance of Myst’s decision: By playing yourself, you begin to feel like you’re truly a part of the story, not just helping a character on the screen traverse a series of obstacles.
And then finally, moral exploration. Myst ends with almost a courtroom scene, if you will. Your job is to judge the stories told by two imprisoned brothers and decide which one deserves to be freed. You’ve also been given the entire game to see the way each man’s life has left a mark on the four worlds you’ve visited. And yet there’s nothing telling you what’s right or wrong except your own intuition, so the game isn’t preaching at you. Wonderful.
I’m limiting this discussion to just the first Portal game, because while the sequel is fantastic, it doesn’t capture the same brilliance as the original. Here are the two things Portal does well: Like Myst, it has excellent world-building, but in a different way. It also teaches its mechanics in a way that turns the player into an expert without ever becoming a frustration. How do these work?
Portal’s world-building is quite different from Myst’s. Instead of allowing you the option of reading the history in a journal, you are left to your own devices to figure out what happened. You can pick things up from the computer voice that talks to you throughout the levels, and you can explore the testing facility to find hints of what happened. But everything is left largely to your conjecture: Portal never tells you exactly how things went down. And that’s some great restraint, since we storytellers know how easy it is to dump backstory on our audiences.
The second thing Portal does well is its finest achievement. The way the game teaches you its game mechanics is almost matchless. In fact, roughly half of the game is a tutorial on how to the portaling concepts work. Only after you’ve spent extensive time being slowly and carefully taught to be an expert in the ways of the portal gun does the game take off the training wheels and leave you to solve everything on your own. I have not seen its equal anywhere, not even (surprisingly) in the second Portal game. I know this isn’t a storytelling item, but in a way it really is. If you became frustrated with the game’s mechanics before you were set loose to find your own way, you’d never get to the cool story stuff at the end.
And then finally, we come to Braid. This one is very different from the other two. It doesn’t fit on this list because of great world-building or excellent mechanics teaching. In fact, it could be said that Braid has trouble getting its deeper mechanics across, to the point of causing frustration on certain puzzles where the solution is simple if you know the secret, but you haven’t been given the tools to find that secret. So what does Braid do well? Theme.
Theme is the exploration of an idea, and good theme handling allows multiple sides to speak to the topic without the artist drawing conclusions for the audience. This is where Braid shines, and it’s in a way unique to video games. Braid sets out to explore the idea of rewinding time to fix your mistakes. Early in the game, you find out that you can’t actually die because when your character is killed, you’re prompted to simply rewind to before you made the mistake. Cool, right?
But then you get deeper into the game and discover that the main character, Tim, has made mistakes in his past that he’d like to change. You start to wonder if you’ll be given the opportunity later on to change his past. And that’s where this gets intriguing. I won’t spoil the ending, so suffice to say that the game’s very mechanic of rewinding time sets up an ending that leaves you thinking about the theme long after the game is over. This is theme handling at its best. The last time I pondered a theme this much was when I walked out of master theme-man Christopher Nolan’s Insterstellar. I know I just compared a video game to a Nolan film, but it’s really that good.
Those are my three, but I’m sure there are many more great examples of storytelling and art in video games. What else can you think of? Leave a comment with your gaming observations.