by Daisy Jasmine, Staff Writer
It’s hardly news to anyone that any pastime which picks up widespread popularity is bound to eventually be met with some resistance and skepticism, and this rings especially true for the medium of video games. Anti-video game arguments vary widely, with the medium taking blame for everything from the obesity epidemic to the increase in gun violence. One of the most widespread criticisms of video games—and one that can be spotted in many satirical cartoons poking fun at “kids these days”—is the idea that they are, compared to books and cinema, a form of intellectual junk food. However, by looking a little deeper into the world of video games, it is easy to see that the medium is not just an excellent storytelling medium, but a groundbreaking one that overcomes barriers that other media can never achieve.
Since the early days of the video game industry, the medium has been explored as a way to tell a story. While it’s true that the first consoles and games were severely limited in their creative and technical freedom, even the most basic of games have followed a series of motivations and goals that we, as the players, can relate to or admire, such as winning a competition, fleeing a threat, or rescuing a loved one. Once the industry moved away from the more abstract concepts behind arcade games, however, the stories only grew more complex.As the plot of video games has taken a more prominent role, literary archetypes have sprouted in games just as they always have in classic media like theatre.
For example, the well-loved game franchise Pokémon—especially its first generation games, Pokémon Red and Blue (or Green in Japan)—can easily be traced back to Joseph Campbell’s archetypal “Hero’s Journey.” The game opens by introducing a wise mentor figure who guides the player through the basics of this world, as well as his grandson, the player’s bitter rival. The player is then visually “shrunken” down into the role of the protagonist—an ordinary ten-year-old in their bedroom, about to undergo the rite of passage of choosing their first Pokémon companion.
Once the Pokémon is chosen, the player sets out across the hazardous wilderness to challenge the most powerful people in the nation, eventually having the luck to be in the right place at the right time to foil the plan of an organized crime syndicate before going on to achieve the highest level of accomplishment a Pokémon trainer can strive for. This title is then immediately abdicated. In this simple story, we see several elements of Campbell’s monomyth—from the Hero’s Ordinary World and the Meeting of the Mentor, to the Call to Adventure and the Crossing of the First Threshold, overcoming the Road of Trials and the Supreme Ordeal all to earn the Ultimate Boon and finally return home. These same elements can be found in all sorts of video games, from the platformer of Super Mario Bros. to the mythology-rich adventures in The Legend of Zelda.
As the generations of children raised playing video games have grown up and their tastes become more nuanced, however, the video game industry has had to depart from that classic linear story format that all people eventually come to know by heart. This deviation from the old storytelling norms has opened countless doors to creative masterpieces in modern gaming. “Open world” games have torn down walls and given the players free reign and free will—within the confines of the programming, at least. One such open world game, Bethesda’s Scandinavian-inspired high-fantasy Skyrim, does contain a linear path that the player may choose to follow—escaping from an unjust execution thanks to a well-timed dragon attack, before going on to realize their destiny as a prophesized “Dragonborn” fated to save the world from the fire-breathing beasts.
However, this path can wait indefinitely as the game is set in a densely detailed world full of nooks and crannies to explore and too many characters to keep track of, as well as several guilds and communities to become a part of, some more morally inclined than others. Players are free to marry characters, buy homes, adopt children, and develop trade skills that have nothing to do with their dragon-slaying destiny. Some players have taken unorthodox approaches to such games, such as the YouTube gamer who challenged himself to play as an average cabbage farmer striving to buy a home and make a living without doing any adventuring. The concept of the open-world video game is constantly growing as the technology’s capacity grows.
Graphics continue to improve and become ever closer and yet even farther from our own reality, worlds grow larger, and cultures are fleshed out more deeply—but the most crucial trait of all, which makes video game storytelling what it is, is one we have come to take for granted: control. In even the most brilliantly written book or play, we are merely spectators to the adventures unfolding on the page or the stage. We can relate and empathize and even put ourselves in the metaphorical shoes of the hero, of course, but when the curtain is drawn and the cover is closed we were only ever along for the ride. In video games, we are freed from the velvet seats of the audience and placed squarely behind the wheel, every event happening to and because of ourselves and our choices. We persist through all obstacles, including death, trying over and over with steadfast determination that the real world forbids, and when the credits roll we celebrate the character’s success because it is our own. The greatest story of all is the one that we help write.