Press Pause is a weekly column that takes a look at the biggest releases and news in the video game industry.
(Spoilers for Tales from the Borderlands follow.)
About a third of the way through the premiere episode of Telltale Games’ Tales from the Borderlands, players are given a choice of how to deal with an enemy, who’s walking away with the woman he loves and a valuable item in hand. The player-controlled character Rhys (Troy Baker) can either break this man’s heart or blow his mind—the game’s choice of words, not mine.
Momentary panic set in as I considered these options. Rhys and this man, August (Nolan North), have just engaged in a botched illegal transaction, but Rhys doesn’t seem like the type of guy who’d want to kill someone. I prayed for a way out. Telltale is known for asking players to make difficult decisions—but normally, they feel earned.
Finally, I decided to “blow his mind,” thinking I would save the girl. So Rhys blew August away… with a convincing, impassioned speech about why the trade had to be completed. He never had any intention of killing anyone. I only assumed the worst because video games often like to solve problems with shooting.
This is the kind of surprise I love to see in video game narratives. And thankfully, more developers are tapping into the unique power of the medium to take ambitious storytelling risks—the sort that can’t be mirrored by TV shows or movies.
Decision-making has become the main emphasis of Telltale’s games—and while some complain about the extent to which those choices actually impact the story, there’s no denying that the studio makes the idea of player influence pivotal to its tales. This is refreshing—mainly because games have, for so long, attempted to emulate movies. (Just try to count how many game developers have described their products as being “cinematic” over the past decade or two.) What “cinematic” usually means, however, is a game that tells a story passively, with story and character development resigned to scenes that appear in between gameplay. But Telltale and other developers are marrying story and characters with the player’s interactivity, creating an experience that no other medium can replicate.
The developers of Far Cry 4, for example, have stayed a few moves ahead of players with a host of alternate story routes. There’s one method that ends the plot after playing for only about a half-hour; the game’s creative director has teased several other endings or “mini moments” that can be triggered. These inclusions may not alter the game’s actual story, but they do play off expectations ingrained by years of games operating in more rigid narrative frameworks—the same sort that appear in film and TV.
There are plenty of examples that prove how, when executed properly, twisting a player’s expectations isn’t mean-spirited manipulation—it’s brilliant and exciting plotting that creates story out of the player’s presence. EW‘s Joshua Rivera and I spoke at length about how The Last of Us plays on the ideas of choice, character, and interactivity to nail its emotional climax in a way that requires the player’s input to be so effective. And a few years ago, the original BioShock‘s now-defining twist was a feat of misdirection that was tied into the story in an earned and meaningful way. It wasn’t a cheap ploy—it was a smart utilization of the tools only games can use to tell a story.
So why has it taken so long for more games to attempt these storytelling gymnastics? Probably because of the “cinematic” trap. Visual stories have been told in such a specific way over the last century or so that the idea of going against established norms may seem daunting, even blasphemous.
But there’s more than one good way to tell a story, as video games have certainly proven. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare shows how a Michael Bay-style “cinematic” blockbuster can be crazy fun when it makes the player the main character. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor demonstrates how players can create their own personal narratives while a more traditional story is layered on top of that experience. There’s even Thomas Was Alone, which makes the story of a rectangle emotional and almost tear-inducing—a feat largely accomplished because the player is controlling that rectangle and his group of friends.
These storytelling methods, which make the player integral to the game’s events, stand out even more when juxtaposed against this fall’s lackluster story options. While the Assassin’s Creed franchise has never been known for its narrative coherence, its meta-tale of warring factions fighting throughout time—blending history, religion, and pirates—has always been fun. But in Assassin’s Creed Unity, the franchise has abandoned its most daring narrative leaps for the sake of… well, I actually can’t say. The sense of lunacy that made me such a fan of Creed‘s mythology seems to have been thrown out—and with it, the franchise has lost a step in its storytelling, save for a time-bending twist that works only because it specifically exists in a game. Hopefully, even if Assassin’s Creed can’t find its way back, this won’t encourage other expansive games to limit their narrative ambitions as well.
Every game doesn’t need to include the sort of twist Tales from the Borderlands employs; neither does every episode of Telltale’s ongoing series. But more and more games should strive to include more story, and not just in the moments that appear in between moments of actual gameplay. When developers recognize their own unique potential for storytelling, games can aspire to be something better than any “cinematic” story can offer.