The Tribeca Film Festival recently announced that they’d be elevating their focus on video games at next year’s festival in New York City. Opening up submissions for the first "Tribeca Games Award," the festival is accepting games that “demonstrate artistic excellence in storytelling.” The decision for a world–renowned film festival to recognize video games for award considerations might strike some as odd. However, the creative potential for storytelling in the virtual plane is unmatched. In fact, this change is long overdue, and the importance of video game storytelling should not only be recognized, but emphasized across all levels of entertainment as we prepare to enter the next generation of gaming.
I’ve been a fairly avid gamer since I was little. Starting with the days where I’d play Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories on my Gameboy after school, I always loved a game that told a story—even if the story was delivered via pixelated characters and dialogue boxes. At their core, the stories of these games are emotional, providing dedicated fanbases with tales of hope, identity, and friendship in a world that’s increasingly dark and upsetting. The Kingdom Hearts series has touched millions, with the most recent entry hitting shelves in 2020 as one of the most anticipated games of the decade. This series sparked my infatuation with narrative–based video games. While many argue that video games shine when uniting people in virtual multiplayer environments, some of the best gaming experiences are forged by the stories that players immerse themselves in, as well as the visual and sound mechanics that accompany that experience. Competitive games like Fortnite are simply phases that come and go each year, while narrative—driven games have cultural impact that leaves a lasting impression on its players.
Improvements in visuals and technology aside, narrative storytelling in gaming is not new. Nintendo was creating world—building narratives as early as 1986 with The Legend of Zelda, which would become one of the most beloved franchises in history. Similar to the Kingdom Hearts series, this franchise has a long history yet still finds new players to this day. Some game studios even center their development around narrative and storytelling. While there are always certain trends within the gaming industry, narrative within gaming hasn’t gone anywhere, and I don’t anticipate that it will.
While narrative can drive the story in games, the increasingly advanced technology of gaming has opened pathways for brand new types of stories to be told. Certain games and franchises thrive by utilizing the newest advances in graphics, sounds, and game engines to provide a futuristic and immersive cinematic experience. Hideo Kojima is a master at this. Director of the popular Metal Gear Solid franchise, as well as his newest game Death Stranding, Kojima prioritizes cinematography in his video games, something sparked by his parents’ passion for movies. His games tap into supernatural and otherworldly properties within gaming mechanics and cinematic cutscenes, illustrating how video games reach beyond the physical abilities of human actors and real–world productions.
The virtual plane of gaming provides limitless space for world–building that can't be achieved in typical sets or studios. Despite this, some argue that these experiences could never replace a film or television show. However, gaming dominates other mediums of storytelling in another way: interactivity. Game designers create interactivity in a variety of ways, from simply offering character customization options to providing full control of the narrative to the player.
The level of interaction is what defines some games. A game like Detroit: Become Human takes interaction to the next level. A cinematic game that explores the relationships between humans and artificial intelligence androids, Detroit has over 100 different endings that depend on the actions players make throughout their adventures. In games like Detroit, when the player messes up, there’s no "restart" button. If a protagonist dies, the game continues moving forward, truly raising the story's stakes. Not only does this provide a fresh break from linear storylines, but it gives a certain agency to the player that no other fiction medium can.
In novels, the story is laid out from the moment the reader opens the book. In a scripted film or television show, the story has been made for the viewer to sit back and watch from start to finish. By integrating choice into gameplay, game studios can provide players the opportunity to serve as co–director for their own story, something that resonates deeper than following a predetermined plot. However, even seemingly linear storylines can provide a compelling and immersive experience, such as the critically–acclaimed Tomb Raider franchise.
Single–player games tap into human emotions just as well, and possibly better, than a conventional medium of storytelling can. The possibilities are endless in terms of what can be accomplished in gaming’s virtual playground, but also in terms of the interactive components that game designers can implement for players. If you’re looking for an interactive and immersive way to spend your downtime—if we really have any in midterm season—explore the vast world of video game storytelling.