Let’s Play a Story: storytelling and gaming

I spent some time this weekend reading The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media. In this book, Bryan Alexander explores the new forms of storytelling that have emerged in the age of Web 2.0. From blogs to podcasts and from video games to twitter, these new media do more than create innovative forms of communication. They also provide platforms for people to present narratives and for others to experience and interact with these narratives.

I read the book while sitting on the couch next to my husband as he played games on his Xbox One. I skimmed through the chapters that discussed how podcasts harness the familiar power of the voice and how Twitter allows communities to tell a story together, 44 characters at a time. As I helped my husband to create a character in his game, a mercenary fighting in the Hundred Years’ War, I turned my attentions to the chapters Alexander wrote about video games. It is always more interesting to read and write about things that relate to your life.

Chapter 6 focuses on casual gaming, including the more simple games you play on your computer while procrastinating or on your smartphone. Chapter 7, however talks about the unique nature of PC and console games that create immersive worlds for players. There is no doubt that these games succeed in telling stories in ways that engage players and evoke emotion, but Alexander is most interested in exploring how the unique nature of these large-scale games is used to tell stories.

I am in no way a gamer, but my husband does occasionally pick up a game that we can play together. While he is entertained by almost any game that is challenging, when choosing a game for both of us, he has learned to look for ones with interesting characters and imaginative storylines. Since I spend most of the game trying to figure out what button makes my character shoot whatever weapon its carrying and waiting to be revived after dying for the hundredth time, I require a captivating plot to keep me from quitting.

Alexander found that many games use an element of mystery to keep players interested. Often characters in the game are trying to discover details about events in the past that are now affecting the present. Players learn fragments of the backstory through interactions with other characters or by exploring shadowy territories. The mystery drives them to investigate and explore. Cut scenes are used to show flashbacks or significant events in the present, the technology allowing the manipulation of time to tell stories.

Although these video games take place almost exclusively on a single platform, Alexander points out the many blogs, forums, and other social media platforms in which enthusiasts discuss every aspect of these games. In this form, the story is brought to life in new ways and becomes the center of social interactions.

Some of the most interesting games I’ve found focus on the power of good storytelling. The company Telltale Games has created games such as The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us that let players feel like they are part a movie. Much of the game is simply engaging cut scenes that tell a story. At various points, your character is given a decision to make about what to do or what to say to another character. Each decision changes the direction of the story and the relationships you have with other characters in the story. They can even have an impact on which characters live or die. After finishing the game, you can start over and make different decisions, creating a different story. Or, you can visit the many websites where other players share their gaming experiences. This is what we usually do after completing the game, checking to see if we could have saved a beloved character’s life if we had said or done something differently. Online, the experience of the story continues and the experience is shared with a larger community. These games do not represent the most complex ways that video games tell stories, but they do show how even simple game play can be used to create an immersive world.

I doubt I will ever be making video games in my public history career (although someone should), but finding creative ways to communicate a narrative is definitely a useful skill. People connect to the complex characters, the manipulations of time, and the interactive mysteries found in video games. These elements could be brought to exhibits and other presentations of history to get audiences as passionate about history as they are about these imaginary digital worlds.

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