Video games are the perfect form for storytelling — and succeed where movies fall short


There's a moment in What Remains of Edith Finch — one moment among many, really — where I had to pause while playing.

"You have to experience this," I said to my partner, passing over the controller, as it thrummed softly, rhythmic and steady. The controller's haptic feedback played a key role in how the story was being told in that particular moment. I won't spell out what happened — it's a pretty big spoiler. So let me just say that it involves a heartbeat.

Where an Edith Finch book would tell or a movie would show, the game can force players to feel its most intimate stories. My experience playing Edith Finch habitually transcended passive digestion. Holding the controller meant more than reading the words on the screen or hearing Edith's voice through the speakers.

Writing for the Atlantic in April, Ian Bogost argued that video games are better without stories because movies and books "tell them better." But the reductive reasoning peppered throughout Bogost's article fails to take into account a vital interactive imperative. Some stories need the interaction only video games can offer to achieve their powerful, climactic sequences. It's something that other, more traditional mediums simply can't match.

The best video game stories "talk" back

Interaction and player agency is what sets narrative in games apart from the passive stories told in books and movies. The interaction loop allows a player to engage with a game and, in response, the game provides feedback either through haptics or changes in the story. 

You, as the player, control the experience. 

Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain had a number of problems, not the least of which was its overwrought voice acting and tendency toward melodrama. But one scene, where the game's protagonist must cut off the tip of his finger in order to obtain the next clue in his son's disappearance, is what cemented the experience in my mind. In a movie, witnessing this sequence of events would have been harrowing. With the right special effects, I'd likely have turned my head away.

Heavy Rain forces you not only to look, but to be a part of the experience. The haptic feedback on the PlayStation 3's controller was how I knew what Ethan was feeling when faced with the bloody reality. His shaky hands, his racing heart and even how hard I had to pull the right trigger on my PS3 controller. Each piece of the interactive experience contributed to my visceral response to the scene. 

When I finished the grisly task, I felt queasy. My stomach wouldn't stop churning. I had to put the controller down and go for a walk. 

Had I passively consumed that scene, either watching someone else play it in front of me or in a Let's Play video, I wouldn't have been as affected by the outcome. Because Heavy Rain forced me to bear down on the controller through a series of complex button presses, I felt everything short of the amputation itself. 

The interaction was everything.

Blurring the line between the story and the reality of experiencing it

Horror games have a real way of making you question your sanity. In the case of Eternal Darkness for Nintendo GameCube, your sanity and the protagonist's were interwoven in some rather unexpected ways. Eternal Darkness didn't have haptic feedback to lean on in order to get the player to pay attention. Instead, it had "sanity effects."

There were points in the experience where the game does more than just mess with the protagonist. It makes you, the player, believe that perhaps you're losing your mind, too. Unlike Until Dawn, where the scares are measured and might have been effective in a movie, Eternal Darkness pulls in "sanity effects" that mess with the game's reality.

It doesn't affect the narrative reality, mind you, but the real-world perception of the game. 

At times, the game appears to throw an impossible a blue screen of death, which refers to a Windows crash, even though it's on the GameCube. Another point in the story gives the illusion that the game turned off your television. Toward the end of Eternal Darkness, it even gives the impression that all of your save files have been deleted. 

As much as Eternal Darkness relies on classic horror tropes to tell its in-game story, it also needs the gaming medium in order to effectively achieve immersion. By creating the impression that the game may be broken as a result of the protagonist's dip into "insanity," the story is that much more compelling. Much like Heavy Rain's finger amputation scene or Edith Finch's heartbeat moment, Eternal Darkness required meaningful feedback in order to tell the entirety of the story.

Story remains, even as gameplay memories fade

I've played a lot of games in my 30-something years. I've spent whole weekends shut up in my basement, poring through strategy guides to complex JRPGs and shrieking in terror at narrative-heavy horror games. I've conversed with a giant-miniature space hamster named Boo (and his human, Minsc) and manned a fire lookout tower in Wyoming. I've even discovered what the real secret is in The Secret of Mana — it's not what you think it is. 

The common thread through my most memorable gaming experiences has been a narrative lens. The games that come up in conversation years after I played them are the ones that moved me with their stories. I don't remember that the game was kind of broken, as was the case with American McGee's Alice way back in December 2000. I don't tend to recall the specifics of where to find items, or even what the items were, in some cases.

But I will always remember a game's story and how a controller empowered me to do more than enjoy it — it enabled me to hold it in my hands.

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