Thursday, August 4, 2016

On Medium

When I was in tenth grade, my English teacher challenged the class to reach deep and find our passions. This passion of ours, he said, would be a driving force in our life, and could be the center of a fulfilling career if we worked hard to make it so. My passion, above anything else at the time, was video games, specifically - the stories within them.

Years later, after failing to get into the saturated games industry, I would dissect that passion to it's core - telling stories - but as a fifteen-year-old hardcore gamer, nothing sounded better in life than having a story I wrote make it into a video game.

Fifteen-year-old me wasn't especially smart (spoiler alert, fifteen-year-old me, we didn't get better), and the worlds and stories I'd started crafting were more suitable as wiki pages than stories suitable to play through. My storytelling strategy was to create the story first, line it all out, and then maybe put some fights or something in between what would be awesome cinemas. Basically, I was writing Final Fantasy XIII.

As I grew up and began dabbling in a game design major in college ("dabbled" is code for "I failed calculus three times and switched to a lit major"), I started to recognize that my favorite games weren't the ones that could be called "movie-games," or games that are primarily cinematic. 

My favorite games were and are the ones where story and gameplay are in sync. I'm talking about games like Undertale, Bioshock, KOTOR, Mass Effect, Dragon Age (I love you, Bioware), and the Deus Ex series. Games where the story justifies aspects of the gameplay, and vice versa.

The thing about stories in games is that no matter how compelling the story is, I'm there for the gameplay. I'm there to play a video game. There are gazillions of good stories in books and movies and plays, and if I wanted to sit and stare, I'd watch or read one of those. When I pick up a game, I want it to be a primarily playable experience, with an awesome story folded in.

I see so many people interested in video game storytelling who craft these crazy awesome stories, but completely sidestep the fact that they're writing something for a playable entertainment. I don't judge. I did the same thing. But I implore these people - and everyone interested in telling stories - to choose a medium that works with the story they want to tell. It's a strangely quiet, overlooked part of the process.

Any story could be told in any medium, certainly, but each medium is sort of like a toolkit. The fundamentals are the same - crafting character, plot, world - but the ways you can tell the story differ drastically between the mediums.

Video Games

In the video game storytelling toolkit, you have visuals, audio, acting, dialogue, but the kit is distinctly different from a movie because the final product must be one that is playable. When one is crafting a game story, they must ask themselves how the story will function with gameplay, how it can accent the playable experience, and how it can immerse the player further in the interactive world.


Much like video games, stories told through movies or television can utilize sound, visuals, acting, dialogue, but it can also benefit from the magic of scene composition. The way actors are positioned in a frame, the angle of shots, the lighting, the things that are happening in the background, etc. One of my favorite Youtube channels, Every Frame a Painting, has excellent videos on storytelling in film. If you're interested, check out EFP's video on Edgar Wright. It's good, and it'll show you what I mean about using this toolkit effectively.


In this toolkit, there are simply words (talking grand scale here, I realize some books come with maps and pretty pictures, but the quintessential novel is a giant block of text and we love it just the way it is). With this, you have the ability to create an in-depth narrative, a close look at character(s), and plenty of space to tell the tale. But - you also have to hold someone's attention for hours longer than most films, all without the interactivity of a video game. There's no music, no visuals - just the magic of words.

There are several other storytelling toolkits, such as plays, oral storytelling, comic books, etc., but those are all similar to the mediums already mentioned, and so I won't bore you with further details. The point is, mediums are all very different. It's like choosing between different types of drawing mediums. There are paints, pens, pencils, and multitudes of variations between those. For one to maximize the awesomeness of their tale, they have to take their medium into serious account, else, they run the risk of not using their toolkit effectively, or misusing it.

So, what do you think? What are your favorite mediums to experience stories in, and for the crafters among you, what are your favorite mediums to tell stories through?
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