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Are Video Games Viable Storytellers?

This question has been a hot topic in the video game industry for a long time. Lately, the discussions I’ve had surrounding said subject have injected the angle “Are video games the new B-movies?” Sure, Gears of War’s plot embraces the B-movie motif to an almost frightening degree, and a multistory flowchart is needed to follow Metal Gear Solid 4’s plot (is the Coke-drinking monkey supposed to be Jesus Christ?), but with these examples aside, I stand by what I’ve been saying all along: The video game medium is just as viable a storytelling vehicle as any other. Generalizing the entire game catalog under the B-movie designation isn't fair.

Over the last few days, I’ve thought long and hard about this topic (which stems mostly from a heated debate with film-buff friends). Their argument that games are nothing more than B-movies holds merit for a large portion of the games out there; I can’t disagree with that. But in looking back at the games I’ve played, I realized many of my fondest memories are tied to the tales they tell. Did I just get caught up in B-quality fiction? Or is gaming an established storytelling medium?

For me, the answer is easy: A good writer can turn anything, be it a movie, book, or video game, into a masterpiece. In the same stroke, a bad writer can turn anything into a B-movie or worse. Sure, developers, filmmakers, and publishers can muck up a story, but I’d like to think most are handled with care by all parties involved.

Remember, unlike books, comic books, or movies, video games did not start off as a storytelling vehicle. But it has evolved into one. Developers are finding new ways to express fiction in the gameplay. Bioshock intertwines its story seamlessly into an FPS framework, and Bioware’s stable of games allow players to shape the fiction through choose-your-own-adventure-like choices. Heavy Rain, the upcoming thriller from Sony, looks to be opening the doors for more dramatic fiction. I could see a Stephen King novel working in this engine.

No, video games have not delivered the equivalent of Gone With the Wind, or Citizen Kane. Books and movies have a much wider pallet, at this time anyway, to work with. But video games do have Star Wars in Mass Effect, The Lord of the Rings in Final Fantasy, and Indiana Jones in Uncharted. The story-based memories I have with the aforementioned titles blend into one big ball of awesomeness.

To reiterate, my stance has been and always will be that video games are just another place where stories can land. There are great stories in video games. There are great stories in movies and books as well. You just digest them in different ways. Applying a good story to game code doesn't instantly turn it into B-quality.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject. I could go on and on here, but to bring it back around to the discussions I have with friends and colleagues, I’d like to open the debate up to you. Fire away.

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