It’s a conundrum that has plagued mankind for over twenty-five years: can video game stories be classified in the same category as novels and movies? The earliest game stories are nothing more than bad people are doing bad things and you must kill them with the occasional princess to save. Once RPGs (that’s Role Playing Games for you non-gamers) came along things got a lot more complicated.
So, can these stories literary? First, let’s look at what literary means. Here’s the Oxforddictionaries.com definition:
1. concerning the writing, study, or content of literature, especially of the kind valued for quality of form.
2. (of language) associated with literary works or other formal writing; having a marked style intended to create a particular emotional effect.
With the first definition people will dismiss video game stories as not literary. The second definition makes this argument a bit complicated.
The problem comes when you look at stuff like many platformers and especially first person shooters. These stories tend the be the basic run of the mill “kill them all” or “save the world” stories. Basically your typical summer blockbuster. Many gamers are OK with this since they are not all that interested in story. Which means that the answer is still no.
On the other hand when you look at many story heavy games you’ll see some deep stuff. Many of these are RPGs. Let’s take Final Fantasy VI as an example. At its surface it’s basically a save the world from the evil clown bad guy who became a god just to destroy the world story. Once you dig deep enough you will find layers. These characters have internal struggles, there’s symbolism and best off all a ton of development. You can easily write a book about every character’s story and their experiences.
To use a controversial example let’s look at the Meta Gear games. Yes, the solid games have insanely long cut scenes and some of the story (Especially Metal Gear Solid 2) makes little sense, but again, layers, symbolism, ETC. There is a heavy anti-war message, characters that are fighting for different reasons, freedom VS absolute control from the government and even family values. Some people will say that a lot of the character development is done in an overly melodramatic way, but so does every single Oscar bait movie. Look at Citizen Kain, Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments and the Godfather. Lots of melodrama in there and movie consider these masterpieces.
A more recent example is The Last of Us. On the surface, the game is nothing more than another zombie movie (shut up, those monsters are zombies. They are reanimated corpses that came to life via a virus, the hunt humans in hoards and they infect you if they bite you. They’re zombies.) Once we look at the characters things get complicated. This game has the same qualities as the games mentioned above.
And with all three games, people have said they cried at the end.
That is one of the hallmarks of great storytelling. If it can cause you to show an extreme emotion then the writers have done a good job. Kojima, SquareEnix and Naughty Dog have done that. Not to mention games like Shenmue, the Persona games, the first four Silent Games and many others have succeeded in this.
The thing that people have problems with these stories is the “game” label. Roger Ebert has even said that games can never be art. He is wrong in the way that video games, movies and novels are two completely different mediums. What works in novels can’t work in film, what works in film can’t work in novels, and what works in novels/film can’t work in video games and vice versa. Yes, there have been cases where this wasn’t accomplished, but there are many where it was like the above games, Okami, Journey and even the Legacy of Kain games.
It is true that many video game stories are not very good or mediocre at best, but there are plenty that are well written and will move you. These are becoming exceedingly rare nowadays, but they are out there. So in conclusion, yes, video game stories can me literary if done by the right people. Video game stories can be much more than the sum of their parts, they have been and there will be people who will continue on in that tradition.