Video games have long been a past-time or hobby for some, but for others they’re practically a way of life and source of commitment. What lies in the appeal of video games that makes us want to keep coming back to them and what makes them so engaging? You’ll probably get a different answer for every person you ask, so I’ll try to cover at least four broad ones.
Storytelling – Video games as a medium of fiction
It was only during my dad’s time that video games were just interactive toys that plugged into the TV and displayed little more than white blocks on a black screen – a literal video game (Pong, anyone?) Now forty years later we have fully-rendered computer graphics animation, professional voice acting and a narrative structure to accompany the campaign to give players context as to why they’re doing what they’re doing and what their ultimate goal is.
The past thirty years in gaming has evolved to place a greater emphasis on stories in games, especially as more people joined the community and expressed interest in them. What exactly lies in the appeal of stories in games that novels and cinema don’t have? Games are an active medium, while other mediums are simply passive. As we control the player character, we are made to feel we are part of the events that are unfolding, rather than simply observing them. While other mediums will always have their place, its video games that are particularly unique.
A number of people might compare video games to interactive movies, but that is, I think, simplifying it too much. While there has been a rise of video games that focus more on cinematics and minimal player-input, narrative storytelling has been a part of video games since before the jump to 3D in the mid-late 90s. There have been games, and there still are, which showed new ways to tell a story that would only work in a video game, without detriment to the player’s involvement or enjoyment. Key examples of this would be Retro Studios Metroid Prime trilogy or the 2016 DOOM reboot: These games never took control away from the player, but offered plenty of story-related content for those who wished to look for it.
Immersion – Being part of the game world
This is related to the above topic, but it warrants its own section.
World-crafting is important in any story, but perhaps even more so in video games – Whether it’s an RPG or a shooter, the player is going to be a part of the environment and interact with it. Therefore, game designers and writers have to work hard to come up with a world that feels believable within the context of the setting.
If you’ve played Skyrim, then how many hours did you invest in it? How many days and nights went by just simply playing it, only taking breaks when you needed to? While there may be legitimate criticisms leveled towards Skyrim, my general point stands that it succeeded in what it set out to do: “Live another life, in another world.”
It’s not just that there’s always objectives to accomplish in a game, or luscious environments or engaging storylines and likable characters: It’s the fact that a good game, a well-written, well-designed game, successfully creates the illusion of certain level of reality: If the game world feels real, if it feels like a world people could actually live in, then we can lose ourselves in it, momentarily forget about real life and instead become the hero on our own journey.
In short, it’s about escapism.
Longevity – Video games take longer to complete
A good movie lasts a couple of hours. A good book can be finished in a few days.
A good video game takes weeks or even a couple of months to finish.
Perhaps that is more of a drawback than a positive for some people, and that’s fine. We lead busy lives and don’t really feel like we have time to invest in something that can up take up to forty to sixty hours overall. But one of the most important aspects of an adventure story is the journey – The ever ongoing experience that makes us keep coming back to pick up where we left off. Movies are over before we know it. Novels, we can consume as quickly or as slowly as we want. But video games? They can take several days at a time, particularly RPG’s.
An example of one of my favorite video games that is perfect at making a lasting experience is Dragon Age: Origins: While there was a main story that was the glue that held everything together, the campaign itself can be broken into several smaller acts, story arcs, in other words, that made up for the journey as a whole. Each story arc was a plot line in of itself, revealing a bit more of the world beyond what we initially knew before: It also allowed more time to be spent on building your relationships with your companions, developing bonds of trust and camaraderie as you went on more adventures with them, though the end goal always remained in sight.
I understand this method of storytelling is not unique to video games. But rather, because of the nature of a video game’s pacing being longer (due to a mix of exploration and combat), you spend a greater deal more time of investing yourself in the story then you would in other mediums. As such, games tend to have a greater impact on us. I can’t speak for others, but I always remember events in video games much more vividly than in a film, even if it’s a game I’ve only played once.
Fun – Video games offer excitement
Perhaps the most simple part and yet gets so easily forgotten, sometimes.
For all my lavishing on writing in video games and what they can offer, it matters all for naught if a game simply isn’t fun to play. No-one can be bothered to finish a video game for its story if it’s boring, monotonous or frustrating. Ultimately, gamers play games for gameplay, and if developers can’t get that part right, they’re wasting everyone’s time.
Games that are truly worthwhile are the games that offer a challenge – Either by testing your cognitive skills or your reaction time. They get the adrenaline going, make you think about what you’re doing. You get punished if you do poorly, and rewarded if you do well. It encourages improvement and a sense of achievement once you finish the assigned goal.
There’s always a controversy that video games are bad for people, often from those who’ve never played video games and don’t understand them. While playing video games at the expense of everything else can be detrimental to your own lifestyle, there is nothing wrong with video games themselves. Video games, have in fact, been proven to improve hand-to-eye co-ordination and basic logic-solving skills (your eyes, however, may not thank you for staring at a plasma screen for too long).
In summary, video games offer a unique and exciting level of interactivity that is difficult to find anywhere else. We’re not just simply the main character in a story that reacts to our actions, but it’s the fact that video games satisfy a deeply-held craving for discovery, adventure and conquering the unknown. A good video game manages to tap into that part of our psyche and we continue to play them to keep getting that buzz. Sometimes we play a game that we finished before to re-create that journey and discover new things that we missed last time. As we become more intimately familiar with one game, we play a new one to get something fresh.
The industry is continuing to grow. Some might stay it’s stagnating, but I think its rate of evolution is merely slowing down: AAA titles are still being made, with smaller, indie developers finding their own niche. It’s hard to continue to innovate when there have been so many tried and true tested formulas over the last twenty years. Modern gaming as we know it has simply left its adolescent phase: It’s sticking with what’s proven to work, experiments with different ideas and is now looking to firmly assert itself into society at large. I, for one, continue to look forward to seeing what gaming has to offer in the future.