How interactive storytelling videogames shaped my understanding of humanity

One afternoon many years ago on YouTube, a thumbnail titled: “Until Dawn — Episode 1 Walkthrough” instantly caught my eye. Letting my boredom get the best of me, I clicked on the YouTube video. What started off as one video, led to hours and hours of watching gameplay for the entirety of the game. I became fascinated with storytelling action games, and branched out to different video games like The Walking Dead and Life is Strange. These games aren’t just normal video games with one main objective. They tell stories that let players to delve into a fictional world filled with realism. These interactive storytelling games prove that games can be more than just a simple pastime.

Why games directly impact us as humans

Whether we like to acknowledge it or not, storytelling games actually have a lasting impact on our development as humans. But why? If video games truly have a positive impact on human development, then why do parents hate video games so much? To certain people, games are just pixels moving on a screen that “waste” time that could be used to be productive- like doing homework or working a job. What they don’t realize is that plenty of research and strategy goes into the creation of a complex storytelling game. A storytelling game centered around themes of empathy, morality, and humanity should evoke an emotional connection with the player, making for an immersive experience. And that is exactly what The Walking Dead, Life is Strange, and Until Dawn does. Certain narrative design strategies that storytelling games utilize are difficult choices with compelling consequences, time pressure and tension, elements of hero’s journey, realism, and building on character relationships.

Character Relationships and Empathy

Great games make players feel a wide range of emotions, and heavy themes of trauma certainly evoke empathy. Looking back, Until Dawn, The Walking Dead and Life Is Strange all made me rationalize my guilt over the decisions that I’ve made. The Walking Dead portrays characters in these tough scenarios, and forces players to make decisions that are neither right or wrong. In this gray area, we often find ourselves dwelling on the choices we make, which should give us a sense of guilt. Rather than utilizing intellectual puzzle solving, The Walking Dead focuses more on emotional puzzle solving. In this extreme environment, you’re constantly having to sort through moral dilemmas. The best decision made is not always the right decision, but there are different factors that players have to consider. I strive for my own game to center around these themes, though it may not be as heavy as it is in these professional games. From my personal experience, the most notable aspect of The Walking Dead is the focus on character relationships and how they emotionally connect with the player.

The game offers a lot of creative freedom in terms of relationships, but not as much when it comes to changing and creating our own paths. Although many hear “The Walking Dead” and instantly think of the television series, the game itself is quite different. This narrative game isn’t necessarily about killing zombies or saving every character we meet, but rather how we shape our relationship with them and what we gain from those relationships. Every character brings something different to the table, and we get to see how Clementine’s character develops with each new season. Seeing how Clementine transforms from a dependent little girl to an independent leader is an emotional roller coaster for players. We’re the ones in the driver’s seat, being represented by Clementine. We’re the ones who endure every hardship she faces as if it is our own.

In season two of The Walking Dead, Clementine meets a group and they generously take her in. Each person in the group views Clem differently, and the choices that we make can either better or worsen the relationships we have with them. A key character we meet is Sarah, a shy girl who hasn’t adapted to the harsh realities of living in an apocalyptic world. Because her dad shields her from the real world, Sarah is still living as if the world is normal. She’s not socially aware and rather awkward to interact with, which makes her frustrating to cooperate with for some players. On the other hand, some people may empathize with Sarah, and develop a relationship with Sarah. She is an influential character because Clementine’s character potentially changes as a result of her decision. In season two episode four Clementine, Jane, Luke, and Sarah are trapped in a trailer, with only a couple minutes before walkers start jumping in. Sarah, in a current state of shock, is unable to move, or comprehend anything that Luke is saying. When Clementine arrives at the trailer, Luke believes that she is the only one who can talk her out of that state. As Clementine, you have to make a series of timed decisions that would allow for Sarah to escape. Clementine is put in a pretty impossible and uncomfortable situation.

There are three different possibilities: Clementine fails to convince Sarah and they leave her, Clementine convinces Sarah and they all escape, or Clementine doesn’t attempt to save Sarah. If the player chose to empathize with Sarah and develop a bond with her, they are more likely to try harder to save her. However, if the player doesn’t develop that bond with Sarah, they’re more likely to abandon her. Because the game developers emphasize relationships between the main protagonists and other side characters, these decisions become even more difficult. Ultimately, it is up to the player to shape and form relationships with the characters, which forge an emotional connection between the real life player and the game itself. Complex storytelling games are able to make the player feel as if they are actually in the game. There are two main types of empathy, and Telltale games teach the players both types. Empathy in general is an invaluable trait that is applicable in everyday life, and we experience some type of empathy every single day. Even something as simple as checking up on a friend or family member is a form of empathy. Some form of empathy is always included in narrative design strategies. Storytelling video games are a great platform to induce empathy because they directly put the player in the scene. In some situations, we try to put ourselves in their shoes (cognitive). In others, we connect and react to the emotions of other people (emotional).

External and Internal Conflict

Telltale also makes it a point to create both external and internal conflict for many situations. In terms of creative writing, it is very important to incorporate both types of conflict for the main character. An external conflict occurs when someone is faced with a problem that is out of their control. It could be something as simple as not being able to pay for groceries at the supermarket. Something that is tangible. An internal conflict involves a psychological struggle that is potentially caused by their own emotions. There are many scenarios in which only one of the conflicts exist, but the combination of both lead to more tension. For example, referring back to the Clementine and Sarah situation, Clem is faced with both external and internal conflict. Externally, she is fighting with Jane and Luke who are rushing her to make a choice. Internally, she questions what would happen to her character if she abandoned her helpless friend. Could she live knowing that she could’ve done more to save her friend? Does abandoning her ally make her a monster if she has to put her own life on the line? In an apocalyptic world, there isn’t much humanity left. Trust is something so incredibly rare in those times, so how would it feel losing someone that you already trust? In the actual game, Clementine only has five or six seconds to choose the proper dialogue that determines the fate of her companion. The time constraint in addition to Clementine’s internal and external conflict amplifies the weight on her shoulders, building up tension with each choice.

Realism and Tension

As mentioned in an interview with the developers and voice actors at Telltale games, one of the biggest mechanics that they integrated was timed conversations and timed dialogue. Initially, the developers were hesitant to add a time constraint, but took the risk anyway. This mechanic plays such an important role in most storytelling games because it adds another layer of depth — realism. Realism doesn’t have to be apparent in every aspect of the game, but it’s what engages the players. In the real world, you can’t always come up with an immediate response. Telltale’s ability to translate that realistic response into their own fictional game makes the players feel as though they’re actually in the game, making those choices. This makes for an even better experience, because The moral perspectives and rationalizations that Telltale sets up in The Walking Dead undoubtedly influence the ethical considerations that impact our decision making. The Walking Dead does not have a rewind feature, unlike Life is Strange. Once a choice is made, it is finalized and you have no choice but to continue playing through the episode.

Hero’s Journey

Another relevant narrative design strategy that can be traced in almost every video game are the elements of hero’s journey. To put it shortly, the protagonist is faced with a challenge, goes through all the ups and downs, and comes out of it having learned something new. Obviously it’s a bit more detailed than that, but you get the gist. You can pinpoint each stage of the hero’s journey in any storytelling game that exists. We subconsciously go through different versions of this repetitive outline in each game that we play. As Christopher Vogler quoted in his piece, “every story-teller bends the myth to his or her own purpose. That’s why the hero has a thousand faces.” Hero’s Journey can be told in an infinite amount of ways, as every individual has their own story to tell. This universal formula is incredibly simple yet effective, as it remains prevalent in the plot of modern day stories and movies.

The Takeaway

There are plenty of elements that go into the process of creating an interactive storytelling game. The main narrative design strategies include difficult choices with compelling consequences, time pressure and tension, realism, character relationships and how they forge empathy, and elements of hero’s journey. Games that successfully incorporate all of these components leave players reflecting on their own values, and offering another outlook on life.

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