Explaining Gaming to My Girlfriend: Narrative

The first thing my girlfriend had to get used to when we moved in together is how much I played video games. MassEffectBioShockBanner1 copy

I have this habit of finding a good one and devouring it whole. I’ll still go to work and classes and cook dinner, and every so often we’ll speak, but all other time is spent digesting bursts of imaginative escapism.

No more so than now, games are moving from their niche of controller dexterity and gratuitous use of red pixels towards something more resembling “entertainment.” Consoles market themselves as entertainment centers, and the media we pop in their drives has been following accordingly. Mass Effect, Bioshock, and Elder Scrolls have led the way into a new era of narrative design, and more importantly, they just may have saved my relationship.

Mass Effect was the game that started to show my girlfriend what it is that’s so consuming about games. In preparation for the third installment, I picked up the first two to replay them, using the character import feature to carry over my Shepard’s personality. That this was even a feature of a video game got her to the couch, and the storyline kept her there for pretty much every minute.

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BioShock: Infinite solidified her love of this new triple-A storytelling genre.  They aren’t games anymore; they’re narratives. And while she’ll turn her head as I mash through some baddy’s face with a skyhook, there are many more times when she’ll “ooh,” “ahh,” and “hmpf” through the plot points and marvel at the cutscenes alongside me on the couch. We discussed the ending to BioShock for an hour after I’d finished the game.

After that, we talked for a bit about what made each game exciting, because they have their own style (we’re a writer and an English major, sue us).  They’re both narratively-driven games, but they do it in different ways. Mass Effect is a futuristic game with an old-school RPG feel.  Dialogue is a minigame. You get options, you pick one.  You fulfill objectives, you earn and lose karma. That karma can haunt you or benefit you later in the game, by opening up special options down the line.  It also can make an entire legion of fans hate your game because of the ending.

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In BioShock, the story is on rails, and the player has little choice over the course of the game. But the narrative is written so well and executed so flawlessly that it is the story that pulls you along. Rapture draws you into its dystopia after the mad ravings of its founder in the original, while above the clouds in Columbia, you’re driven by the enigmatic Elizabeth.

In each franchise, it’s the story that drives you. But in Mass Effect, you have love for your character. BioWare has made this their hallmark in developing all of their games. Over the course of dozens of hours of gameplay time, as a player you develop affection for your version of Shepard. You were the one who said those awful things to Miranda, or the person who stuck up for Tali again and again, to be rewarded after three (!) games with one of the best easter eggs ever.

BioShock blows your mind with its political caricature and is a triumph to anyone who ever wanted to slap an Ayn Rand-ite silly, but I just don’t care about Booker Dewitt.  I was curious who he was, and I enjoyed that he knew as little about Columbia as possible, but there was no identity shared between us over the course of the game.  In Mass Effect, I am incapable of playing a renegade, because I can’t stand the other character’s judgement of me. In BioShock, the entire game despises Booker, because he stands against their zealous way of life. But I never felt that they despised me. In Mass Effect, I was the one who pulled a gun on that annoying reporter back in my first trip to the Citadel, and for two more games she and my crew kept reminding me of it.

Simple identification with the player-character is an unbreakable bond. I was the hero in an epic space opera, but because it’s a game, I could go back, do it all differently, and fall in love all over again. But maybe BioShock just has better writers, because the game took the RP out of RPG and made out with a glorious game.  Good writing can make millions of dollars in the gaming industry, and other publishers should take notice. Simplify your combat and pay your writers and art directors a wee bit more.

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