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An LCU Professor Perspective – Storytelling and the Evolution of Video Games

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase video game?

  • A time-wasting activity a kid plays all day?
  • A target for people who worry about violence in our culture?

What about a growing platform where modern technology has allowed them to evolve into a narrative medium capable of communicating stories in different ways?

“For scholars and students interested in popular culture or in the nature of stories and storytelling, the traditional forms of page, stage, and screen must certainly be examined,” said Dr. Kenneth Hawley, professor of English at LCU.

“However, in a day like ours, where narratives are being played out in living rooms and basements and on mobile devices and gaming systems, it may be that some of the more creative and cutting-edge work on character, plot, conflict, identity, resolution, and meaning may emerge from what some might have always considered idle amusement.”

E3 and the Rise of the Video Game Industry

Earlier this month, Los Angeles hosted the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the largest video game conference in the world.

This annual convention showcases demonstrations from every major video game publisher in the world, each showing off their latest and most innovative games, hardware, and programs.

From gameplay demonstrations to trailers and reveals, E3 is the largest event in the video game industry, which has continued to grow throughout the past decade.

This year’s E3 showcased gameplay of revolutionary upcoming games like Sony’s “Horizon Zero Dawn” and the remastered version of Bethesda’s Game-of-the-Year bestseller, “Skyrim,” alongside teaser trailers of games like BioWare’s highly-anticipated “Mass Effect: Andromeda.” 

Perhaps the most impressive announcements of the entire show, however, were those of (literally) game-changing hardware like Sony’s PlayStation VR, which is at the forefront of Virtual Reality gaming, and Microsoft’s Project Scorpio, the most powerful gaming console ever created.

All of this was live-streamed to an audience numbering in the millions that continues to grow. In 2015, total revenue for the industry in the U.S alone hit $23.5 billion, up almost 5 percent from the previous year.

E3 also demonstrated the video game industry contains a more diverse population than before. Nearly half of Americans (of both genders) play video games, and those numbers rise to nearly 80 percent of males between 18 and 21 and 60 percent of women in the same age group.

For Dr. Matt Byars, an LCU English department colleague of Hawley’s, the most exciting part of the evolution of video games is the potential for even greater things.

“I'm excited to follow along with the evolution of gaming and technology, in general,” he said.  “For video gaming, the future is incredibly bright.”

Views in Academia

The legitimacy of video games is also becoming a more popular topic on campuses.

The MIT Press has published several leading books on video games, including “How Games Move Us,” by Katherine Isbister; “The Aesthetic of Play,” by Brian Upton; and “Values at Play in Digital Games,” by Mary Flanagan and Helen Nisserbaum.

Game Theory courses are now commonplace at universities across the country, and “Game Studies,” the International Journal of Computer Game Research, has recently published the second issue of its 15th volume.

Hawley agrees the academic community is realizing video games are not only a pastime, but also a meaningful means for projecting ideas, worldviews, and ideologies.

“These days, for a kid to put down the controller and pick up a book is not to put away the toy and enter a story — he or she was already in the middle of one: as a character, a creator, a master, a servant, a warrior, a player, an agent within a world of actions and consequences,” he said.

“The degree to which a user can enter into that space and become one of the agents within the ongoing narrative is fascinating,” Hawley explained. “This is way beyond creating a Mii that looks a little bit like yourself, adding glasses and a hat, or picking a favorite color.”

As a professor of English, exploring the nature of storytelling is something with which Hawley is intimately familiar. Not only does he routinely teach courses on literature, but he also facilitates classes centered around comparing literature and film. Because of that, video games are also making their way into classrooms across the nation.

Byars added, “The advantages for storytelling in video games are that the games are designed to be sort of free-form in nature, with players being able to wander the game-world and make choices along the way, and the stories have to keep pace with those choices. As such, there are often numerous storylines woven into the games, with the various lines intersecting at various points. It's not always the same story over and over, so repeat playability is something that gives video games a leg up on much fiction, comic books, etc.”

Hawley agreed. “Remember the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books? Modern gaming makes such engagement possible for users young and old.”

Improvement in All Areas

Stories have the power to convey ideas and messages through example, and video games have a constantly-evolving arsenal of tools to help them do so efficiently and effectively.

Modern games not only have a higher focus on graphics than early games, but utilize those graphics to enhance the storytelling experience. The original Atari limit of a 160 x 228-pixel resolution is dwarfed by today’s high-definition gaming.

“The Atari games I played as a child were not very complex. Not in terms of graphics. Not in terms of storyline,” said Hawley. “Pong, for example. Bink. Bink. Back and forth. Score a goal, make a point, send it from one side to the other in a contest of speed, agility, and paddle-eye coordination.”

Sound design in games has made equivalent leaps in quality. Early games had no sound at all. Modern games have soundtracks sometimes equal to major motion pictures. They also cast talented voice actors and include hyper-realistic sound effects.   

Byars said, “As graphics and sound have evolved, storytelling has leapt ahead and is now often the primary focus of many, if not most, games. There are still plenty of cooperative adventure games out there, but even those seem to feature a ‘plot’ of some kind.”

These leaps in technological capabilities have enabled video games to bring cinematic moments into games that look realistic, peppering gameplay with moments of incredibly rendered narrative. Players don’t have to rely on text to tell them what they hear or what they see as they make their choices and experience the results. That directly impacts the power these stories carry as vehicles for narrative.

Hawley said, “It is not just the changes in technology that have made such developments possible. Surely processing speed, memory, and storage capacity have a great deal to do with what is possible, but consider the work of writers and designers, imagining the characters and levels and worlds.”

Worlds that, as in BioWare’s Dragon Age franchise, can even rival those of famed authors like J.R.R. Tolkien.

((A copy of Dr. Hawley's complete commentary on the development of video games as vehicles for narrative storytelling can be found here.))