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How Games Can Tell Stories Without Words

This is a re-take and revision of a post I put up earlier. It focuses on how games have unique storytelling possibilities, particularly one instance of a story embedded in the world of the game Fallout 3.
Shameless plug: this post originally appearead on my NEW game column for the Examiner website. If you like my writing, please check it out and consider subscribing!

Video Games as a narrative medium have been described as being in the awkward stages of adolescence. Recent experimental designs like Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain have stretched the boundary between gaming and merely interactive 'make your own adventure' fiction. Of course, in many people's eyes, the jury is still out on whether gaming can really rise to the level of other art forms when it comes to narration. Just ask Roger Ebert.

This column isn't going to try and respond to that criticism. I'm not terribly concerned with games that imitate films. I'm concerned with how games can tell stories that no other medium can. The title should say it all. Books, by their very nature, can't tell stories without words. Films can often approach sublime levels requiring very little dialogue to accomplish the story. My personal favorite in that regard is Carl Dreyer's silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc.



But games, particularly open world RPGs where the emphasis is on exploration over scripted narrative, can tell stories in a way totally their own. Though caught between the desire to offer the player freedom through sheer scale and the desire for a deep and meaningful storyline, successful games like Bethesda's Fallout 3 forge a balance. While it clearly emphasizes scale over depth, it still succeeds in constructing a believable world (though it isn't for everyone). The sparseness of Fallout 3's Capital Wasteland is made believable by the whole 'absolutely desolate post-apocalyspe' them, but it proves that a world can be given depth in other ways than having non-player characters with detailed backstories and intricate side quests. In fact, as my title suggests, words aren’t even necessary.


Raiders are one of Fallout 3's most common enemies, and while human in appearance, are continuously portrayed as devoid of humanity. Mutilated corpses decorate their strongholds and they only speak a handful of frequently recycled lines of dialogue. In fact, the only reason they exist is to kill you.

Take a trip over to the radier outpost in Cliffside Caverns for a different side of the story. It requires fighting twenty-odd Raiders to get through the caverns, but you discover something near the end that really humanizes them.

You see, the caves the Raiders are camping in are part of the same cave network as a large pack of mutated bears known as Yao Guai. The only border between the two sets of caves is a door—a door with a copious amount of frag mines set on either side.

Raiders can ruin your day if you run into them unprepared, but they’re people too. And they sure don't want to be eaten by the Yao Guai!

 

 

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