This week saw video gaming’s annual trade show, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3. At studio press conferences and on the show floor gamers caught previews of the fantastic, dystopian and sci-fi worlds in which they will be battling in the months and years to come. Many of the stories being told in the youngest of our major story telling mediums are grounded in the realities of world history or the present day. Many are set in generic science fiction or fantasy bitscapes as backdrops for axe swinging or blaster blasting. Others are creating some of the most ambitious speculative universes you can find.
I’ll take a great story anywhere I can find it. But that’s not why I love video games. If forced to break down the quality of my favorite video game stories, including Bio Ware’s Mass Effect and Star Wars series, Irrational Games’s BioShock and BioShock Infinite, Konami’s Metal Gear and Silent Hill series, even Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, I couldn’t promise any of them would merit a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes if they were movies. Not to say they aren’t incredible achievements. Ultimately, however, the stories of video games are hampered by the greater goal of creating a sense of agency for the player. It’s an interactive experience. Time spent telling a story is usually time spent taking control away from the player. So how does a game creator provide a character driven narrative without sacrificing player agency? Well, they don’t. Not yet. Not in a truly successful way. Some games like Mass Effect or Telltale’s Walking Dead may provide decision points and branching paths, but the branches ultimately turn back in to one of a few set endings and the illusion of player choice is dispelled.
Still, the experience of these stories can be exhilarating. But divorced from the gameplay they exist to support, they may not be particularly impressive. There are just too many compromises that must be made along the way.
When it comes to world building, however, no medium is equipped to do it better. As player characters roam through the universe of the game, rushing or lingering as the player chooses, they can absorb anything the developers place in the world for them to find. What is the state of the world, what is its past? What is the world’s politics? What forces are trying to build or destroy it? How does the protagonist interact with the world and how does she thrive? Who do they meet and how do those characters change how we interpret the world? Every element that a novel or a movie has at their disposal to create a world a video game can take further. Interactivity aids world building at least as much as it hinders storytelling.
Here’s a look at a few of the most intriguing worlds that were on hand this week.
Horizon: Zero Dawn
Despite a name assembled from a blind plunge into an overused title grab bag, Horizon Zero: Dawn is a contender for the richest new world at the show. In the game, our modern world has peaked and then shattered. Centuries later, barbaric tribes shelter in villages against the machines the old age has left behind, machines that have evolved into lumbering megafauna that now rule the wilderness. These sentient machines can be hunted for the crafting materials they harbor or, if one can be isolated to give you the time, hacked and converted into a useful companion. You play as a young woman on a quest to discover the fate of the old world, growing your combat and hacking skills as you uncover the mystery.
We Happy Few
Taking a more stylized, pantomime aesthetic, We Happy Few lives in a world where the populace is required to swallow a daily supply of pills called Joy to keep the rose colored haze from falling from their eyes and revealing the drab reality of sobriety. You play as a man who discards his meds, sees too much, and is labeled a Downer, also, an enemy of the state. No Downers allowed in this medicated dystopia. You better make a run for it.
God of War
Not many game franchises grow more tired than God of War did by the end of its last effort, the prequel God of War: Ascension. One can imagine the Herculean protagonist, Kratos, kneeling down and crying for there were no more Greek gods to slaughter. In this apparent post God of War III revamp, Kratos appears to have settled in the Scandinavian hinterlands where he is raising a son. We can only predict the Norse pantheon is in for a reckoning. God of War’s refreshed gameplay looks to be borrowing from an array of other recent hit games, and Kratos’s next journey is beginning from a sadder but wiser perspective. Add in some wondrous art direction on the environment and monsters and God of War might just be a franchise worth paying attention to again.
Detroit: Become Human
Exploration of the trials of self-aware androids in a human world predates movies such as Ex Machina, A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Blade Runner, going back as far as E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman in 1816. Explore them again as French game director David Cage continues his ambitious struggle to bring real choice into the realm of interactive entertainment. His past efforts were respectable, and he looks to be growing even closer with Detroit: Become Human. In this not-too-distant future, androids have a lot of choices to make in determining their relationship to their creators and masters. We’ve seen this before. Expect things to get messy. But also expect the world to be painted with a lot of thought and determination. David Cage always gets an A for effort and his projects are worth checking out.