Storytelling in Video Games

As an educator, I think it’s clear early on that the best way to motivate your students is to make connections with them.

I remember a kid talking excitedly with his buddy in one of my seminar classes a few years ago. He was talking about a game he was playing on his Xbox 360. “It’s crazy,” he kept saying as he continued to list what he loved about it. I listened for awhile before interjecting. “Are you guys talking about “Bioshock: Infinite?”

They looked at me incredulously and nodded. “Dude, that game is crazy,” I said. “Have you played the first one?” The boy who had been telling the story shook his head. “It surprised me so much I tossed my controller across the room,” I told him.

They laughed and we started talking about different games we liked and before I knew it, I’d begun my tenure as the resident gamer on the teaching staff.

image via Flickr User JD Hancock CC 2.0
image via Flickr User JD Hancock CC 2.0

I appreciate the cultural shift that’s happening with gaming. I know that as an English teacher, I was expected to be shaking my finger at kids who want to “rot their mind” with all those TV shows and games.

I was supposed to be pushing them to read books instead. And you know what? I love reading. I taught English for three years and I’m now in my first year as a librarian and there is nothing more exciting to me than connecting a student with a book.

But I don’t think gaming is a hindrance to what English teachers and librarians are promoting.

Here are some of the things I tried to do when I assigned a book in the classroom:

  • Promote discussions about grammar and dialogue with my students. Not just for the sake of the boring but sometimes necessary worksheets about prepositions or comma placement, but to talk about dialogue and idioms and why we think we talk normal but somebody on the other side of the country talks funny.
  • Try to get kids out their respective “cultural boxes.” Maybe help them see that a kid growing up in a different culture and/or country is not all that different than them.
  • Talk to kids about character development and plot. Connect story to things going on in current events.

These are all things that can happen with students and the games they play. Gaming studios are investing more and more money into the teams building their games. Writing for video games is an actual job that people have and they’re doing an increasingly good job as the years go on.

Here’s a list of games that show exceptional craft when it comes to storytelling.

Bioshock: The first Bioshock game is a first-person shooter, a genre which traditionally doesn’t get a lot of credit for storytelling ability but this one changes that. The game is set in a failed underwater utopia populated by power-drunk madmen and broken plasmid-addicted civilians. (Plasmids are scientific drugs that were developed to give people super-human abilities) You don’t know anything about the character you embody at first but the game does a great job of building its backstory as you progress until a climax that blindsides you. (Though I don’t promote throwing your controller in shock like less-controlled individuals)

Bioshock: Infinite is the most recent title in the series and it’s in much the same vein although this time the world is set in a dystopian city in the clouds. The story is unraveled in much the same way as the first. You learn tidbits as you go that reveal information about characters and your mission. The twist at the end wasn’t as wrenching as when I played the first game, but that was probably because I expected it from the series at that point. It was still ridiculously fulfilling.

Mass Effect: This game is basically an interactive choose-your-own adventure novel set in space. The choices you make will define the story you experience throughout the course of three games. Granted, the choices aren’t geared toward completely changing the playthrough, but they can still affect the fate of your teammates and how your character handles different missions.

Fallout + Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls and Fallout: Bethesda makes both of these games. Skyrim is a fantasy first-person game where you can fight bandits and dark wizards and, in the most recent game, dragons. The game has many role-playing elements and typically has a main quest with countless hours of side quests. Fallout’s gameplay is in the same vein but the story is set in a post-apocalyptic future after nuclear war.

telltale games

Telltale’s The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and Game of Thrones: These games are often first released on mobile devices and are tied into their respective series. Much like Mass Effect, they require players to invest in certain characters and make decisions that can affect character development as well as the outcome of the story itself.

These are just a few examples of games that, in my opinion, are pushing the evolution of gaming. Hopefully that evolution translates to the way teachers look at their gamer students and how they can reach those kids. Because I think there’s something to be said for being able to talk about the decisions you made in the Telltale Walking Dead games and perhaps connect that with Jonathan Maberry’s phenomenal Rot and Ruin series. Who says you can’t then make the jump to survival stories like “The Most Dangerous Game” or  any story by Jack London?

When it comes to promoting student engagement, it’s all about discovering their interests and finding a way to then make connections with what you want to teach them. Or the books you want them to read.

— Ethan Evans, currently reading Armada by Ernest Cline and playing Mass Effect 3

4 thoughts on “Storytelling in Video Games”

  1. I loved the first Bioshock, but I haven’t regained enough courage to play 2 or Infinite yet. I had to play Bioshock with the lights on and at least one roommate around at all times. I also really love Skyrim, although I haven’t played any of the Fallout games yet. I’ve tried most of the games on this list at some point – it just usually takes a couple tries to make a game stick.

    Another game that I love with good storytelling is Ni No Kuni, a PS3 collaboration by Level 5 and Studio Ghibli. That one kept me entranced for hours!

    Great article!

    1. The second Bioshock was sort of disappointing but I felt like I needed to beat it. I loved Infinite so much. I understand having to play the game with the lights on, though. There were a lot of crazy moments in that game.

      I’ll have to check out Ni No Kuni. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. I’m a huge fan of the Dragon Age series. They have the same choose your-own-adventure/change-the-fate-of-your-party that Mass Effect does, but with DRAGONS. That, and I’ve gotten very attached to several romance options.

    There isn’t as much story telling because of the silent protagonist, but Legend of Zelda always has a rich world. And of course I love many of the Final Fantasy games.

    The Tales series (Tales of Vesperia, Tales of Symphonia, etc) are also a huge hit with me. They have beautiful art, quirky characters and all sorts of side quests. After, I finish Dragon Age: Inquisition, I’m either playing the newest Tales or trying Assassin’s Creed, which attracted me for story despite the difficulty I have with action games.

    1. I could write a 10,000 word think-piece on my love of “Legend of Zelda.” I actually think the storytelling is especially strong there BECAUSE of the silent protagonist. The most effervescent example of “showing, not telling.” :) Actually, now I kind of want to sit down and crush about ten hours of “Windwaker”…..

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