Are video games the future of storytelling?

Five-novel author and poet Ander Monson muses on whether or not storytelling's future is in video

Gone Home
Still from Gone Home Dazed Digital

Taken from the January issue of Dazed and Confused:

Have you played the 2013 computer game Gone Home? You should. It’s a first-person game in which you are a 20-something woman in the 1990s who, after a year abroad, comes back to her family’s new home in Portland, Oregon, to find everyone gone with no explanation. Playing it, you explore the abandoned house and inspect objects, play mixtapes, and read books, notes and manuscripts in hopes of reconstructing what happened to your family. 

Really, it’s less a game than an interactive fiction. As we move from room to room, we start to piece together our teenage sister’s love story and where and why she’s gone. We uncover the tensions in our parents’ marriage. Though there are nods to conflicts outside the home, the game’s primary territory – the map you light up as you play – is the human heart.

It works as a story not because of its awesome frame-rate or superior resolution but because of its intimacy. The world is immersive and domestic. In one of our sister’s later notes to us, we start reading a steamy section but get freaked out and put it away – ugh! – after just a glimpse. Even if we try to pick it back up, our interior monologue demurs. It’s an unexpected moment, defined by its resistance to, and not our indulgence of, our desires. Note how I’m saying “we” and “our” here. In playing, as in reading, we become the unnamed protagonist. This is what we most want from story – to share a oneness, to inhabit a consciousness, to play a role.

“The stories we love the most are not the most sweeping or spectacular, with the most kickass effects, but the most intimate. If they happen to also be spectacular, great, but intimacy is primary”

For those of us involved in making stories, it’s easy to get excited about new technology X (oh shit! hypertext! machinima!) and what possibilities it opens up for better bitmapping and deeper physics modelling, more elaborate worldbuilding, slicker sculpts. I get it: my first instinct with a technology is to try to figure out what new cool thing it makes possible. How I can use it to sprawl and make my art bigger, more shiny and expansive, to keep adding moving parts and layers, increase its detail and hence (I think) its immersiveness. Certainly most big studio games have embraced the scope and look and epic sweep of film, each frame and character and action rendered with more realism, bigger and better effects and better modelling than the one before.

But the stories we love the most are not the most sweeping or spectacular, with the most kickass effects, but the most intimate. If they happen to also be spectacular, great, but intimacy is primary (consider how we get to know the humble protagonist of The Lord of the Rings). Intimacy is involving and requires a little bit of our own projection and imagination. Intimacy is evolving, too, as technology changes and our privacy erodes. 

We get easily entangled and our boundaries get hazy: how much of what we dream and desire are we willing to share with companies for our convenience and a more personalised experience? How much of us do we make available to others online? 

The better question isn’t what these technologies can do for us but how might they facilitate intimacy. How can they get us closer to another? It’s not the next-gen console or the computer that gets me excited about the possibilities for storytelling. Instead: let’s check our pockets, check our handbags, check our hands as we click and swipe and tweet and wait for the train. The smartphone: I feel it even now, pressed against my thigh, text message vibrating like the voice of a lover. 

I’m not advocating the cellphone novel. I’m thinking of something more interactive and more intimate that hasn’t yet been done. Maybe you’ll be the one to do it. How might the next story we will come to love give us this old intimacy in a new way?

Still from Gone Home

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