How Interactive Stories In Video Games Open Doors To Critical Interpretation


The way video games work is changing. Two decades ago, back in 1993, the big titles were Super Mario World and, if you were nerdy enough to want a detailed plot, Final Fantasy II. There were tons of other games that were awesome, sure, like Super Star Wars and Clayfighter, but the SNES wasn’t viewed as a machine that could portray a deep and involved story. It was an “entertainment system”. It simply wasn’t feasible for a game to give a story that could really be delved into. It was impossible to create a game that could hold up a plot which could withstand any kind of literary criticism—I mean, it was for kids, right?


There is a growing community of gamers that absolutely love to think about video games in academic terms. These people are kids who grew up around a Super Nintendo or Nintendo 64, watched games evolve, and then went on to make games themselves or write about them. Today, there is little to no doubt that pieces like Bioshock Infinite and the 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider series do have potential for critical analysis. Furthermore, the insane popularity of these commercial titles makes it clear that these games are culturally relevant because our culture is massively consuming these titles. The problem that lies in the way of critical review is that in order to critically review a game or teach the creative interpretation of a game, the writer/student must be able to play the game. It requires a skill beyond just writing and analyzing—it requires hand-eye coordination! It requires patience and skill that many simply do not have! It isn’t enough to just watch someone play because the gameplay mechanics are an integral part to the interpretation.

There is a style of game, however, that works around this. Adventure games—specifically those that focus heavily on plot as opposed to gameplay—open this door by putting the emphasis on the story. In many cases then, these games work as interactive stories.

To the Moon is a clear example of this and, furthermore, To the Moon could have existed on the Super Nintendo. The gameplay jumps between navigating the retro-graphics styled world and a ‘Bejeweled’ puzzle game in order to put memories back together. The game itself is heavily based upon Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and follows two scientists who can rebuild a person’s memories right before they die. They rebuild these memories so that when the life of the deceased flashes before his eyes, he can remember the life he wanted to live. They essentially are a ‘wish-fulfillment’ service.

As the plot progresses, the scientists jump back through an old, dying man’s life in order to restructure his mind so that he believes that he went to the moon. You witness first-hand his successes, failures, heartbreaks, and despair. This being said, this game is not a happy, friendly romp, but rather it is an exploration of a life full of emotions. The deemphasis on gameplay and the focus on plot can truly allow for a deeper literary experience—one that can be critiqued and explored on an academic level.

To the Moon is just one example among many. Dear Esther and even The Walking Dead series allow for similar looks into storytelling. To me, what’s even more interesting than the possibility of critique is how these games fit into modern writing culture. These interactive stories aren’t being done by big, rich studios, they are being done by small, tight-knit groups of friends; I can’t help but draw parallels between this and the alt lit community. As I can see it, many within the alt lit community aren’t seeking fame and fortune for their work—they just want to question the style and means in which stories are written and present their work to a community who will take their work seriously and appreciate what they’ve done. With the power of the internet as a means of distribution and education in game creation, these games have become a viable alternative to traditional storytelling. The possibilities for what story can be told or how a story can be interpreted are becoming endless and, with more and more of these games coming into the mainstream, it seems likely that they will become a new accepted medium for storytelling. 

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image – The Walking Dead