I wasn’t much of a videogame player when I was a kid — more of a coveter of others’ videogames, really. It started in 1986 when the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was just beginning to hit its stride, and my parents wouldn’t get me one. (Adjusted for inflation, a fully tricked-out NES in 1986 cost as much as an iPhone today. That’s a tough sale for a 5-year-old to make.)
While I never got that Nintendo, my parents gave in seventeen years later and bought me a Playstation 2 as a birthday gift. Of course, I had graduated college by then, so I suppose I’d earned the right to waste time. With apologies to St. Paul (and P.J. O’Rourke), I had become a man, and received the childish thing I always wanted.
I quickly discovered, though, that the videogame world is better than its reputation (which is set by the most violent and outrageous games, which I avoid). In fact, the best games out there may actually be good for the soul.
Videogames have a reputation for poor storytelling. It’s not entirely undeserved. The fast-selling run, duck and jump games like Super Mario Brothers and Megaman almost always have weak narratives. Add to that the fact that the first games to come from Japan were horrendously translated (summed up by the famously mangled line, "All your base are belong to us. You have no chance to survive make your time," from the game Zero Wing).
Still, from the earliest days of gaming, there was good writing to be found. The text-only strategy games that dominated early PC gaming, like Zork, had reasonably good prose. Even as esteemed a writer as Douglas Adams happily adapted his novel The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy into what is even today — almost 25 years later — a very funny little game.
And then there was the Final Fantasy series from Japan. Once the English translations began to improve, American and European audiences discovered games that told artful, intricate fantasy stories, every bit as compelling as the best in fiction and television.
They achieved that by changing the standard narrative formula of a videogame. The genre at the time was stale: Your character (or group of characters) would fight against a series of villains who would grow progressively more difficult, until you defeated the final opponent — the "Big Boss" — and won.
So, how do you keep that story fresh? The Final Fantasy series did it by reinventing the environment, characters, and story line with each iteration.
The series was named by the producer, Hironobu Sakaguchi. He assumed that the original game would be the last he would make, so he broke with convention and wrote a story that allowed for no sequel. However, after the initial game turned into a smash success, a follow-up was planned. Since he’d boxed himself into a corner with the first story, the "sequel" had a different environment, different characters, a plot completely unrelated to the previous game, and only a few connecting elements (one example being the theme of finality itself).
A Final Fantasy game can take 40 hours to finish; that allows for a complex storyline. Final Fantasy X — the Canterbury Tales of the series — focuses on seven pilgrims traveling to various temples; each has his own backstory, conflict, and unique reason to be on the pilgrimage. The characters they interact with include fellow pilgrims both pious and cynical, corrupt clerics, excommunicated warriors who call themselves "Crusaders," and so on. The game ends with the defeat of a monster called Sin.
A lot of narrative can be covered in the course of a long game. Outside of novels, quality videogames are the only storytelling medium that still tells extended, complex stories with beginnings, middles and ends. Movies are too short. Television is too open-ended, and famously tends to get worse as a good show ages.
For those who love the long form narrative, videogames and novels are keeping the fire alive.
And videogames take things a step further. The interactive elements of a quality game can lead to many different paths and discoveries upon repeated play. Unlike a standard novel, the game narrative is not linear but participatory and immersive, placing videogames among the more complex storytelling forms.
Far from being brainless entertainment, the best games today have genuine artistic merit. Some are violent, it is true, but many are not. Some are ideologically problematic, while others are almost Christian. And some videogames actually say something insightful about good and evil, the human condition, our legends and myths, and even the nature of God.
That’s what art does, wherever it’s found.
T. Joseph Marier is a writer and musician in Northern Virginia.