Saturday, August 18, 2018

Storytelling in the Strangest Places

While I was taking a break from writing to get my head straight, one of the things I did to fill my time was catch up on my gaming. Not tabletop, this time, but rather video games. I've been a fan of them for a long, long time, but life prevented me from getting into any good ones lately. Since I had the chance, I decided to try out some of the ones that I'd been hearing lots of good things about. As a result, I found two in particular that really struck me as having some immaculate storytelling that drew me in just as much as any book or movie or television show could.

People have been saying for years that video games are the next generation of immersive home entertainment, perhaps even poised to overtake TV and movies. With storytelling like these two possess, I can definitely see it.

As a side note, before I dig into what made these games impact me, they are single player games. I've done the multiplayer thing before, primarily with World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic, but I've discovered that no matter how good the story might be in those games, eventually they reach a point where playing them feels more like work than relaxation. I was part of a raiding guild in WoW before I quit playing it, and if coordinating a bunch of people to be online at the same time in order to try and defeat a dungeon that takes upwards of eight hours or more sounds like fun to you, I have to wonder if you've ever tried it. Therefore, I tend to stick to single player experiences now, since I can drop in and out as I have the time, and have no commitments to anyone other than myself.

The first one I got into, based on rave reviews on the internet, was Life is Strange. For those who've never played it or heard of it, you play as Max (never Maxine) Caulfield, an eighteen year old photography student at a private school in Arcadia Bay, Oregon. Max grew up in this town, until her parents moved away to Seattle with her. She hasn't been back for five years, during which time she ghosted her best friend, Chloe, and now struggles to get up the nerve to apologize for it. The game starts with you in the midst of a massive storm, fighting your way up the hill to the lighthouse overlooking the town. Once you reach it, you see a tornado closing in on the town, large enough to destroy it with ease.

You awaken in your photography class and realize it was just a dream, even if it didn't feel like one. Class finishes, giving you time to get accustomed to the world through Max's journal entries, and interactions with some of your classmates and the teacher, Mark Jefferson, a man who was famous in the nineties and now teaches a new generation.We discover that Max is a typical insecure high school girl, maybe a bit on the shy side, and who doesn't feel like she fits in with the beautiful and well-off students in school. She goes to the bathroom to clear her head, takes a picture of a strange blue butterfly, and then witnesses an unhinged male student enter, get confronted by a blue-haired punk girl, and then shoot the girl who was berating him. In response to this event, Max discovers she has the ability to rewind time. She uses this ability to save the punk girl, and begins a long and strange adventure filled with conspiracy at the school, an impending storm, and emotional upheaval.

What makes this game stand out are the characters. As you play, you become acquainted with the various students and come to care about them like they're real people. From reconnecting with your former best friend, to discovering possible romantic interest in her, to helping the sweet Christian girl fighting depression, to trying to win over the school's queen bitch, to trying to solve a missing persons case, every character you interact with has a real personality that is deep and developed and makes them feel like old friends. The emotional punch this causes is very real, and more than once I found myself with a pounding heart and tense muscles waiting to see how a certain event might play out. The game carries a warning before each episode that the choices you make affect the past, present, and future, and the game delivers on this. The rewind mechanic means that you can try different things in dialogue and action, and truly does affect how the story progresses from that point.

Two key moments in particular struck me exceptionally hard. In one, you have to literally talk someone off  a roof before they throw themselves off of it. Adding to the tension of this scene, you lose access to your powers, having used them up in your attempt to reach them in time. If you didn't spend the time getting to know this person, saving them becomes more difficult, if not impossible. And the results are real: if you fail to save them, that's it. They're not in the rest of the game. The scene also transitions fast enough that you don't get to save and reload to try again. You get one shot, that's it. The second is during the game's climax, where you have to make an impossible choice that has been hinted at during various points in the game, but carries an emotional toll no matter which way you choose.

The world itself is rich and filled with secrets that couldn't be fully answered in one game, or even the
game and its prequel, Before the Storm. Perhaps the impending sequel will give us some, but I kind of doubt it. The setting is based strongly on worlds like those found in The X-Files and Twin Peaks (as confirmed by the developers themselves and a few Easter Eggs found in the game itself), so definitive answers are unlikely to ever appear. Instead of being frustrating, though, this only serves to make the world that much more interesting, and keeps the player invested in playing through future installments to try and uncover exactly what is going on in these strange Northwestern locales.

Emotional connection, rich character development, a mysterious locale, and an unerring creep factor. This could have been put on television and would have become a hit. This is storytelling at its finest.

The other game that really hit me and stuck with me was Doki Doki Literature Club. I nearly skipped this one, since the whole "Japanese Dating Simulator Visual Novel" thing isn't a genre that holds much interest for me. After hearing many times that it is worth it to ignore the base genre and give it a shot, I finally caved and went for it. The game was free, after all, so what did I have to lose beyond a couple hours?

Things start off normally enough. You play as a student at a high school in Japan, and your best friend, Sayori, is determined to get you to join one of the school's extracurricular clubs. Naturally, she does her best to convince you to try out her club, the Literature Club. There, you meet the three other members, Natsuki, Yuri, and Monika, the president. All three are cute girls, and over the course of the game, you realize that all three are showing romantic interest in you.

So far, it's the stereotypical dating simulator. You make choices that lead you down a romantic path with one of the four girls, and fully expect it to culminate in a "happily ever after" scenario. Then the twist comes, and things take a turn for the weird.

One of the girls dies, and the game seems to end. Only it doesn't. The menu screen has changed, with that character's image now warped and distorted, and some of the text messed up as well. A quick check shows that your save files are gone as well, meaning the only path forward is through. You restart the game, and it seems like another play-through at first, only that dead character is showing up warped and distorted, and you're unable to read their dialogue anymore. Then the screen flickers, and the character is changed to one of the other ones, and you enter a truly horrific story that continues building in disturbing content until the end finally comes, the secrets are revealed, and things truly get bizarre.

Character self-awareness isn't a new concept; Deadpool has build an entire shtick with it, after all. Doki Doki Literature Club takes it to a whole new level, though. The actual game files themselves are altered over the course of a play-through, and perusal of them at various points reveal disturbing clues as to what is really going on in the story itself. No longer are you simply an observer, watching the events unfold. The game makes you an active participant of the tale, a character yourself, and the immersion pays off with the unnerving quality the game's final act adopts. This is horror at its finest, making the person watching / reading it feel so much a part of it, that they feel fear in a more pronounced way. Even if the fear is only "who hacked my computer?", it's still fear, and that means it worked. I mean, the game even knows if you're playing through Steam, and if you do livestreams, it knows when its being recorded. When it comes up during gameplay, that knowledge becomes damned freaky!

The two games take very different approaches, but have one key element in common: they are exceptional examples of how storytelling can be used to connect someone to a fictional world, and make them invested in it. In writing, I've heard it said (and believe myself) that if you care about the characters, the plot is in many ways irrelevant. Both these games take this thought and run with it. You care about the characters, you care about what happens to them. You feel heartache, you jump, and--especially in the case of the Before the Storm bonus episode detailing Max and Chloe's last day together before Max moves to Seattle--you may even cry like a damned baby. That, to me, is the hallmark of a great story, and these two games are perfect examples of how media not known for its storytelling can put it to effective use.

If you're interested in playing either of them, Life is Strange is available on PC, XBox, and Playstation. The first episode is free, or you can get all five for around $20. Before the Storm is also available on the same platforms, for around the same price (though it is exclusive to newer generation consoles, so if you don't have an XBox One or a PS4, you might need to look into the PC version on Steam). Doki Doki Literature Club is one hundred percent free, but is only available on PC (either through Steam or the DDLC home page at

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