I’ve long been a fan of speculative fiction. I love immersing myself in an adventure, fantastical or otherwise, and braving long odds via characters much more courageous than myself. My favorite tales make it easy to lose myself, as a steady stream of images fill my head. When I envision everything in the plot in cinematic detail, it’s no wonder it takes me so long to read a novel. I don’t really care how long it takes, as long as I’m engaged. The more in touch I am with the characters and their conflicts, the harder it is to put down the book.
It’s the same with video games for me. There are some games built around a superbly crafted story, complete with characters that seem so genuinely human that you can’t help sympathizing with them. These are the gems. My expectations only seem to rise as the technology improves. Mashing buttons while defeating threats doesn’t really cut it anymore.
Now here I’m definitely dating myself, but I cut my teeth on the Atari 2600. Space Invaders, Frogger, Pacman and Joust were a few of my favorites. Beyond the difficulty involved in keeping the pixelated hero alive, there wasn’t a lot to these types of games. There was a game called Adventure that sent me on a quest through mazes and other obstacles, finding keys and battling dragons. It was the height of gaming technology at the time, and it was about as immersive as an algebra assignment. I could pretend that I, Sir Square, set out to slay the dragons (squiggles) with the help of my trusty sword (an arrow) amid a maze of blue rectangles, but it was very easy to turn off and forget.
I had my first experience with an engaging video game story when I played “System Shock 2” somewhere around 2001. There were undoubtedly others I had missed, but this is the first I remember. It was also the first game to give me an idea of what the medium could become over time. I cared about the characters. The tension was very real, often startling me nearly out of my chair. Even though there was little interaction with other characters outside the artificial intelligence, SHODAN, the crew of the spaceships seemed very real. I had only their audio journals to learn about them, but I could sympathize with their fears and learn from their instructions, even if I couldn’t interact with them. I wanted more stories in my games after that. There were a few that came close, but it was a long time until I got what I really wanted.
Nearly 14 years after System Shock 2 was released, The Last of Us debuted. It was, and remains so far, the only game I ever ordered before it hit shelves. I did this because I had seen some news about the game’s unprecedented storytelling and character development. The preview really sold me. I watched the main characters make their ways through part of an American city after a horrible plague wiped out most of civilization. The characters had been shaped by loss and grief, had hardened themselves to surviving at all costs, and somehow they both needed each other on an emotional level that neither was equipped to express. Sounds like something I’d enjoy reading, and that’s what made it such a compelling game. It was difficult to stop playing. I wanted to know what would happen next on their journey, and every time I somehow navigated them through one scrape they would find themselves in another. It was a video game after all, so there was plenty of running and fighting and overcoming obstacles. Always the story took precedence over all of these traditional video game elements, and that’s what I loved. I enjoyed the character interactions so much, that I immediately played it again once I had finished it. That had never happened before with other games.
I don’t have time to play video games very often these days, but I have a feeling that I will make time if there’s ever another that can engage me the same way a great novel can. There probably are, and I just haven’t heard of them, but so far I haven’t found any that string me along like The Last of Us did. Perhaps there’s even a future for me as a writer in this medium. It would be something I’d like to try, though I’m sure it’s very different from writing a story or novel. I’ll have to look into it. Getting a chance to combine two of my favorite things would be a dream come true.