For all of the storytelling opportunities that videogames offer, I have to recognize a serious flaw they face: they are frequently poorly written. Most FPS games don’t even have a plot or characters, and if they do, they aren’t exactly well-crafted. The biggest efforts I’ve seen at developing a great deal of story come in the RPG and RTS games- Blizzard’s Starcraft and World of Warcraft come to mind.
Some might argue that because all stories are fundamentally, even necessarily, formulaic, this can’t be a complaint. What, then, really differentiates the lore of League of Legends (The Journal of Justice) from Dickens or Tolstoy or Austen? If videogames can be art (as I’ve contended) and videogames are “phenomenal” storytelling media, what do we need to have a Great American Videogame?
Subject matter is one key component. I think Deus Ex: Human Revolution poses some fantastic questions and deals with relevant and deep issues. Like other classic examples of literature, it explores the human condition and asks basic questions about life and being.
Great literature uses devices of language, imagery, symbolism, and so forth to present multiple layers of material. Videogames have settings, but do the settings take on their own meaning the way that locations do in The Great Gatsby or Cold Mountain or The Odyssey? I would like to see videogames make more use of the cinematic qualities of the game. Writers may repeat phrases, words, or constannts or vowels to create a layer of depth to their text. Directors use a camera angle, a sound, a color, or a light level to the same effect. Videogames could surely find something similar to add depth and significance to the experience.
Characters might be the most difficult element to tackle in videogames, yet they are often the most salient feature of novels. For me, this seems to be the biggest difficulty in creating a literary videogame: allowing for characters that grow and develop in meaningful ways. Moral choice systems are a good attempt at this kind of development, but these systems tend to fall short because they only recognize extremes and come packaged with immutable judgments about morality that lack the kind of robust discussion that might be packaged into good literature (e.g., a videogame might decide it is wrong TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, but it would miss out on a discussion of why this is wrong and would fail to provide an analogy of this act to the larger story arc in the game- or even differentiate it from shooting a rabid dog in a populated area).