Video games are a form of art, only the uneducated would deny the fact. And like other art mediums, the gaming industry has spat out countless masterful and timeless creations. But what about a video game makes it timeless? What beyond palpitating gameplay and so-close-to-photoreal graphics lures gamers to a second or fourteenth playthrough? I have narrowed it down to three main aspects, and they all, conspiratorially, begin with the letter “S” — storytelling, soundtrack, and style.
Ingredients For A Classic
I believe a well-balanced combination of storytelling, soundtrack, and style, on top of sufficiently fluid gameplay, is all that’s required. Of course, a game’s success hinges upon effective marketing, developer and player relationships, and a range of other, non-art-related factors. But here I focus on creative form. Nail the storytelling, soundtrack, and/or style, and players will melt in their seat and forget about the decaying world outside their window.
That’s a bit vague though. To understand why the three S’ are so vital, you’ll first have to consider that squishy, watery, electric thing between your ears.
Tricking The Brain
It is all about perception. Sensory organs absorb the physical and chemical environment for the brain to processes and interpret. The world around you is real because you have been convinced or have convinced yourself of it. So what if someone or something came along and shook your reality, woke you up to some new way of thinking or belief? This happens all the time in our human lives but on much more minor — or extreme — scales.
My point? Without our inherent ability to be convinced, fictitious works could not exist. As a creator — be it of books, films, games, paintings, comics, anything — you want your audience to enter and perceive the world you have so delicately crafted. You strive to produce an illusion and convince — if for but a fleeting moment — their brains think that it is real.
You needn’t spend a billion dollars on photoreal graphics or virtual reality to achieve such immersion (in fact, I am making a point to overlook technology in this article), you merely require a combination of S’.
What were they again?
Now, this is a broad subject in itself. Probably the most important too. Good storytelling is all about showing rather than telling (ironically), syphoning empathy and evoking emotion, and generally investing the audience. Notice that I say “storytelling” and not “story”. This is intentional. You could have a great story stowed away in your mind, with unexpected teenage heroes, hidden Illuminati triangles, and feline astronauts, but if you cannot communicate that story in an engaging way, your audience will never feel as excited about it as you do. Storytelling is how you express your story.
You could get by with just fantastic storytelling. But then you would have a book and not a video game.
The difference between books, films, and video games is the degree of interactivity. Games with great storytelling are those that capitalise on this. Nobody wants to sit there and watch a half-hour cutscene. They came make decisions and suffer the consequences of those decisions; gain something resembling a first-hand experience, stresses and glories included; or bust incendiary rounds into peaceful aliens.
Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain was decent for what it was. But the entire game can be summed up with “pressing X to Shaun”. Heavy Rain leans more toward being a film than a game. It doesn’t capitalise on the degree of interactivity that separates video games from other storytelling mediums.
In short, the player needs control, and if there are going to be interactive cutscenes, they need to transition smoothly from real-time gameplay. Or better, there are no cutscenes, and you experience the events of the game whilst in control of your avatar. That way, if you physically escape the maw of death with nothing more than your wits and keyboard/mouse dexterity, it feels tense and exhilarating. Remember, the game should attempt to convince your brain. You sweat and shudder in the heat of a digital battle because your brain interprets external stressors and triggers a physical response.
Linguistic Narration, Or The Lack Of
A book would be but bound paper without linguistic narration, whereas films and games have an arsenal of visual and audial elements to substitute or compensate the narration of a story.
Some games rely on obvious and well-acted narration. For instance, Supergiant Games’ Bastion. The narrator verbalises your actions in third-person, and he is an NPC within the game, “The Stranger”. The narration is well-timed and unobtrusive, and the voice actor’s tone and accent complement the setting masterfully.
Others tell great stories without any linguistic narration. The best example I can think of is Thatgamecompany’s Journey. You waken to a world of shimmering, windswept dunes as some robed, near-featureless being. It is up to you to interpret the story through what you see and the emotions evoked via an incredible soundtrack (we will get to music soon). There is no deity looming above you filling you in on history or the meaning of your ascent.
I don’t think there is an all-inclusive rule with narration other than avoiding boring exposition dumps.
You need context in any story. But that doesn’t mean you need someone to sit there and read aloud the entire history of a fictitious world before you can create and name (“yourmum420”) your character. The who, what, where, when, why can be interwoven into a story in a natural and simply non-boring manner.
A great example is of finely filtered exposition is From Software’s Bloodborne. This hauntingly beautiful RPG offers fragments of an underlying story with poetic dialogue; paper fragments and item descriptions (which you need read only if you so desire); and subtle hints in the environments, characters, and enemies you encounter between each grim death. This game shows you the story. No one holds your hand and tells you if you are dreaming or not.
In-depth worldbuilding can streamline exposition. If you understand the happenings of the world you have created, you might understand how the characters within that world feel about them, and thus express exposition in a natural manner through natural dialogue. It is really obvious when this is done poorly.
The depth of fictional lore in the Witcher series is phenomenal. The main characters are called into action because of the events transpiring in that world, and hence shape that world with their actions. These become, of course, your actions, as you slay beasts and sorceresses alike, and engage in political and interdimensional struggles. When you play a Witcher game, it feels real, as though you have possessed a living being in a breathing world with near as much attention to detail as our own. NPC’s exhibit depth and genuine character, creatures are always unique and well-suited to their environments, towns and establishments have exclusive architecture and reflect the colours of their occupants—— I could go on.
Often invented worlds are interesting purely because of the effort a writer has gone too to create and justify it. Although this doesn’t mean that stories set in our world (past, present, or future) with perhaps some dramatic twist aren’t equally as enthralling. Sometimes its the people within them that are the most intriguing.
I, like most, love a good character. We know humans. And we know that they are rarely one-dimensional, intergalactic forces of evil that seek solely the destruction of matter. Humans — and so far we have only that species from which to draw character — are complicated, dynamic beings. We have proud moments of light and friendship, and shameful moments in darkness, alone. We act logically one minute and then completely irrationally the next. Of course, stories have not the time (words) to delve fully into this incredibly complex series of peaks and troughs called life. But they can focus on pivotal events and compress the complexity into meaningful and relatable character arcs.
In Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us, you play mostly as the incredibly survival-prone Joel, with a headstrong Ellie by your side. Suffering from the loss of his own daughter, Joel struggles to empathise with Ellie at the start of the game. However, by the end, he will literally forsake humankind to grant her a life battling terrifying zombies and cannibals. We, as the player, empathise with Joel and Ellie’s relationship and feel comfortable justifying Joel’s heinous actions because we have following him on his character-arc-journey. Joel is human and we attach so dearly to him because of it; if he was a heartless bullet-sponge, we simply wouldn’t care and The Last Of Us would be just a decent third-person survival shooter.
A character responds to the trials embedded in a story, developing, for better or worse, as they do. Often such trials can be simmered down to reflect an underlying theme, something that we as the audience can determine and relate to.
Now you don’t need to experience a moral epiphany every time you read a book, watch a film, or a play a game. But some of the best stories are those that leave you with something to ponder afterwards.
Using The Last Of Us as an example once more, you might consider moral themes such as our tendency toward violent, primitive recession in absence of authority; how enduring strange or dangerous situations sculps the strongest relationships; or even the extreme, irrational lengths we will go to to protect ourselves or the ones we love. We watch Joel and Ellie wrestle with the associated trials of such themes, and contrast their reactions with how we think we would have acted.
Another great example is Oddworld Inhabitants’ Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. While someone else might suggest it is about vile practices in the meat production industry, I would say that the theme of Abe’s Oddysee is racial (or species) oppression — taken to an extreme in the form of slavery — and the toil against it. However, I didn’t ponder that in my first playthrough, as a child mind you, and it wasn’t required to enjoy this classic.
You can extract themes from stories as intently you wish, and will always emphasise themes you found personal value in. When it comes down to it, game writers have likely done the same thing, honing on particular themes and underpinning values as they went along.
Soundtracks make or break games as they do in films. It comes back to good storytelling.
Music evokes emotion and can be produced and timed to complement and reinforce storytelling. A great soundtrack follows the peaks and troughs of a story. When the story dives into a depressive trough, music is the catalyst that causes you to shed a tear. When building toward a joyous peak, music is the friend behind you urging the climb.
All of the games I have mentioned so far have brilliant soundtracks. My Spotify account reinforces that. But one which stood out to me above the rest was that of Supergiant Games’ Transistor. Composed by Darren Korb (the same legend who composed Bastion’s soundtrack), the musical score for Transistor tells the game’s story on its own. It is a blend of jazz and electric, which emphasises the disparity between Red, the protagonist and a human, and the Process, the cold, cryptic swarm of robots assimilating her world. Transistor’s dreamy visual style is charming whilst also haunting all on its own. Bolstered by the musical score, it is truly a sensory indulgence.
While Transistor’s soundtrack clings tightly to the events of the relatively linear game, other soundtracks act as themes for particular environments and activities. A great example of this is Bethesda Game Studio’s The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. The music is essentially ambient. It changes when engaging in combat, levelling up, entering a dungeon, waking from a heavy night in the Bannered Mare, or casting max-level destruction spells on non-conformist spriggans in the woodlands of the Rift.
With all that said, sometimes the best soundtracks are merely catchy and iconic, complementing enjoyable gameplay all but absent of story. Think about simple games like Galaga or even Robot Unicorn Attack.
Now, style comes somewhere close to meaning graphics. But not exactly. Like I mentioned at the start of this article, it’s not all about the biggest budget and best technology. A game can reach a timeless style with no more than pixel art. A lot of gamers aren’t looking for a second life. They merely wish to liquify the stresses of a hard day with some bright colours and brainless button mashing.
I do find that if a developer strives for stylised visuals, their game passes the test of time naturally. They were never trying to be photoreal, so it never really has that tacky look to it.
What better example of timeless style than the recently released Cuphead, developed by Studio MDHR?
When a game tries for photorealism, it probably looks decent upon release. But several years later, when the technology has surpassed it and other games within the genre have been released, its age begins to show.
For instance, when id Software’s DOOM 3 came out, I was blown away by the visuals, lighting in particular. And although it is probably the worst game in the DOOM franchise, I went back to play it just recently. It had not aged well (eluding the BFG edition entirely). Now, the classic DOOM games are far, far inferior in terms of graphics, but that pixelated style continues to appeal. I forget quickly that I am playing such a basic shooter, with graphics falling dismally short of photoreal, and sink into a mental realm similar to that of reading a well-written book. My imagination smooths those rough edges.
All the aforementioned games are mostly single player experiences, in that their identities do not rely on online multiplayer. Online multiplayer games are at a natural disadvantage. Sustaining servers for online gamers takes money and dedication. Although there are plenty of classic games that have dedicated teams still maintaining servers, an online game is always going to be more prone to degradation than a single player game due to the necessity for playerbase.
It’s A Bit More Complicated Than Three S’
This is nowhere near a comprehensive guide. And it is of course subjective. There are so many intermingling facets on top of storytelling, soundtrack, and style. The balance of the three S’ can vary too. There are plenty of games that get by just fine with merely a wacky, fun visuals, or a unique style. Furthermore, a timeless game to me may reside in the recycling bin of another. And a game I consider trash today may develop a cult following in ten years time. Who knows?
Next time that inevitable wave of nostalgia envelopes you, and you find yourself playing a classic, sit back and ponder what makes it timeless, what aspects draw you in gradual-but-sure like the well of a black hole?