A few years ago, one of my friends introduced me to Mass Effect, and it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the game. The characters, the setting, the adventures– the hours I spent as Commander Shepard proved incredibly fun and as deeply inspiring as any of my other favorite stories. And some of that is because of the way the story was told.
Different mediums have different strengths and work better for certain stories than others. It’s why the movie adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, as entertaining and as grand as they are when shown on the big screen, will never have the same depth as Tolkien’s written masterpieces: there’s just not enough time, even in the twelve hours that make up the extended editions, to do justice to the depth and history of Middle Earth. What’s more, trying to match it word for word would have resulted in films that sprawled even more and probably wouldn’t have been half so enjoyable.
Now, before you start reaching for your torches and your pitchforks, I’m not saying that the movies were flawless adaptations. Any number of characters were changed in ways that made them so much less than they were in the books (Faramir, anyone?) without adding something back in exchange to the structure or the pace of the movie. However, even if all the characters had been spot on and true to who they are in the books, the films would still have been missing something of what made the books as wonderful as they are.
It goes both ways, too: some stories work better as a movie than as a book. Take The Princess Bride, for example. While we get more details about pretty much everything throughout the course of the novel, the story itself profits from the quicker pace and the tighter structure of a film, and I’m inclined to argue that that’s what made it the classic it is today. Of course, I’d still recommend reading the book if you get the chance, but that goes without saying. The fact remains that the movie is the reason we’re all saying the lines along with Inigo in the gif below.
Bringing all this back around to video games, it’s fascinating to see how this “new” medium stacks up against the ones we’re more used to. The biggest difference, I think, is how we interact with the story being told, and vice versa. In a book or a movie, we have a far more passive role. The story will go the way it always goes, regardless of what we do. The only way we can change what happens is by stopping, and really, that only delays it. The words have still been written, the scenes have still been filmed, and no matter how hard we throw the book against the wall or how loud we yell at the screen, what will happen will happen. In video games, that’s not necessarily the case.
Going back to Mass Effect, the game forces the player to make different choices along the way that tie in with the general morality that each Shepard develops. Regardless of the path chosen, the story will progress through the same events. However, the tone of the story will feel entirely different depending on whether you play more as a hero or an anti-hero. In one, the story is that of an epic space opera with great heroes and steep odds. In the other, it’s a gritty space marine tale, where even the best people are deeply flawed and broken.
And what’s more, because you are the one making the decisions throughout the game, you feel each one more deeply than you would if you were just watching or reading about the hero making those choices on their own. When you have to press a button to confirm that you really do want Shepard to do something, it immerses you even more deeply in the story. It makes you think about the actions taken just that much more, and that’s the greatest strength of any story.