Gamescapes: From India to America, video games are the new storytellers

In part two of the series, STIR looks at how creators use video games as a method of sharing stories they want to tell in an engaging and immersive format.

by Shraddha Nair Published on : Jul 14, 2020

At its very essence, art is nothing if not a medium to tell stories, regardless of whether it is our personal stories or stories of the world as we observe it. Storytelling is also at the heart of every good video game. There is a narrative, which is sometimes linear, sometimes not. In some games, the plot is the underlying element, which holds the visuals and gameplay together. However, in some games the plot is what makes the game in its entirety. It becomes interesting to look at games as a form of interactive storytelling in its purest form. I investigate this aspect with two game developers, who, despite having developed distinctly different practices, lean on storytelling as the fundamental element of their artwork.

To understand the world of games I did a lot of first-hand research by playing over 15 different games within a span of few weeks. I also roped in a seasoned gamer friend to give me game suggestions and play them with me. One of the games he suggested was Sinking Treasures, created by WJ Holly. The lovely game (more digital storybook) is designed and developed on Bitsy, a game-building toolset created by Adam LeDoux.

  • Two frames from the storybook-like game ‘Sinking Treasures’ | Sinking Treasures by William J Holly | STIRworld
    Two frames from the storybook-like game Sinking Treasures Image Credit: Courtesy of William J Holly
  • Another two frames from the storybook-like game ‘Sinking Treasures’ | Sinking Treasures by William J Holly | STIRworld
    Another two frames from the Bitsy game Sinking Treasures by WJ Holly Image Credit: Courtesy of William J Holly

California-based American game developer William J Holly, while speaking with STIR, shared how his childhood experiences shaped his fondness for storytelling through games. “Growing up in the 90s, I got a lot of poor grades in school due to undiagnosed ADHD and tumours growing in my sinuses, which made everyday activities difficult. I spent a lot of my time on my personal computer creating my own entertainment, as well as teaching myself the math and language skills I would need but couldn't properly learn in school. Once school was over and I had the tumours surgically removed, I attempted to get work in software but found it difficult due to my poor grades. Instead I often found work either in hard labour or as a counsellor working with emotionally and mentally troubled youth. In my time at these jobs I learned how much value there is presenting a medium such as art or game development to impressionable and disenfranchised youth. All of these experiences, I think, have become an important part of who I am as a storyteller and proponent of new media," says Holly. While the platform Bitsy itself dictates a visually minimalist aesthetic with its pixel art form and limited three colours per frame, Holly does wonderful things with it by developing narratives that are deeply meaningful.

Frames from ‘Where Do I Fit?’, a tiny game which looks at social belonging | Where Do I Fit? by William J Holly | STIRworld
Frames from Where Do I Fit?, a tiny game which looks at social belonging Image Credit: Courtesy of William J Holly

One of his games titled Where Do I Fit? scores high on embedded ideological elements, exploring ideas of belonging and rejection using the subtlety of interactivity to make it an effective experience. This game was motivated by his work as a counsellor. Holly says, “Most of the children I worked with had gone through multiple experiences of building relationships with possible foster families and then being rejected. It was extremely painful to see their hopes be built up and then be torn down. Taking my own feelings of displacement, and all of the rejection and dead-end attempts to conform I had witnessed in these children I worked with, I wanted to create a very short and simple interactive experience that didn't tell a traditional story as much as use the player's interaction to explore emotions of loneliness and lack of belonging”.

A look into Operation: Labrat, which plays with the idea of multiverses | Where Do I Fit? by William J Holly | STIRworld
A look into Operation: Labrat, which plays with the idea of multiverses Image Credit: Courtesy of William J Holly

Holly grew up with his parents as significant influences in shaping his understanding of the world around him; his mother was a behaviour analyst and father a philosophy professor. As a developer and designer today, he cites a multitude of inspirations saying, “Outside the realm of interactive fiction I draw from the art of Hieronymus Bosch, Francis Bacon, and Zdzisław Beksiński as well as the films of Terry Gilliam, Wes Anderson, and the Coen Brothers. I am also a big fan of the writings of Mark Z Danielewski, Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, and other subversive writers who manage to fold many layered themes into their writing”. Holly recommends some of his favourite games to STIR including The Stanley Parable and The Beginner's Guide by Davey Wreden as well as The Racoon Who Lost Their Shape by Cat Night Games, We Become What We Behold by Nicky Case, Knytt Stories by Nifflas, and Yume Nikki by Kikiyama and also strongly suggests exploration of the many tiny games built through Bitsy referring to it as an ‘artistic goldmine’.

  • Character mockups for Death of a Detective | Death of a Detective by The Roots Collective | STIRworld
    Character mockups for Death of a Detective Image Credit: Courtesy of The Roots Collective
  • Character mockups for Death of a Detective, an adventure game set in 1940s British India | Death of a Detective by The Roots Collective | STIRworld
    Character mockups for Death of a Detective, an adventure game set in 1940s British India Image Credit: Courtesy of The Roots Collective

Storytelling comes in varied forms even within its gamified digital avatar. Here, we examine another storyteller’s work, this time from India, which comprises a fictional narrative game with their own unique amalgamation of aesthetic, artistic motivation and ideological undercurrent. Abiram Shanmugam is the founder, producer, designer and writer of The Roots Collective and is currently directing the creation of a murder mystery game titled Death of a Detective for which Mithun Balraj has been brought on board as a partner. Speaking to STIR about his thoughts on why video games are a relevant media, Shanmugam says, “Games have always been used for expanding, exciting and occupying idle minds. Think of Chess or Go. But video games are a different beast. It is the convergence of every medium. It’s books and movies and art and music and abstraction and simulation all at once”. For him, nurturing game culture by utilising the Indian context while avoiding stereotypes and predictable gimmicks is the key. He elaborates, “It’s also worth noting that many people in India who consume games, especially on the PC and console, are exposed to the best the world has to offer and they are tuned into the progress of the industry as a whole. There's no reason to pick up and play one of our games if they don't hit the same notes. It's a tall, tall task ahead of us, and the objective is to take the first steps in that direction”.

02 mins watch The teaser to the upcoming game by The Roots Collective | Death of a Detective by The Roots Collective | STIRworld
The teaser to the upcoming game by The Roots Collective Video Credit: Courtesy of The Roots Collective

As a creator, Abiram Shanmugam too finds catalysts outside of the gaming world, citing Indian film director Mani Ratnam as a significant influence along with a slew of other books and films from across the world. “It is important that I find a synthesis across this entire spectrum of influences, before regurgitating them in the form of games," he explains. When asked about favourite story-based games he would recommend to our readers, Shanmugam finds it difficult to decide what qualifies. He says, “This is a tough one. Almost all games tell stories, but the best ones allow players to tell their own stories. The best narrative-based games are hard to point out since there are so many - from the early LucasArts adventure games to the more recent Telltale Games. And there are those that step outside the adventure game framework that still provide impactful stories like Papers, Please, Her Story, Sunless Sea, and Return of the Obra Dinn”. The Roots Collective is set to release their first game Death of a Detective in mid 2021 on digital stores on PCs.

  • The black and white video game is an interactive piece of murder mystery fiction | Death of a Detective by The Roots Collective | STIRworld
    The black and white video game is an interactive piece of murder mystery fiction Image Credit: Courtesy of The Roots Collective
  • The detail in the artwork is enhanced by monochrome aesthetic | Death of a Detective by The Roots Collective | STIRworld
    The detail in the artwork is enhanced by monochrome aesthetic Image Credit: Courtesy of The Roots Collective

Some other brilliant storytelling games are Gorogoa and Florence, easily available on your device. Video games are the perfect way to experience art the way it is supposed to be seen (insert disgruntled remark about online viewing rooms) while cooped up at home during this global pandemic!

Coming soon on all PC platforms | Death of a Detective by The Roots Collective | STIRworld
Coming soon on all PC platforms Image Credit: Courtesy of The Roots Collective

Click here to know more about video games as an artform and read the other articles in the Gamescapes series presented by STIR.

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