I recently finished playing an excellent video game, Mass Effect 2 (just before Mass Effect 3 comes out), on the advice of one of my favorite writers, Tom Bissell. His video game writing on Grantland is extraordinary and his book Extra Lives is a great exploration of video games as an art form. In the book he describes how storytelling in video games has become "formally compelling" (even if the stories being told are overly baroque or poorly written) and uses Mass Effect as an example.
I totally agree with Bissell. There's a pivotal scene halfway through the game where virtually your entire crew gets captured. You're given a choice: do you want to go on a high-risk rescue mission, for which the team you lead is unprepared, or do you want to continue to prepare so you're ready for the mission? If you go on the rescue mission at that moment you're also potentially leaving a bunch of side missions undone.
While some characters were beseeching me to move quickly "while there's still time to save our crew", I had other characters cautioning me to wait, telling me that proceeding would be suicidal. I thought this was the standard sort of fake-dramatic choice offered up by video games. Why would I want to rush and get creamed by the Collectors when I had more fun stuff to do?
So I prudently put off the rescue mission, but had an eerie feeling walking through my ship. Once, it had been populated with chattering NPCs, but now was silent. I went about completing all of the side missions and got my rescue team fully dialed-in: plussed-up attributes, awesome weapons, useful upgrades, and so on. Only then did I order the rescue attempt.
My team prevailed, and the mission turned out to be relatively easy given how prepared we were (I should say how prepared "we" were, since we're talking about virtual characters - yet they felt real enough to me). But here's the thing: when we discovered where our crew was being held, there was only one survivor left. And I saw something horrible happen to the second-to-last survivor just as we showed up. The sole survivor then lashed out at me (at my character), protesting the length of time it had taken us to arrive. She said stuff like, "I'm sorry, it was so hard watching them all die." (All this hit home because the voice acting in Mass Effect is superb, something Tom Bissell also wrote about)
It was then that I realized: had I chosen to immediately go on the rescue mission, Mass Effect 2 was programmed to let more crew members survive. That choice I made unconsciously really mattered! Maybe I could have saved all of them! A glitch in the rendering underlined this for me, somehow more poignant for being erroneously disclosed. In the background of the frames with the surviving, distraught crewmember castigating me, I could see another crew member, whom I had already been told I did not save. So obviously there was code in there to control how many survivors I got to rescue based on how long I took to get there, yet this small bug caused one of the dead crew members to show up anyway.
The scene gave me chills. It made me feel horror and sadness and regret. I can't think of any other storytelling medium that could create a similar effect, because the game implicated me in these events. I made a careless choice, even if it was the right choice, and pretend people suffered horribly. I wish I could go back and start the game over again, knowing that my decisions in this game, unlike so many others, would bear such weight. I'm also really curious to see how hard the rescue mission would have been had I listened to my gung-ho virtual colleagues, and how many more crew members I could have saved.
This is what Bissell means when he says these games have become formally compelling: a good story-driven video game can grab hold of you; can involve you; can entertain you in a deep, rich way that no other medium can. I predict that just as we are seeing with recent television, some of the best writers will start to gravitate towards this medium because it offers such rich narrative possibilities.