In my last entry I (somewhat) briefly touched on the notion of video game immersion and storytelling. I said that the biggest advantage of telling a story through a video game was that the player would gain investment in the story due to having that “hey, I’m the hero!” moment. I wanna elaborate on that, explain just how some games do it – and how they’re so much better for it.
Mass Effect is an easy go-to example. Right off the bat you’re asked to give Shepard a first name and design his (or her) appearance. The game recreates a sense of a classic tabletop RPG with its open world and your ability to make choices. Ah, yes, choices. That’s one of Mass Effect’s strong points of immersion: you choose what Shepard does. And your choices have consequences. I killed off a race at the cost of not having their help later on. I sided with one of my crew mates (and love interest) and the cost of another crew member’s loyalty. My story is my own, it’s how I made it, it’s how I chose it to happen. Mostly, anyway.
Another strength is the sheer immensity of the world. I’ve spent far too much time scrolling through the Codex reading up on the history of the universe. And there’s a lot in there, from histories of each of the alien races to a breakdown of humanity’s role in the galaxy to the science behind the mass effect drives that allows for faster-than-light travel. The world is incredibly fleshed out and it’s so easy to get lost in it.
Another route is the one Bungie took with the core Halo Trilogy. The protagonist, Master Chief John 117 (known just by his rank in the games) receives little actual characterization. We do, however, learn stuff about him through the people around him; the way they react to him and the way they treat him. Enemy grunts run away from you screaming “demon!” while allies cheer at your arrival. You find out who you are by your reputation.
A cool touch Bungie kept in the trilogy is that you never see Chief’s face. Why? Because you are Master Chief. You are the one tasked with saving Earth and finishing the fight. The battle isn’t World War II, it’s not some hypothetical US-Russian conflict, this fight is to save the Earth. It’s universally relatable. The Covenant wants to wipe out humanity. You’re gonna stop them. That hook instantly brings you into the conflict.
Bungie took their brand of immersion one step further with their final entry in the Halo series (and my favorite game): Reach. The first thing you do in Reach is design your Spartan. You pick out his (or her) armor pieces, what sort of helmet he wears, his amor’s coloring, and his emblem. The first scene of the game is of the desolated planet Reach, culminating in the shot of your helmet discarded in the devastation, a crack through the center of its faceplate. The title fades in and fades out to the helmet sitting new and whole in your hands. You – as Noble Six – turn it over and put it on.
The fall of Reach is central to the Halo mythos. From the first game we’ve had references to the disaster and what an impact it left on the UNSC forces. We know how this ends, we know we won’t win, we know we’ll lose the battle. So how does Bungie make us care about a game where we know the ending?
Simple: make it personal. Your Spartan super-soldier was custom designed by you. If you play online you’re the same Spartan you play in the campaign. You start to identify yourself as him. You see Reach through Six’s eyes, from the initial strike on a relay to the razing of New Alexandria until the Covenant glasses the planet from orbit. During the campaign you’ll see Noble Six standing with his squad mates as they discuss plans to save Reach. Near his clavicle you see your emblem there. That’s your emblem, that’s you.
You’re the hero.