If I had to listen to only one person talk for the rest of my life, I think I would have to pick either Jon Stewart or Dave Chappelle. There are definitely more intellectual or more important people I could pick, but these two, I think, are the best verbal storytellers I’ve ever seen. When they talk, they have an unquantifiable method to the way they relate to someone, able to pick up on what they need to emphasize, when they need to do it, and what needs to be tailored specifically to a particular person or group of people. Namely, the person in front of them.
It doesn’t really matter whether they tell something that happened to them or if they’re retelling something they heard from a friend or, hell, even if they recap the entirety of the Rambo series in excruciating detail. And it doesn’t even really matter past the moment of them actually talking to me that they’re good storytellers. What matters is that now listening to them is a story of my own. I can tell someone else how they spoke, what they talked about, and how I felt. It’s an endless cycle of regaling everyone else with spinning yarns and shooting breezes, an interminable loop that defines our existence: we relate to one another.
That, however, breaks down into two particular types of stories: the Story of Them and the Story of Us. The Story of Them is the one they’re telling to you about how they ate a sandwich today or how many knives John James Rambo likes to bring into any given forest. The Story of Us is the one of how we experience that story. How we feel, how we listen, what we did while we listened. All that is our brand new story to tell and not one to repeat like that of a hardened war hero with a penchant for ripping out throats (warning: link is graphic).
When we talk about our time with video games, it’s almost always about the Story of Us. The narrative within the game—if there is one—is usually reserved for critical analysis and bashing with a metaphorical hammer. But when we talk about our playtime with games to other people, we almost always talk about the things that we did and the things that happened to us. It’s always a personalized tale of how we felt playing the game, what we saw and what we heard. It’s like how coming back from a vacation always yields stories of swimming with dolphins and pigging out at buffets and not the history of all-you-can-eat establishments and marine mammals.
This opens up an interesting line of questioning: is the narrative even all that important? If we gin up our own tale of our activities within a game, what makes the one that the developers put in there any more important?
Consider FTL: Faster Than Light. There is no discrete story being told with that game. If anything, I would call it a light to paper-thin premise, somewhat akin to the one in Spaceteam. You’re told you’re being chased by rebel ships because you have vital information that needs to be delivered to an allied fleet a ways away. Does this at all sound familiar? Maybe not because FTL, at its core, is about real-time management of a spaceship.
More importantly, it’s a roguelike-ish game with permadeath, which takes away even more from the notion or impetus to pay attention to the story. There are no characters built into the game to root for aside from those that fall under the umbrella of “my crew,” and there is certainly no story arc. And yet we manage to spin these elaborate, spanning tales that could fill two or three Goblets of Fire by the time it’s all said and done. We’ll tell how we found a stranded fellow in a cave, who soon became the hero who sacrificed himself to seal off a deck that was ablaze with fire and enemies and opened the airlock to expel both into the cold dark void. We’ll tell how we fought to the bitter end with the rebel flagship, systems failing and crew members dying, screaming out into space where the empty vacuum does nothing but soak up all hope and valor.
These are the Stories of Us and they belong only to the ones who experienced it. No writer penned our words before us and no designer put these backstories into our heads. No one told us that our hitchhiker recruit would be initially distrusted by our veteran crew, only to eventually save the day and possibly the alliance. No one told us that the grizzled captain kept so distant from his subordinates so he can make the hard decisions later, alarms blaring and lights blinking as the pressure mounts. No one told us how to make these stories our own.
That’s not to say, however, that the Stories of Them are worth any less, but they certainly are less personal. Their story gives us reason to do the things we do in the game. The rebels want this information, but we need it and doggone it we’re gonna keep it. But our story gives us reason to do the things we do after the game. Our story gives us reason to talk about it long after we shut down the computer and turn off our monitors. It gives us reason to impress onto you our lives, to cut our wrists and bleed our being into yours. It gives us a reason to be people.