It’s cold out here. Everything is washed in sharp, crunchy whites. The sack digging a furrow into my shoulder isn’t helping. Luckily there’s a little abandoned cottage nearby where I can kick up my crusty boots, maybe melt pins and needles back into my fingers by its hearth. The previous owner won’t mind.
I swiped a book from that place, something to read in the warmth. The local fauna skulking around the altar of some minor god left a maroon smear over the binding, but that’s okay. I don’t think it was much of a collector’s item. The last in the series left with an emperor stealing something precious from the protagonist. I seem to recall the royal family almost had the author executed for the series’ existence.
I was supposed to be addressing the killer lizard issue, I think, but this is more interesting.
Telling stories is what humanity does. We’ve been spinning yarns since before we could write them down, rousing audiences with all the panache we could muster around a fire. Written words changed things, as did each new form of conveyance. Just before last century, we began committing them to film, and you know? Film was just a sort of rolling photograph at first. Nobody embedded stories into it. Only after years did it develop its own language and understood conventions. Video games are currently on a similar arc.
They were limited toys at first. Stories came, and most still imitate established arts, seeking to be cinematic with borrowed visual language and an abundance of cutscenes. Others indulge in a method entirely unique to the medium, one that requires participation from the player. There’s something different fostered in the worlds we build in games. We can tell stories without bending ears, and this imbues them with something special.
The Elder Scrolls series is an effortless example. The stages Bethesda built for these explorative games of fantasy are littered with little written side stories. A wealth of man-hours were poured into bits of cannon you’ll never even find, but you know it’s out there. That knowledge alone is a powerful thing. There’s promise of tales untold, of foundation-shaking events from the past and social issues affecting the present. You can feed the hunger if you look for it.
But it’s not just books. If you wander west from the initial path in the fifth entry, Skyrim, there’s an altar just below the timberline. Its likeness doesn’t have many figures within city walls and the congregation here is recently dead—too fresh to have been looted by bandits. What the hell happened? What does this say about the state of worship in the world?
Some games offer space to stray from the essential path to completion, to wander into the figurative wilderness and discover things you don’t need to find for primary story arcs to reach their climaxes. You can stumble into narrative hooks and intrigue and drama with your hero’s journey untouched, and these extraneous morsels are delicious. Best of all, every crumb of lore you collect, every significant scene you come across, every anecdote contributes to the impact of the overall setting itself. They’re tasty croutons in the narrative salad: good to eat on their own, but also supplementary texture in the meal at large.
People, too, present their own opportunities. It can be as simple as the small handful of figures standing around in the Legend of Zelda games. You spoke to someone in Kakariko Village and they remarked about rumblings emanating from the nearby volcano? Tasty. A conversation was started that could have otherwise drifted by unspoken, a little extra flavor scooped up.
While many happily consume as much delicious optional narrative as they can lap up, sometimes a light touch can stir up a frenzy of curiosity. Bloodborne is about as far from Skyrim’s density of fable as you can get, with a starving paucity of hard facts being delivered amongs its bursts of harrowing combat. But its environments sing with significance, driving iron spikes of narrative implication into your odyssey.
The essence of the boon, I think, is that you’re effectively made into the storyteller. It doesn’t matter how well-written a book is or how well-constructed that environmental cue appears to be: the author was a character in the setting. It’s their work. The product’s quality informs your conception of its creator, and you’re the one fitting these into the context of the larger story in a way that makes sense to you. You’re pulling information together from what you find and building meaning in your own understanding. As it turns out, you’re perfectly suited to the task of telling yourself a story.
And it’s a choice. It’s not just that you aren’t required to engage with it, but that you’re make the decision. You’ve got that hunger—hunger for historical context, for understanding of a situation, for emotional input from characters present or past, for just more—and you’re feeding it. These elements are curated for a specific experience. Every book in Skyrim is written with intention. The enigmatic details in Bloodborne are there for a reason.
They develop the sense of place, history and character in a way that things threaded into the primary storyline couldn’t. They exist to present that choice of engaging more deeply with the story of a world the developers wanted to show us. Not every type of game presents the opportunity for these sorts of things, mind, and they aren’t required to to be excellent. But we love them when they appear.
Kris Goorhuis is a freelance writer, nerd, and pathologically shy fish in a sea of eyes. Leer at him on Twitter @krisgoorhuis.
RELATED: Gamer Next Door Pamela Horton Makes Time in Her Life for ‘Fallout 4’