Superhot: Storytelling through gameplay

March 7, 2016

I’m interested in storytelling. Not just in narrative fiction (books, movies), but in business, politics, history, dating, and yes, videogames. It might not always be applicable to my fiction, but I think it’s fun to tease apart how stories function in different realms. The lessons often end up being useful anyway.

I’ve been particularly interested in videogame storytelling as of late, ever since I discovered Extra Credits. (If you’d like to see just about the scariest damn videogame-related video essay ever, check out this one on propaganda games. Please stop breaking humans, China.) Extra Credits has made me think about how videogame stories are told, though Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation deserves much of the credit/blame there as well. Here are two Extra Credits that tackle the subject explicitly:

But this post isn’t just about pimping an interesting YouTube channel, though please, check them out. They do good work.

What I took from these and other discussions on the topic is that, while videogame storytelling is often hobbled for many (in context sensible) reasons, when it’s done well it’s often because the narrative is conveyed through gameplay, instead of by yanking control away from the player and forcing them to read a paragraph or watch a prerendered cutscene. As Yahtzee might say, “Wow, that cutscene looked cool. I wish I got to play that.”

No game illustrates both the good and bad ways to tell stories in videogames as much as the newly released Superhot.

Superhot can best be descried as a choreographed fight scene simulator. Time only moves when the player’s character is moving, which means you can string together seemingly impossible action sequences since you have as much time as you need to think. The replays are full of dodged bullets, cutting bullets out of the sky, headshotting everyone, punching enemies and grabbing their guns in mid-air and shooting them without losing a step, and just generally acting like a blocky version of James Bond spliced with a Jedi Master.

Which is super cool to watch! The gameplay fosters a type of storytelling, in that you can string together these cool action sequences and play them back at normal speed, or even show them to your friends. This is a game my roommate bought, and I’ve only played it a couple times. Yet I’ve had a ton of fun watching the mini-narratives he’s strung together. Superhot is an example of using a game’s mechanics to allow the player to create stories they can’t make elsewhere. It’s like we not only get to play the cool cutscenes, but we get to direct them as well.

In contrast, when I asked my roommate what the actual plot is about, he didn’t have a clue. I know it has something to do with DOS prompts between levels, and that the player is playing a player who’s playing Superhot, but the text prompts take place outside of the fun gameplay where it’s easy to mash buttons to get through them as quickly as possible.

I’ve seen worse methods of videogame storytelling—and even cutscenes can be used to tell amazing stories—but compared to the emergent narratives of the Superhot levels, the difference is clear. My roommate never tells me about how awesome the official plot is, but he’s shown me several replays when he’s strung together an especially awesome scene. And far from just being polite, I really enjoy watching them. They’re cool.

Of course, I say all this, but I don’t own Superhot, nor do I plan on getting it. That’s not the game’s fault, though—I pretty much only play multiplayer games nowadays, so something like Vermintide is more my speed. And once again, aside from the odd cutscene (usually <5 seconds long) and voice-overs while the levels are loading, the story is mostly told during gameplay.

Though if I’m being honest, letting me stab my way through hordes of evil ratmen with my friends is the main draw. That’s why videogames don’t have to have good stories if the gameplay is great. A good story on top is a nice bonus, though.

As always, thank you for using my Amazon Affiliate link (info).

By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.

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