Opinion: why sci-fi and fantasy videogames matter

As much as movies and TV? Sure, why not.

dragotVideogames, unlike film and television, are evolving in the way they present their experiences to their audience. No, I’m not talking about gimmicks like 3D – although I would certainly be lying if I said games weren’t burdened by their own set of gimmicky features – but rather the emerging status of downloadable content as a potential storytelling format.

There are a few popular games on the market (primarily sci-fi and fantasy-based role-playing titles) that are using these downloadable extra chapters to advance the overall narrative of their respective franchises. Bethesda’s Fallout 3, as well as BioWare’s Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins are all using this idea with varying degrees of success. To the uninitiated, players purchase these full games in disc form, but can later download extra hours of gameplay for them through their Xbox 360s, PS3s or PCs, depending on which they own. This content is sometimes free as a goodwill gesture to owners of the game, but most of the substantial content out there is offered for a small fee and purchased electronically.

At first, DLC was used as a tool to exploit the emerging microtransaction market – in-game items were offered at a premium fee, but this caused intense backlash among gamers. Now, the content being offered is increasing in sophistication, depth and longevity, meaning that it’s practically becoming as essential as the game that it accompanies. Science-fiction and fantasy RPGs, which rely heavily on narrative as a staple feature, are experimenting with DLC as a storytelling tool.

Selling it to the mass audience is still at an experimental stage, however. In Dragon Age: Origins, a salesman within the game world will try and flog DLC to the player, even mocking them for being cheap if they’re not willing to part with the real-world cash. Such an aggressively forward approach has garnered a mixed response from gamers, but it’s hard to deny that some of the extra storytelling threads offered are worth parting with. One downloadable chapter, called The Stone Prisoner, introduces an important character to the overarching story and expands upon a plot thread that is only touched upon in the main game. Likewise, the expansion Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening offers a seven-hour epilogue to the main quest. Not every player would relish returning to the Dragon Age universe, but the fact that the opportunity is there at all shows the kind of storytelling opportunities that are exclusively available to those invested in videogames.

While I’d wager there are a good few people out there who are disgusted by the idea of paying extra money for a game on top of the initial £40 fee, I am one of an increasing number of people that value the long-term appeal of games. Episodic content can be creatively beneficial, in spite of the extra price.

Let me give you an example – for 2007’s Mass Effect, BioWare produced a roughly £7, three-hour long short episode called Bring Down The Sky. It was like a short sci-fi story out of an anthology. Intergalactic pirates had hijacked an asteroid and sent it screaming towards a human colony and you, as Commander Shepard, the game’s protagonist, had to stop it. When you corner the alien responsible, you’re given the difficult choice of whether he lives or dies, by having to decide whether his motives – revenge for his own loss at the hands of man – were just. This is an experience built for DLC. Even though it came at a premium, it was a perfect means of reigniting my interest in the Mass Effect universe after the fact.

Importantly, however, it demonstrated how much more inherently flexible videogames are as a storytelling medium than movies or television. Hopefully, if a few more titles can use the creative potential of downloadable content in a credible way, the matching videogames will start receiving the same mainstream attention as anything in the cinema or on the small screen.