A radical terrorist group takes control of an Alaskan military base. The dead are walking among us. The only hope for humanity is a group of high school kids who must balance homework and dating with dungeon exploring and demon hunting.
No, that’s not the latest Swery65 experience; it’s a small sample of some of gaming’s most iconic stories (Metal Gear Solid, The Walking Dead, and Persona, for those wondering). Like any artistic medium worth its salt, video games offer a wide range of narrative experiences and settings. However, unlike passive mediums such as literature and film, interactive narrative experiences can be victims of the very active nature that fuels their standout qualities. The most successful games engage players in a way that makes them feel at one with the game’s diegetic world, an integral part rather than a mere spectator. Watching Ellen Ripley evade and outwit the Xenomorph in Alien is thrilling, but it’s a far more immersive and terrifying experience to play as Amanda Ripley in Alien: Isolation and realize that survival isn’t a predetermined outcome. Taking a character’s fate into your own hands promotes a deep-seated sense of identification, raising the emotional stakes of the narrative.
As a predictable consequence of this dynamic, video games disproportionately favor the thrilling genres: action, horror, fantasy, and science fiction. They thrust the player into violently imaginative worlds as a means of strengthening the active element that makes video games so uniquely engaging. In these genres, video game narratives have overwhelmingly succeeded. It’s hard to find a non-interactive action sequence as exciting as those in 2013’s Tomb Raider remake, and Kojima Productions’ P.T. managed to take a single spooky hallway and eclipse a century of horror filmmaking in terms of unnerving effectiveness. Beyond genre storytelling, though, game narratives falter. There still has yet to be a great (or even decent) romance game, and most effective comedy in games comes in the form of window dressing for more traditional forms of gameplay, such as snarky voiceovers between Portal’s puzzles or gross-out item designs and descriptions in The Binding of Isaac.
When games attempt to pursue genres outside the norm for the medium, they tend to suffer from a gameplay perspective. Visual novels like Three Fourths Home and Steins;Gate prioritize well-written narratives about complex human characters to tremendous success, but unfold as text-heavy stories with all the interactivity of a “choose your own adventure” novel. Telltale’s Tales from the Borderlands is wickedly funny and brilliantly choreographed – almost entirely due to the fact that it is essentially just a TV series where players occasionally press a button to make a character say “yes” or “yes, but.” In order to compete with other methods of nonviolent storytelling, games need to find a way to promote interactive engagement that goes beyond pressing a button to turn the page or advance to the next scene.
One possible solution? Make a musical.
Games based on music and rhythm are not a new idea; they’ve been around in a meaningful way since the 1990s, and reached a mainstream audience with the immense popularity of Guitar Hero in the late 2000s. The concept behind music-based games is simple and intuitive: much like a game of Simon, players interact with a rhythmic prompt, where success is determined based on the player’s ability to maintain a proper sense of timing and beat. It’s an engrossing and immersive type of gameplay that yields tremendous gratification when played correctly. Anybody who has nailed Green Grass and High Tides’ guitar solo in Rock Band can tell you what a remarkable job the game does of simulating a rock star fantasy.
That sense of reward and engagement remains in tact even when one removes the simulation element of a rhythm game. 2013’s Rayman Legends, a gorgeous 2D platforming game, features numerous levels wherein the player runs through a vibrant obstacle course set to a cartoonish interpretation of a famous song. In order to successfully clear the level, players must dash, jump, and punch in beat with the song, creating a sense of oneness between the game’s mechanics and its musical world. It’s a form of harmony that even the greatest video games struggle to achieve, elevating these levels far above Legends’ non-rhythmic sections and providing a workable formula for injecting story into gameplay with relative ease.
The use of music and rhythm as a foundation for gameplay allows a game to maintain a sense of active player engagement while permitting its narrative to jettison the necessary violence of a traditional action game, should the developers so choose. Thus, using this framework for a musical narrative game offers potential to tell a romantic story or a purely comedic one without having severe ludonarrative dissonance or falling into the trap of having “barely-there” gameplay. Sony’s Parappa the Rapper and its sequels teased out this potential by crafting a rhythm game where each level tells part of a story. Players take control of Parappa, a beanie-wearing pup who attempts to use his rapping skills to impress the girl of his dreams, a sunflower named Sunny. Much like a Broadway musical, key narrative moments unfold as staged songs, and the player’s ability (or inability) to maintain a beat influences the choreography of the scene. Here, arcade gameplay marries cinema and stage with tremendous success, and while Parappa’s weirdness makes it the niche darling of stoners and Japanophiles, its core mechanics could easily be translated to a variety of nonviolent musical scenarios. Developers could craft a farcical slapstick romp in vein of The Producers, tell a love story akin to West Side Story, or make money hand over fist with Hamilton. The gameplay would be similar across these titles, but the potential narrative casings around it are far more varied than those available to developers making a shooter or a role-playing game.
Of course, just as shooters and RPGs don’t appeal to large swaths of video games’ potential player base, not everyone is enticed by musicals. Truly expanding the scope of the medium’s narrative potential will require the adoption of many new styles of play that can promote active engagement. Virtual reality will likely be one of those methods of delivery, as the hyper-immersive nature of the technology holds potential to lessen the threat of passive disengagement that accompanies narrative games with minimal interactivity, such as Dear Esther or Submerged. What the musical offers that something like VR doesn’t, though, is a proven framework for success. Parappa’s narrative, bizarre though it may be, is nonetheless successfully told and charming in its strangeness, all while providing gameplay that is rewarding, interesting, and accessible without being overly simplistic. By tapping into this underutilized method of gameplay, developers can continue to revolutionize and expand gaming’s narrative potential without needing to invent a completely new way of playing.
Plus, I’d really like to see a Rocky Horror Picture Show video game, if it’s not too much to ask.
 Not enough cat girls and 80s movie references.
 Life is Strange’s teen romance between its protagonists, Max and Chloe, comes close, but it still plays second fiddle to the game’s core time travel mystery and is thus a little underdeveloped.
 I love Telltale’s games, but their attempts at creating meaningful choices in game narratives almost always fall flat. The narrative of a game like The Wolf Among Us is essentially the same regardless of player choice, and while I love them dearly, they are about as engaging from an interactive perspective as that bizarre “choose your own adventure” option from the DVD release of Final Destination 3, i.e. unimportant and shoehorned in.
 Don’t do drugs, kids.
 For example, terrible people with terrible opinions.