Gaming is a huge modern storytelling medium, and some of the stories coming from gaming are as deep and thought-provoking as novels. So what will it take to get non-gamers interested in them?
My most recent podcast obsession actually wasn’t created by NPR (though I still miss you, Serial). It’s the story of a somewhat washed-up journalist named Benjamin Giraud: he gets a gig putting together a fluff piece for some military higher-ups about a famous war hero. He meets with different people who knew the hero when he was younger and hears their stories, but he ends up seeing that a few of the pieces don’t go together the way they’re supposed to…the more research he does, the deeper he finds the rabbit hole goes, tying all the way back to a massive government conspiracy…one that the war hero could have been directly complicit in. As he pulls harder and harder on the thread, people start coming out of the woodwork…some want to help him reveal the truth, while others want to prevent it from ever seeing the light of day.
I was pretty much on the edge of my seat for most of the season, and even though it’s fictional, it’s got great production value; Benjamin is actually voiced by Keegan Michael Key from Key and Peele, too! If it sounds like something you might want to check out, you can listen to both the first and second season here.
Did you check the link? Were you surprised to find out it was a Halo podcast? Would you have clicked the link if I’d told you it was a Halo podcast first? I’ve got plenty of friends that aren’t gamers that I think would really enjoy the series, but it’s like I can see all the lights shut down in the eyes if I lead by saying that the podcast is set in the Halo universe. Instinctively, I think non-gamers assume that anything associated with gaming will be irrelevant to them, perhaps too nerdy or weird. Funny thing is that, Halo stuff aside, Hunt the Truth’s first season is one of the most exciting dramas I’ve listened to.
Just like a book, movie, or TV show discusses modern issues and provides perspectives for the viewers, so does gaming. On the base level, Hunt the Truth is about a journalist trying to uncover the truth about the Master Chief and the Office of Naval Intelligence or, ONI. Underneath the surface, Hunt the Truth is a commentary on dogmatism, freedom of the press, journalistic ethics and responsibility, the role of whistleblowers in our government, and just how much of the capital-T Truth the public should hear. Particularly in America, where Edward Snowden’s revelations are still affecting change in government, a story like this is exceptionally relevant. But I wonder how many non-Halo fans will hear the story.
Cross-genre marketing is no easy task, but Microsoft Studios has always made attempts to cross Halo into more mainstream appeal. There’ve been Halo novels in print since 2001, and they created the Forward Unto Dawn live-action miniseries before Halo 4 came out. Even Microsoft’s Siri equivalent is named “Cortana,” the name of the main AI in the Halo series. And yet, with all of these different reaches, Halo isn’t ubiquitous like Marvel superheroes or Star Wars. Talks of a Halo movie bubbled for a while, but have subsided…that may be for the best, considering how most video game movies turn out.
I’ll admit, I think one of the biggest barriers is the attitude that game creators can only do games right. I’ll admit: I only started listening to Hunt the Truth because I thought it was going to be terrible; I figured that the plot would be contrived, or the acting would be terrible, or maybe it would sound like it was recorded in someone’s living room. None of those things turned out to be true, and really, I shouldn’t have expected that they would: companies invest millions of dollars and thousands of work hours into these franchises, and the creators and developers themselves pour blood, sweat, and tears into these products. As one of the “hardcore” gamers, my skepticism almost prevented me from experiencing a really great podcast; I wonder what other experiences I could be missing out on due to my pre-conceived notions.
People are always going to like what they like, and they won’t like what they won’t like. I don’t expect soap opera junkies to start replacing their shows with gaming podcasts, but I still wonder how to make gaming and the stories we discuss in games relevant and approachable to people who haven’t picked up a controller. Perhaps it’ll just take time; I mentioned Star Wars and Marvel Comics earlier, but it’s only recently that they’ve fallen in to the mainstream, but they’ve been around since the 70s. But my hope is that more people will grow to embrace gaming and its storytelling capabilities as they have more opportunities to learn about them without the intimidation of a controllers. Certainly I’d hope that those people would decide to give playing games a shot, but even if they don’t play them, they could watch Let’s Plays or Twitch livestreams, or maybe read articles that explain what happened in the stories and the relevance they have to their own lives (articles from a site like this one, perhaps?). Games give us the chance to get involved in a virtual experience in ways that are quite unlike any other medium we’ve created.
I have to admit, I’ve been really excited for Halo 5 since I started listening to Hunt the Truth; the storytelling in the podcast is really sharp, and I couldn’t wait to see how that carried over to the game. It just came out today, and though I’ve only gotten a couple chapters in to the campaign, I have to say I’m not as riveted while playing the game as I was to listening to the show. The game has to chop up the story and serve it between giant gun battles and ship fights and explosions, whereas a simple podcast doesn’t have to spend a bunch of time drawing out fight scenes: they can stick to a completely different type of action. In terms of listeners, Hunt the Truth looks like a success: each full episode averages over 100K listens on Soundcloud. Hopefully this will set the stage for other cross-media productions to make their way out there as well: the more great gaming stories there are for us all to access when we’re away from our consoles and PCs, the less intimidating the barrier to bring an entirely new set of people into gaming.