The Stories We Read vs. The Stories We Tell

A Charles Amis interview unlocks one of the keys to video games as an artform.

I was enjoying a typically insightful AV Club interview with Charles Amis recently, and something struck me. Specifically, this:

I went from really being passionate about my own stories—what I now call “developer stories,” which are the stories that people who make the games want to tell. Then I shifted toward “player stories,” the stories that players tell themselves or their friends after they play the game. The stuff you find after a great game of basketball. When people talk about it later, what do they say? That’s something that only games can do, creating player stories.

That’s actually quite brilliant, not least because Mr. Amis does not draw an imaginary distinction between games we play outdoors with our large muscle groups and games we play indoors with our thumbs. They are all weighted random number generators around which we construct narratives, and we love those narratives.

True story: many a year ago, one of our cats got out of the house late at night. My girlfriend chased the little beast, but could not catch it. Already outside, she wanted to get my attention so I could help. Knowing that I was in the basement, she tried to pound on the basement window and call my name. Unfortunately, the window broke in the process, cutting her hand.

That’s not a very interesting story. What makes it interesting is that I was playing Silent Hill 2 at the time.

For those who have not played it, Silent Hill 2 is slightly scarier than watching a clown with a chainsaw crawl out from under your bed, only to realize that the clown’s lower body is a giant spider. The only people laughing at that sentence are folks who never played the game; those who have are nodding in recognition.

So from my perspective, the story goes like this: I was playing Silent Hill 2 in a dark basement at midnight, when suddenly I heard the sound of shattering glass right behind me, as my name was screamed from behind a waving, bloody hand. I am legitimately proud that I didn’t piss myself.

That is what Mr. Amis is talking about: the stories we create around the structures we play with. The Ninth-Inning Homer, the Eighty-Yard Touchdown, the Miracle Three-Pointer, the Orc That Wouldn’t Die, the Epic Fail Speed Run. There’s a reason for the cliché of the former athlete still spouting tales of his glory days. We love stories that we are a part of, that we had a hand in creating. Old games, new games, they’re all ultimately vehicles for the creation of personal stories.

That fact is why video games are such an interesting artform. They engage with us as humans in a way most other artforms do not, by engaging our sense of personal, human narrative. We help create the stories, we connect them to our lives, and in so doing they become our own. If Mr. Amis’s design strategy is to engage more deeply with that, I say more power to him.

About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is a writer and editor, and quite possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.


  1. So glad you liked the interview! It stirred up some great conversation in the comments as well.

    Just in case you’re interested, my game just launched a Kickstarter!

    Long live player stories!

  2. Marifosque says:

    Silent Hill 4: The Room is what really got me most, and yes video games do affect a human’s psyche. My siblings and I played that so well, so many times. Any dream or supernatural activity that sprung from our minds because we hear the laughter of Walter Sullivan subconsciously, and making us stay away from our apartments and homes, is sure enough that the game works! I always check my bathroom if there is a hole in the wall, or an extra room that was boarded up! But Silent Hill 4 for me is the one game that is humanly possible to happen to anyone!

  3. Lately some of your posts have been reminding of things I have written or have been working on.

    ::Channeling Cup from Transformers The Movie, the good one not the live action ones::

    This post reminds of one I did a while back in which I was wondering why people acted so childish about video games (I think I actually titled it, “Why do people act so childish about video games?”).

    If you really get down to it even before getting to the unique experiences around the game like the one you share here (I actually have a similar story but about Left 4 Dead 1 instead), video games are very much a viable form of entertainment that I would put up against just about any novel or movie. I say this for two reasons.

    1) Unlike a movie where you just sit and let the story unfold in a video game you have to actually do stuff. Try sitting in front of your tv and just looking at Silent Hill 2 and see how far you get and 2) Unlike a book (and most movies except for those with alternate endings packed in) most of your high quality and memoriable video games actually have multiple outcomes. Silent Hill 2 has, I think, 4 different endings. How many books/movies have that many different endings and remember, the ending you get is dependent not on sitting on the cough and letting it happen before you but on you taking real action.

    ::Reverts back to normal.::
    Slightly off topic but if you want to hear some odd stories get two different people to talk to you about the game, Eternal Darkness for the Gamecube.


  1. […] in the creation of story, not by the game’s creators, but by its players. After seeing our recent article about his work, Mr. Amis got in touch with me, and I had the opportunity to interview him about his […]

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