HBO’s True Detective is the best show currently on TV. Why? Well, it’s got: A genuinely deep story, incredibly well done macabre elements, unbelievable good cinematography, and Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson turning in career defining performances, week after week.
However, the reason that I love the show is because it is a proud member of one of my favorite sub-genres; the anthology.
For those who don’t know, anthologies are a collection of various works that share a certain theme. The origins of the idea date back to the 17th century, and has produced high quality works in the fields of radio, literature, movies, television and music ever since.
As for video games…not so much.
The most popular examples of video game anthologies tend to be single publisher collections like the Elder Scrolls anthology, or Activision’s anthology of classic video games. In other words, anthologies by virtue of the most generic definition of the word.
What does that mean? Well, the types of anthologies that usually end up being great, original pieces of entertainment, are the types that are a collection of short stories which share a common theme, setting, or maybe even plot elements, but aren’t just a collection of previously released works by the same creator. Of those, gaming has almost no examples to be found.
That’s a real shame. The great thing about anthologies of that nature is that they allow the creators to not be married to one type of world, or one set of characters, or one anything for a long period of time. Ken Levine (creator of the Bioshock series) once said that the most important element of good game writing is brevity, and there are few genres which allow writers to tell their stories in a concise and clean manner more than the anthology.
We’re seeing a great example of that benefit right now with True Detective. Because the showrunners don’t have to plan for multiple seasons of the same plot, it allows them to explore a high-concept set up without fear of needing to drag the inevitable conclusion out over the course of several seasons, until it reaches the point where the answers are no longer satisfying, or the viewer just doesn’t care.
The need to tell a story that is longer than the story actually needs to be ruined the later parts of shows like Lost, X-Files and Twin Peaks, and is often a curse in videogames where the standard playtime needs to be a certain amount of hours in order to justify the game’s price. It’s not easy to tell a story that lasts 6-8 consecutive hours, but a game that long is still almost universally panned for its relatively short length.
A classic anthology set-up could potentially alleviate video game storytellers of that burden, as well as fix some of the problems that hinder certain video game genres. Nowhere is that more true than horror games.
The quality of horror anthologies is without peer in the history of the anthology concept. Creepshow, Black Sabbath, and Tales From The Crypt are all some of the most beloved horror works of all time, and they show how the entire genre benefits from being able to tell short, tightly structured stories that don’t have to stretch the same scares over a long period of time, or be burdened with the genre killing weights of plot development, or character growth.
But what developer is capable of creating a video game anthology, when there is so little precedent within the medium to work off of? The answer is the one company that’s already created one…Telltale Games.
The Walking Dead 400 Days is, to my knowledge, the only example of an anthology video game in the original short story collection sense of the term. While the high quality of that game should be attributed to the creative abilities of the team at TellTale, it’s also due in part to the basic set-up which afforded the team the ability to introduce several new character’s efficiently and effectively, as well as take more risks in the “choices affect your story” style set up those games do, as the developers didn’t have to concern themselves with allowing for consequences that would alter future episodes, without seriously hindering their structure based on minute decisions.
Honestly, even if it isn’t Telltale horror games (ideally based off Tales From the Crypt), I’d still love to see some gaming studio take advantage of the anthology format. It seems absurd that we are getting a game where you get to play as a goat on a rampage, before we get titles that explore one of the oldest storytelling structures in all of entertainment.
Anthologies are a unique, yet timeless, method of telling stories that inherently resolve several storytelling issues and, when done properly, result in works with an appeal that stretches across generations. It’s time that more video games start exploring them.