Like most young people these days, they've grown up with video games. They've always preferred those with storylines over sheer action and gratuitous violence. They especially like the Legend of Zelda games, which I've come to understand is a cult classic among gamers. Watching my sons play it and listening to them talk about it, led me to speculate that this is their generation's "reading." That is, it is the activity--even beyond movies and cable TV--that provides them with the storytelling component of their entertainment in the place of books. I wanted to dig a littler deeper and try to verify my conjecture.
So I watched my sons play their latest Legend of Zelda game (Skyward Sword). They even showed me one of the earlier versions of it (The Ocarina of Time). I found there is a basic story behind these games that is retold, though with some variation, in each new release. The core story has the game's protagonist (named, "Link") fighting monsters and villains, evading traps, and collecting tools and clues as he journeys through the world of Hyrule (and its "subworlds") searching for the lost (or abducted) Princess Zelda and/or some desired artifact (the triforce of courage). This is, of course, the classic hero's journey in folklore and fiction (i.e., the Quest).
There is an involved lore surrounding the Zelda games that engrosses fans, and over the years they have debated how all the game versions fit within the chronology of this lore. They have sought a consensus on which games and offshoot stories (there was even an animated, 13-episode TV show) actually fit the lore and so establish a canon. Finally, in December of 2011, the game's maker, Nintendo, published an official chronology, "outlining how the games in the series are related to one another" (see the links below). I suppose that closes the canon.
This fan's devotion for Zelda lore is not unlike that for stories long spun by the bards of humankind from The Epic of Gilgamesh to The Odyssey to Sherlock Holmes to Star Trek to The Lord of the Rings. The latest twist is the element of interaction. When playing the game, you are the hero. You decide where he/she goes and what she/he does. You figure out the puzzle and find the treasure, beat the enemy, or rescue the Princess, though you die a thousand deaths in doing so.
Video games literature (found mostly on the Internet) verifies the dichotomy of game play vs storytelling and that there are aficionados for each. Today it is common for games to have both elements, though usually with a greater emphasis on one or the other. Getting to that point required an evolution in video gaming.
Video games basically started with Pong, which I played in 1974. It was just a simple digital version of ping-pong played on a TV screen, but it was fascinating to my generation. It caught on and quickly evolved into the Atari games of the video arcades in the 1980s. These games became the classics that survive to this day in high-def, 3D forms (Donkey Kong can still be found in the popular Super Smash Brothers). Back then, they were strictly game-play (Pac Man) though some were presented with a background story (Vanguard) or at least an implied story (Jungle Hunt). Some experimented with three dimensions, notably, Battlezone where you drove a "tank" and dueled with mechanized attackers. The tanks and landscape were simply geometric figures--just outlines--but the feel of moving through a 3D space was unique for the time. But to really merge game play and story required advances in digital technology.
The introduction of the personal computer, or microcomputer, paved the way for these advances. Microcomputers had long been in development, and hobbyist models were produced by Radio Shack, Commodore, and Kaypro. But it wasn't until IBM produced its version in 1981 that standards were established that gave programmers a common platform on which to develop (and this included games).
Graphics capabilities and raw computing power increased exponentially along with the PC market and allowed the development of video games that were the clear antecedents to those of today. These included Myst, which was mostly an experiment in moving a point of view (POV) through a 3D space. The techniques learned from Myst were incorporated into Wolfenstein, a game played on a personal computer where the POV was escaping from imprisonment by Nazis. You moved through the rooms of a castle, finding items to help you and shooting Nazi soldiers as you come across them.
A fantasy descendent of Wolfenstein was Quake, which brought improvements to the graphics and 3D format. I played this game on my workstation when I had my ill-fated IT job with Sunbeam in 1996. I had not worked there a year before Sunbeam was reorganized to make it profitable again, which led to personnel layoffs. When I received my notice (along with the entire IT department--grist for another journal entry) I was still retained for a few weeks just in case something went wrong with the servers. I was told to do nothing but fix things if they broke and that's just what I did. Beyond that, I procured a new job and played Quake while I waited for my current job to run out.
Quake was the only video game of its kind that I really got into and played through to the end. That ending involved facing a giant, Satan-like character, and the weapons I had used up to that point were not effective. There was a trick to beating this guy, but I couldn't figure out what it was. I finally found the source code for the game on the Internet and followed it enough to learn the secret of how to beat the game.
Fast-forward to now, when I'm trying to write stories that grab people's imaginations and make fans. Understanding the current allure of video games, I believe, provides clues that could help me. One is that for a large part of the game-playing masses, the storyline is important. So important that Nintendo executives felt compelled to produce a comprehensive chronology for their Zelda games. Whether through digital interaction, dramatic recreation, or sheer imagination, people want to experience a story. They want to know the characters, where they came from, and where they're likely to go. And in the end, they want to have some sense of closure, problem solved, villain beaten, game over, though with the sense that life for the characters will continue.
So my big take-away from considering video games: they are the literature for generation X. You might aver that it's a shallow literature, and with some justification. It's hard to imagine an interactive game that captures the expansiveness of The Lord of the Rings, or the deep psychological levels of Moby Dick. Still, some have come closer than you might think. I suspect video games are really just another medium for the storyteller to use if it suits his or her purpose. Perhaps they will keep the storyteller's art alive through the digital age and convey the truth of fiction to plugged-in gamers, until we reach the next phase that returns that sacred function to the printed page.
Legend of Zelda in Wikipedia
The official Zelda chronology in Wikipedia