Digital Culture

Video Gaming after the Pandemic: Why RPG Storytelling is Thriving More Than Ever

By Kim Littler

Role Playing Games (RPGs) are characterised by their focus on narrative and exploration – elements which are strengthened and given replayability through choice driven gameplay. RPG is a genre found across board games, gamebooks, and video games, though the latter has been under the spotlight significantly since the pandemic. The whole planet was stuck at home indefinitely, so why wouldn’t people shift their imaginations towards digital worlds? The popularity of RPGs is, in part, thanks to the allure of escapism: stepping into fictional worlds, taking control, and making decisions without real-life repercussions is like self-therapy. Tactile, visual, and auditory all at once; RPGs can also be an accessible way to engage with intriguing narratives. Even if you can’t read, lack access to old classics, or struggle to focus on audiobooks, you can engage with these stories through their video game reimaginings. The human need for accessible stories is especially present during stressful times; so it goes without saying that the commercial success of RPGs soared with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For anyone with a sustained interest in the gaming industry, the increase in gaming during the pandemic was fascinating. Particularly following articles like Cian Maher’s piece on Irish folklore in Elden Ring, which prompted further consideration of the mythos in recent RPGs. Even their titles reveal mythological preoccupations, such as Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (2020) and God of War: Ragnarok (2022). Both refer to Old Norse mythology – the latter meaning doomsday, and the former a hall of slain warriors

There is a sense of beauty and nostalgia to be found in these subtle homages to our shared history – but why is that? Humanity has historically relied on storytelling for education and recreation. Even the first recorded story, Gilgamesh, has a simple moral determination: respect your community. That said, most stories can fit one of 7 narrative structures. So, perhaps the biggest difference is the format through which these stories are told. Spanning generations, narratives have taken many shapes: oral retellings, books, and films. Now video games are shining as the medium of the moment. Though critical thinkers like Sam Lessin might frame this trend in a negative light, believing that gaming is just ‘quick fix’ retreat from the world, maybe this isn’t quite the case. Most likely, there’s a little of both: that need for escapism and the human desire to find comfort in wisdom, reassurance, and ancestral knowledge through stories. 

Though these references to mythos might initially feel arbitrary, they’re quickly integrating into a modern day culture of storytelling in which the boundaries between stories are blurred. At the crux of this is the human dependency on storytelling – a tradition that has evolved alongside us. The developmental importance of stories is evident, as is the allure of interactive narratives in which we can become fully immersed. Given this, perhaps we were destined to turn towards RPG narratives – it just happens that the pandemic pushed us towards them faster.

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