Are Video Games Really Narratives?

Welcome to Peabody Finds, the weekly newsletter for the Peabody Awards, offering our recommendations for powerful and thought-provoking media you should consider engaging. The newsletter offers deeper dives into Peabody-recognized programming (and beyond), with commentary, insights, and additional materials for context and expanded engagements. If you like it, subscribe here!


Are Video Games Really Narratives?


Peabody has begun recognizing video games—among other interactive and immersive media—with awards as “stories that matter”. But that begs the questions: are video games actually “stories” and do they really “matter.” The conception that video games are all “shooter” games that only teenage boys play, sadly, dominates the popular imagination. Yet the video game industry, whether commercial, educational, or through independents and non-profits, is a robust community of programmers and storytellers that offer an array of narratives, perhaps exemplified best through this week’s Games for Change Festival in New York. This newsletter offers our readers four examples of powerful and important video games that Peabody has recognized in the last few years. Before formally expanding our categories and the judging to include interactive and immersive media as full Peabody Award winners (submission information below), the awards program offered, in conjunction with Facebook, the Futures of Media Award. Two video games recognized include That Dragon, Cancer and Life is Strange. And in March of this year, Peabody awarded a slate of “Legacy” winners, iconic and groundbreaking projects, including the games Papers, Please and Journey. We invite readers not only to read about the games below, but also play them. Interactive and immersive media stand out precisely because the user is a direct participant in directing the narrative. When we “play,” we don’t just watch, but actively help construct the experience and its meaning (which could be different for users making different choices within the storyworld) through our playful engagement. The Peabody Awards are now accepting submissions for the inaugural cycle of the interactive and immersive category, honoring storytelling projects in formats such as games, virtual and augmented reality, interactive journalism and documentary, co-creation, and social video. Submissions will be accepted through August 24. For more details, visit here.


In reviewing this audacious video game developed by parents Amy and Ryan Green, whose child, Joel, was battling cancer, the New York Times led with this headline: “This Video Game Will Break Your Heart.” Yes, it will. A video game that challenges our expectations of the medium, That Dragon, Cancer documents the true story of 4-year-old Joel Green’s battle with cancer in a beautifully poetic gameplay environment. Players take on the roles of the parents as they face increasingly emotional challenges throughout Joel’s short life, utilizing archival voice recordings and interactive exploration to guide players through artful reinterpretations of real events. The object of the game is not to “win,” but to share in the experience and, sadly, the trauma. For most parents, the thought of one’s child having cancer (much less dying from it), ranks foremost as the most horrible thing one can experience. Yet Dragon isn’t trauma porn, but instead, a beautiful lesson in empathy and strength, ultimately grounded in the powers of faith and love. That’s an experience we should engage with more often.

Play the Game That Dragon, Cancer


In this engrossing video game, players are thrust into the life of a seemingly ordinary high school student who discovers her ability to rewind time and thus change the course of the game’s tragic events. The game smartly combines tropes from classic genres – murder mystery, science fiction, coming-of-age quests – and subverts them with unique, non-linear game-play mechanics, taboo subjects, and gorgeous environments. Through these elements, Life is Strange offers players the ability not only to lose themselves in a rich narrative, but also to discover how seemingly random choices have unimaginable consequences and outcomes. At the Peabody luncheon presenting the award to Christian Divine (the game’s writer and co-producer), Divine noted the mail he received from players, including one from a young woman in the military who said the game steered her away from committing suicide. Now that is truly a story that matters.

Read the Review: The Review Geek 

Play the Game: Life Is Strange


Papers, Please puts players in a position of authority in a dystopian police state whereby they are forced to negotiate their own ethics and morals while trying to survive. In this strategy simulation video game, the player is in the shoes of an immigration officer stationed in a country bordered by hostile neighbors. Using a limited number of tools, the player must accurately recognize potential threats or deal with the consequences of getting wages garnished by superiors. With little time to review and process documents, the player must make fast-paced decisions to determine who can cross the border. And with each wrong decision, the consequences can be dire, resulting in life-or-death stakes for your family who are dependent on your earnings. With over twenty unique endings, the choice-driven narrative was thoughtfully designed to deliver a valuable and meaningful experience. Papers, Please breaks away from the traditional tropes of kill or be killed but instead focuses on the ever-present complex, intricate, and personal choices resulting from geopolitical forces.

Play the Game: Papers, Please


Journey is quiet, abstract, and spiritual, yet also riveting. There is no dialogue in Journey. There are action sequences, without the violence. As a player you are a robed figure, seemingly lost. You must reach mountainous heights, but you do not know how. You are called to roam and find your own path, to pick up scraps of ethereal fabric and interact peacefully with other journeying creatures, both automated and alive. Journey is multiplayer, so you will meet anonymous strangers, other players searching for what they do not know. But you cannot speak to each other. All you can do is be with and support each other as you traverse a landscape both barren and beautiful, an endless desert littered with civilization’s remains. Journey shook the gaming world when it was released a decade ago. It crystallized the spirit of a burgeoning generation of indie game developers, whose tender, artisanal works recalled the wonder of the earliest days of gaming. Journey stood out for its lush design and incredible restraint: a minimalist wonder in a maximalist age. Its serenity conjured magic in a chaotic time when social media and networked game engagement was rising exponentially. In Journey we are encouraged to collaborate with anonymous strangers as opposed to shouting at them for competition or clout. We are asked to slow down, stop talking, and pay attention to history and the ecosystem around us. In Journey the goal is better understanding of ourselves and our world.

Play the Game: Journey 


Watch Jenova Chan, Creative Director of Journey, accept his Peabody Award and discuss why it was important to make Journey accessible to more than just gamers.