Question: how does a good story make you feel? Obviously the possible answers are nearly endless seeing as how at any point during the tale, you could land anywhere on an infinitely divisible spectrum of emotions. Happy and sad are only the beginning, and a really good story can make you melancholy, nostalgic, depressed, indignant, or whatever.
It would serve us all a bit better if the question were changed: how does a good story make you feel after it’s over? The propensity of humanity to cling to emotional resonance is incredible, but it has this lingering effect of imbuing contrast into normalcy. Throughout a gripping narrative, whether brief or a spanning epic of generations and kingdoms, our brains steep in a brew of the extraordinary.
This doesn’t mean a good story has to involve the supernatural or things foreign to our world. Even the truth can be just as unbelievable as a fungal spore turning the world into a zombie-infested playground. Even the mundane can be as important as a black ops organization stopping the world from blowing up. Give us a good anchor, and we can make any story fit like a tailored suit.
And we grab on. We grab on so hard when the tale is worth it that it’s all that exists to us for however long it needs to have us. A little 30-minute short story still manages to take us away from a world with real consequences and unhappy endings and puts us in the hands of something with the strangely comforting embrace of escape.
After it’s over, though, that anchor is taken away from us. What little we had to grasp in something that has long since passed from existence (or simply never existed) swiftly and brutally ends, and we drift. What a good story does—happily ever after or not—is make you miss the story long after it’s gone.
It’s partly the idea of contrast. The story takes us on highs and lows we don’t normally experience, making us flies on the wall, allowing us an amazing window for empathy that’s hard to put into words. And suddenly we are left in a life where those don’t exist on a regular basis. When someone tells you a funny joke and you laugh and laugh and laugh, you smile so hard. But the giggling dies and your eyes flatten. But your smile lingers. It lingers for no particular reason other than a hope it can keep going forever.
Video games tend to hit this excision from the prodigious especially hard. It’s because when a video game tells a good story and has commensurate gameplay, we have a second thread intertwining our reality with this fabrication. Instead of just hear what someone does and how they do it, we are the ones doing it. We immediately become part of the world we don’t want to end.
All the mechanical bits where you shoot a laser rifle or pilot a spaceship or take an axe to the head of a goblin are largely immaterial when it comes to what you’re doing. It only matters that you can do it. When you wonder around an empty house and just pick up letters and cups and cassettes, those are not extraordinary actions, but they are extraordinarily meaningful. Those movements are important to the story and to you.
They’re important to you because the reason and way you do these things are specific to this world, just as the story is. When you pick up a cup in your daily life, it won’t be for the same reason or the same way as in the game. When you get in a scrap, it won’t be for anything resembling why you did it in that game.
When a good story ends, we are left with a vaguely cold and empty spot in our hearts, a hole shaped like the world you’d just read or watched or heard. When a good video game ends, that hole remains, but now the body itself longs for what it can no longer do. It’s a physical reminder—not just an emotional one—that you were not long for that place to begin with. It’s a reminder that good stories and good video games are never just good. They mean something to you.