Once considered niche, fringe, and the hobby of only outsiders or loners, video games have rapidly become one of the most popular and influential artistic forms of this century. Their imagery is near ubiquitous—children, adults, and even professional athletes know what a Fortnite dance is without having played the game, and every conversation about violence in media eventually turns toward Grand Theft Auto. We’ve reached a point where, through streaming platforms like Twitch, games don’t even need to be played to be enjoyed, as whole robust communities form around watching others play. Games have grown into more than just products; they’re touchstones, meaning that they’ve become popular enough for something radical to have happened: even while culture shapes our games, games have simultaneously begun shaping our culture.
In Story Mode, video games critic and host of the No Cartridge podcast Trevor Strunk traces how some of the most popular and influential game series have changed over years and even decades of their continued existence and growth. We see how the Call of Duty games—once historical simulators that valorized conflicts like World War II—went “modern,” complete with endless conflicts, false flag murders of civilians, and hyperadvanced technology. It can be said that Fortnite’s runaway popularity hinges on a competition for finite resources in an era of horrific inequality. Strunk reveals how these shifts occurred as direct reflections of the culture in which games were produced, thus offering us a uniquely clear window into society’s evolving morals on a mass scale.
Story Mode asks the question, Why do video games have a uniquely powerful ability to impact culture? Strunk argues that the participatory nature of games themselves not only provides players with a sense of ownership of the narratives within, but also allows for the consumption of games to be a revelatory experience as the meaning of a game is oftentimes derived by the manner in which they are played.
Combining sharp criticism of our most beloved and well-known video game series with a fascinating discussion of how our cultural values form, Story Mode is a truly original examination of the unique space games now occupy, from one of the sharpest games critics working today.
Trevor Strunk, PhD, is the host of No Cartridge, a progressive podcast that critically analyzes video games and the conditions of the games industry. He holds a PhD in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago, with a focus on contemporary American literature and emergent forms. His writing on video games and other media has appeared in The Outline, Los Angeles Review of Books, Giant Bomb, Electronic Gaming Monthly, and other publications. He can be found on Twitter at the handle @hegelbon. He currently teaches English at DeSales University, and lives with his wife and two delightful if energetic children outside of Philadelphia.
“Trevor Strunk presents video games as they should be discussed, not as a nascent medium that needs to be legitimized, but as a dominant cultural force to be critiqued with the same scrutiny as literature and cinema. His analyses approach the topic with a refreshingly unassuming seriousness that matches the care and consideration that developers have given to their own work for decades. Story Mode is a must-read for anyone interested in exploring the evolution of the medium through a critical lens.”
– Josh Sawyer, BAFTA and WGA-nominated Game Director and Studio Design Director, Obsidian Entertainment
"It's not just that Strunk knows more interesting things about video games and gaming culture than anyone else, although I really think he does. It's that he knows so much about the obsessions and forces from which games and culture spring, why games work or don't, and how it all fits into the broader culture as a whole. He sees the big picture in a way other video game writers don't and can explain it in a way other writers can't. No one else could have written this book."
– David Roth, co-founding writer, Defector
"Story Mode is no mere odyssey through the history of gaming – if you need to understand video games, start here. Start with Strunk." – Dia Lacina, culture critic
"Trevor Strunk is one of the most insightful people I've had the pleasure of reading and listening to over the years. His work is consistently thought-provoking and admirably interested in how things work and what they mean as part of a larger world. Story Mode is accessible in its explorations of complicated mechanisms for those of us who maybe know more about one specific gear than another it's turning against." –Scott Benson, co-creator of Night in the Woods and games designer
NetGalley review: 4 stars
Last updated on 03 Jul 2021
"I originally thought this book might be something that my son and the gamers in the our homeschool coop might enjoy, but it was more of a historical and critical commentary on video games and how they have impacted culture. Overall a tremendously interesting book and would definitely recommend it to those in the gaming community."
—Laura Miller, homeschool educator
NetGalley Review: 4 stars
Last updated on 13 Sep 2021
"As a lover of both video games and academic-style critiques, I found this book very enjoyable. I don't know if I felt like all of the goals for each chapter were met (such as exploring the end of capitalism through the way we imagine apocalypses in post apocalyptic games). Regardless, I would recommend this book to many of my friends who are interested in the role seminal games had in developing future games, as well as how games intersect with society and culture, particularly capitalism."—Lydia Pazienza, reviewer at Harvard University