Story telling in games

This is something that’s been on my mind for a while now.  Story telling, recounting experiences – both real and made up – is something quite fundamental to human culture.  We tell stories to entertain people, to teach them, to inspire and challenge people.  Much day-to-day conversation falls into the pattern of listening to what people have to say, and retelling stories from your own life.  Even when we are asleep, a good portion of our brain is devoted to making up stories in the form of dreams – wild and fantastical.  Most organised religions are founded on stories from the past.

Like any art form, I see games as a medium for creating and telling stories.  For example, when you look at traditional pen-and-paper RPGs, they largely boil down to a group of friends making up stories. The game just gives them a framework for telling the story.

Gameplay, as a craft and discipline often gets overshadowed by the story and presentation; and yet I think gameplay design is at its most effective when it can facilitate story creation. Sure the vocabulary of the theatre and film transfers directly to games in terms of cast, set, props, and so on; but the best games create worlds, for which multiple stories and adventures can take place in (I’m thinking along the lines of Elder Scrolls, Minecraft, Journey, and probably MMOs like Warcraft as well).

Look at the new X-Com game that came out last year — there’s a game that has a very basic premise (aliens are abducting people, you must stop them!); but basically gives you a blank canvas to craft your own stories. As a game it plays like a modern version of chess (or more directly, warhammer 40k), with both you and the computer taking turns to move pieces, and the winner is the one that captures all the other pieces, or meets their objective. The genius of X-Com, as a video game, is that it lets you name your pieces, and customise their appearance and voice — it lets you turn them into characters. In doing so, players can reframe the events of the game, as a story. Every mission is just one episode in a bigger, personalised narrative, starring a cast entirely of your own creation. It’s compelling because you don’t have full control over the plot and you don’t know what’s going to happen next — characters can die, and the plot can twist in unexpected ways.  In RPG terms, there’s a games master (or story teller) in place to ensure dramatic conflict and uncertainty, whilst still allowing the player to own the story.

For me, that’s where I think story telling and games should go. Anyone can write a story, and then craft a game around it (yo). That’s fine, but I don’t think it’s using the video games medium to its fullest. Granted, you can personalise the story by adding branching plotlines, as with Mass Effect, but you’re still constrained by things like character arcs, audience expectations (Mass Effect 3 ending anyone?), consistency, and practical logistics.  Writing a good story is hard enough — writing a branching story makes things exponentially complex.

There’s always going to be a place for big, cinematic story games (nothing beats a well written, well told story); but I believe that games that allow players to make up their own stories are the way forward as an artistic medium.  I think that’s why games like Journey left such an impression — without a predefined story and no way to verbally communicate with other players, it forces the player to come up with their own personal interpretation of the journey they experience.  They can then recount that experience to others.   I think that’s also why Minecraft has become so popular — it’s simple to play, but has almost infinite potential for making up stories and games.

However, my growing concern is that we’re going to see a regression — instead of games, I think we’re going to see more “interactive experiences”.  Big budget, summer blockbuster entertainment titles, that you don’t play or explore, so much as participate in.  Modern incarnations of Dragon’s Lair (which is beautifully animated, but not really fun).   Again, on the scale of art and entertainment, there’s place for these titles to sit, but I think it would be a great shame if those are the games that get the most funding in the future.

Human’s are natural story tellers.  Our entire civilization is founded on our natural ability to recount events and characters from the past, and imagine and foresee events and consequences that might happen in the future.  As a game designer, I think we can make more meaningful, more impactful games by tapping into this natural instinct of interpreting and reinterpreting events as stories.  Instead of spoon-feeding people hollywood-esque drivel that would make even Dan Brown cringe; we can give people the tools and settings they need to create their own worlds and realise their own stories.  That’s something only games can do.