By John Walker on August 21st, 2007 at 11:25 am.
GCDC provides another interesting debate, this time on the subject of story in games. Specifically, that games shouldn’t even try to make them more complex, as they’re simply no good at it. Say the writers of stories in games.
Bethesda’s Ken Rolston and adventure veteran (and man responsible for the frattish Spellcasting series in the early 90s), Bob Bates, both agreed that, “our inability to pay off on all the choices that there should be available. It’s so difficult to make a genuinely complex dramatic choice,” in the words of Rolston. Which is, essentially, an argument against non-linearity in games. Which I strongly argue is a good thing.
In the world of storytelling, non-linearity has only ever existed as a novelty, perhaps a choose-your-own-adventure, or idiotic stunt on the BBC to let viewers call in and “decide” what happens next. But books, television and film have always survived rather well without letting the consumer dictate the story for them. Frankly, if you’ve got a story worth telling, the last thing you should be doing is letting anyone else get in the way. Games find themselves in a more awkward position, as progression becomes rather dependent on the player interacting in some way. And for most elements of a game, from killing to constructing, this interaction is necessary. But leave the story in the hands of the storyteller.
As Barthes would argue, we’ve got plenty of room for uniquely interpreting and the deriving meaning from a text, without the text allowing us to physically manipulate it. If we’re to be told a story worth hearing, it’s ending (or in rare cases its novelty multiple endings – having five completely valid endings to your story, and letting the player pick, is a clever move. So long as you really do have that many valid endings, which is rarely the case) needs to be set in stone from the start. It’s exciting to see developers responsible for storytelling openly recognising this, rather than the more familiar fanciful boasts of futuristic games where the infinite possibilities for a story can lay in the hands of the player. Because players would tell rubbish stories, compared to those of great writers.
However, things go a bit more wonky when Bates replies, “As an author of a story you have to push a character into doing things it wouldn’t want to do in order to grow the character. As a game designer it’s not fair to make the player have to do that.” Here my heart sinks.
This is precisely what a game can and should be doing. Replaying The Longest Journey after a number of years, it strikes me again how strongly the main character, April Ryan, grows as a character through the adversity the game forces you to experience. Your interaction is in finding the means of turning the page, but the contents of the following pages are not yours to control. And in this particular case, especially with the continuing story in Dreamfall, April is put into circumstances that both you as a player and she as a character desperately wish for anything but. Because this grows her, and in turn you, as a character. And TLJ is not unique in this.
To recognise the limitations of a narrative within interaction fiction is very wise. To impose further limitations on narrative because it is within interactive fiction is devastating. If there is a valid risk to be taken in gaming today, it’s to let the player not be a hero for once.