By John Walker on June 12th, 2013 at 8:00 pm.
There are some who have argued that games just aren’t the right medium for telling stories. Pointing out that scant few games have ever produced literary works comparable with other forms, the suggestion is that gaming just isn’t a suitable place for such narrative experiences. But this argument is entirely flawed, failing to understand that gaming is home to a completely new form of storytelling, and one that is perhaps more potent and powerful than any other.
The key lies with interactivity. Certainly this is a horribly over-used word, more usually associated with having to press a PC keyboard’s elusive “start button” seventeen times in a row, before bellowing into a microphone, “FIRE! FIRE!” like a broken Alan Sugar. But interaction is something as simple as pressing Space to make the story continue, and as complex as deciding the fate of a universe based on your actions.
Such interactive storytelling breaks down into three rough categories. There are games that wish to tell you their story, and ask you to complete tasks that allow it to be told. There are games that have stories which can go in multiple directions, and allow you to choose which of these pre-determined routes to take. And there are games that provide a template in which you can tell your own story. I’m arguing that all three are exceptional.
The first is perhaps the most easily criticised. But rarely is that criticism valid. A writer has written a story, and wants you to hear it. It is linear, it is not affected by the player, and its ending is the same no matter what you do. So why not just read a book, eh? Or watch the movie? Why force this into a game?
Because when such stories are told by a game, they become something more. Perhaps even something more special. Whether we’re talking about a point-and-click adventure, or a first-person corridor shooter, encountering a story through the medium of play is a significant factor. It is not the equivalent of “turning a page in a book” by any means – it’s about a personal involvement in the events, an agency, despite its not being one that has an effect on the tale. It turns out making a difference to the story is not nearly as important as people imagine when it comes to feeling engaged with the process.
The best adventure games demonstrate it neatly. Anything from LucasArts in the 90s, Funcom in the 00s, and so many others over the last 30 years have proven this. Your involvement is solving puzzles, having conversations that lead to new revelations, engaging with the world and learning its histories. Or look at, say, the Thief games. Their future was fixed, while your route through their world was loose. You don’t define the future, but it allows you to embrace the story, hear it in a multitude of ways, be a part of it and be the process by which it proceeds. This engagement cannot be dismissed, and has allowed many gaming stories to become far more potent as a result. No, those stories wouldn’t translate well to screen or page, but that’s because they’re created for this unique means of being encountered.
Second is the evolution of that idea (and of course like evolution, the development of hairless apes does not mean there are no longer monkeys) – the story with multiple paths, and especially multiple endings. Here we unambiguously escape the notion that such things could exist better (or even equivalently) as film or novel – here the player defines her own experience. A choose-your-own-adventure perhaps is the nearest, but is really not comparable.
Here you are still ultimately bound by the stories the creator wishes to tell, but it’s essential to not consider this a bad thing. Being told someone else’s story is the very essence of storytelling, and has been for thousands of years. Standing up and booming instructions to a live play is generally frowned upon, but watching a live performance is still a great pleasure. Here we can influence the direction in which that play is heading without being asked to leave through the fire exit.
Take Dragon Age, or Knights Of The Old Republic, or all manner of BioWare games. Or Deus Ex, The Witcher 2, Fallout 3, and on and on, primarily RPGs for sure. There’s nothing that occurs in these games that wasn’t pre-determined, but enough variety is available that you can carve your own seemingly unique path through their story. Such that your decisions do directly influence the direction, and often the climax. You can talk to someone else after and be surprised by their experiences, what they saw or found that you couldn’t have known, and vice versa. There’s nothing else that can offer you storytelling like this other than games, and while it is again true that not all of those stories would be to a high enough standard to achieve classic status in other forms, it is simply disingenuous to try to judge them when removing such a massively key component – you.
Which brings us on to the third type, perhaps the most recently emerged and certainly the most exciting and full of prospect: the sandbox worlds. The games that provide a set, a cast, a genre and the all-important limitations, and then leave you to write the script.
The list of these grows ever-larger, perhaps never more starkly popularised and understood than through Minecraft. This one example captures every aspect, from the simple single-player game or wandering aimlessly, encountering situations, adapting, building, creating and exploring, to the heavily modded games-within-games, where players build their own systems in which to experience a gaming narrative, its power is perhaps too easily forgotten thanks to its overwhelming success. This is a completely new type of storytelling, something that other mediums cannot and will not ever attempt to emulate, shared only with gaming by the incredibly imaginations of children.
Games like Minecraft, in fact, return to us that precious time when we could conjure a fictional world around us, and then experience it according to our own desires. It’s a form of storytelling we all knew, then forgot. And now it’s back.
Or take Eve Online. Whatever its original intentions as a game, it has become something far greater. A space – quite literally – for telling our own elaborate epic tales. Machiavellian plots the likes of which scriptwriters would never conceive, played out in user-created circumstances with a cast played by thousands of others imprinting their own stories onto yours. It’s bewildering that it’s possible, and utterly unique to gaming. These are stories that film, literature, etc cannot even conceive of a method to tell, let alone produce something “better than”.
Such games provide us with a palette and canvas, and just enough borders to give us the courage to start painting within. Both single and multiplayer, they are a new space that has barely been explored, growing ever larger and more popular as more developers begin to understand how to provide such arenas. They take ridiculous buzzwords like “emergent” and give them meaning.
Games are the ideal place for telling great stories. These can be stories as classic as the most sustaining fairy tales, as epic as the most sprawling of fantasies. Or they can be a completely new form of story, which the player tells to himself in hindsight, as he pieces together the events he has experienced. Which, funnily enough, is the same means by which we piece together the narratives with which we interpret our own lives. Gaming is tapping into something truly human, that other media cannot even comprehend.