Interviewed in the latest episode of Game Theory with Scott Steinberg (below), Lord Richard Garriott of Britain explains that as far as game narratives may have come, be believes they're still falling far short of those in books and films. He says,
"I don't think we've yet mastered the techniques of true interactive storytelling."
You can see the full interview, along with contributions from Charles Cecil, Jane Jenson, Bob Bates and others, in the third episode of this new series, this time focusing on game narrative. Oh, and I have a little rant, too.
Here's the full episode:
I couldn't agree more with Garriott if I studied for my PhD in Garriot Agreement. While my favourite games are those which have the strongest stories (Planescape: Torment, The Longest Journey, Deus Ex, Portal), they're still exceptions, and while there's certainly something unique about the way we can experience a narrative through gaming, they still fall short of the storytelling in the best books and cinema. Watching the episode, it makes me pretty sad that so many seem to think that we've mastered game narrative if we let the players interact during the cutscenes.
The episode sets out the idea that we're currently in some sort of resurgence for storytelling within games, by citing a few recent examples. But pick any year in the last 30 and you can do exactly the same. It's been a pressing issue with notable attempts ever since the first interactive fiction. While games have succeeded in incrementally improving their graphics, it's hard to identify any significant progress with story in over at least a decade. As Legend Entertainment founder Bob Bates says in the episode,
"I'm not surprised that storytelling is back. I don't know that it ever left. It's just that we're not very good at it. Still."
The consensus seems to be that it's a work in progress, something the medium is still trying to work out. And it's a discussion I'd love to be had more often. Rhianna Pratchett points out that writing game stories is far harder than she'd ever realised when she was working as a critic. But I think her conclusion that she'd therefore been too harsh when criticising story is a seriously wrong one. Just because it's very difficult to make something that isn't poor doesn't mean a critic shouldn't identify it as poor. In fact, quite the opposite. The more people refuse to put up with the gibberish that narrates the majority of games, the more likely something will be done about it.
I passionately believe that the way we can experience story through games is unique, distinguishable from that of film, television or books. Even if a narrative is completely linear, it is dependent upon our progression to proceed. Certainly we can press pause on a DVD or refuse to turn the page of a book, but these actions are not comparable with the interactive nature of our propelling a game story forward. If we must solve a puzzle, reach a room, make a logical leap, kill an enemy, or engage with a character, this action is capable of transforming our involvement and our cognitive relationship with the experience. Game stories are special. But they're rarely better than weak. And while there have been fantastic stories in games, it's hard not to accept that what we really mean is "fantastic stories bearing in mind they're for games." Game stories have literally changed my life. I don't deny that there have been great moments. But I would argue that gaming is seemingly still years away from its 1984, its Slaughterhouse 5, its Annie Hall.