Making Games (More) Capable of Storytelling

As you might have guessed from some of my earlier posts, I’m fascinated by storytelling in video games, but I also feel like there are some severe impediments to narrative engagement in the way games are currently designed. I find it useful to criticize what games might be doing that actively screws up narrative engagement, like letting your protagonist die repeatedly, but in a way, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. An even greater issue, I’d argue, is in the range of input and interaction techniques that games offer, effectively pre-determining what kinds of stories get told.

There’s a reason games feature so much military sci-fi—Halo, Gears of War, Mass Effect, etc. You see, following orders and shooting enemies are practically built into every story. Giving a greater sense of agency is hard. Thinking outside the box about what is supposed to happen in stories may be even harder, at least for creators working in this medium.

Granted, video games may now offer a superior shoot-em-up to what you’d find in other media. I don’t even really enjoy most movies of this sort much anymore because I can’t help but think, I’d rather be playing this. But there’s still a lot games can’t—or haven’t bothered—to do, and I find myself looking to other media to find those sorts of stories. I’ve even found myself thinking up positive reviews of movies just because they have plots that wouldn’t work in games, at least insofar as games are made now. I loved Children of Men, at least in part because it had been so long since I had encountered an enjoyable escort mission.

Just think about some of your favorite books, TV shows, and movies, and ask yourself why they couldn’t have been done as games. Ask yourself: What happens in this plot? How much of it is concerned with killing enemies versus, say, character interaction?

The easy counter-argument is that games, as a medium, are biased to telling certain kinds of stories more effectively than others. I see sense in this, and it works both ways. I don’t think Bioshock will make a very interesting movie when it gets adapted because the most exciting things about it were inextricably tied to the player’s sense of control (or conscious lack thereof). But that argument need not preclude entire narrative genres or types of scenes and interaction.

A few games give hints of what other kinds of content are possible. Jenova Chen’s flOw and Cloud pretty well demonstrate that games don’t need to be about excitement and arousal; relaxation and serenity are equally valid types of engagement. Mass Effect demonstrates that there are ways to figure conversation and relationships into the actual gameplay in a way that can be just as engaging as action sequences—a much more nuanced form of choice-making and character interaction than the simple “kill or don’t kill” situations in Bioshock and Grand Theft Auto IV.

Realizing that I spend a lot of time criticizing what games are but not really offering in concrete terms what they could be, I started chatting with some friends recently about what I’d like to see in games. This started with a conversation in a long car ride with my friend Keith, and carried over into an IM conversation with my friend (and regular Geek Studies commenter) Jordan. Some notes from this conversation (edited for punctuation and capitalization) included:

Jason: Video games have yet to come up with a robust system for talking to people as an actual element of gameplay, as opposed to just watching a cut scene. …

[Mass Effect, while good,] runs the risk of feeling like you’re just making your way through a pre-written cut scene, but there is some feeling of interactivity and control, perhaps because your choices have consequences in terms of other gameplay mechanics—like, punching that guy out gets you two renegade points. This will bring you closer to becoming more intimidating in the long run, potentially opening up other conversation options that might otherwise be locked off to you. Sometimes this has major ramifications in the progression of the narrative, as some conversations can potentially lead to life-and-death situations for major characters.

Now, this is neat, but it’s only a start, in my opinion. If you were to have a whole game based around character development and interpersonal interaction, I feel like you’d need more to draw upon—e.g., make conversation real-time: power to interrupt, options for using body language, consequences for waiting too long to answer a question, etc.

Jordan: Also, what if those choices were made through button actions or combos instead of choosing from a list [like in Mass Effect and earlier games]?  That could be particularly interesting with motion control tech.

Jason: Exactly. I was thinking that, when in “conversation mode,” you could exit that mode by hitting back, but all the other controls would change for that mode. … So left stick controls where your head is looking, right stick for camera angle. Each of the four major buttons on the right moves the conversation in any of a number of directions. So you could move the left stick up and down to nod quietly, get chewed out by a conversation partner for not appearing to listen, looking around the room while talking, click the right stick to change camera angle, maybe even engage some of the other in-game actions.

Let’s say you’re playing a private investigator. The triggers are completely analog controls. Press left trigger normally, and it draws and aims your weapon. Press it slowly, only depress halfway, and you pull back the edge of your jacket to reveal you’re packing heat. I like the idea of a game with a gun that you might never even need to draw.

This kind of thing is doable with the technology available now—whether it’s sellable to publishers and audiences is another matter entirely.

I was heartened to read today, however, that this isn’t entirely crazy, pie-in-the-sky fantasy. Writing about a Fable 2 demo, Kotaku remarks:

Almost all cut-scenes are interactive in the game, in fact there is less than five minutes worth of non-interactive cut-scenes in the entire game. During the rest of them you can react, by using your D-pad to perform expressions, laugh, frown, even fart when someone is talking. You can evil kill a person in the middle of a cut-scene, cutting it short and drastically changing the missions, Molyneux said.

I tend to keep most of my game design ideas to myself just because I have other things on my plate, and I suspect some of it sounds crazy and farfetched to those who think either GTA IV or Wii Sports represent the pinnacle of game design. I find it reassuring and a little exciting to see I’m not the only one thinking about the alternatives, though—and I’ll be curious to see whether it catches on.

5 thoughts on “Making Games (More) Capable of Storytelling

  1. I wonder if the complexity could be sufficiently rewarding without becoming overwhelming.

    OTOH, I like the idea of a female NPC becoming annoyed if you look at her breasts.

  2. I actually think it would be overwhelming to many players, but no worse than the same way that most combat-oriented games are overwhelming. (That’s another issue I’m still working through in a post in progress.) I mean, GTA IV is the biggest game launch ever, but just look at the controls.

  3. I would like to see the eradication of all cut scenes from time. Any game that can’t get a narrative across inside actual gameplay is not trying hard enough. Or is too attached to filmic narrative.

    While I suppose the direct attachment to military-ish shooters in the game industry is based on the usually correct notion that people will without much hesitation buy them, I’d wager that these scenarios offer the sort of clear goals that can be mapped easily onto the sorts of polygon-filled spatial wonderlands that gaming platforms cheerfully support. There are other sorts of structures of engagement in gaming play beyond move-from-point-a-to-point-b-while-accomplishing-goal-x, like tidying up (think billiards) and parameter exploration (seeing if its possible to blow up that helicopter in GTA) but none map so easily onto a desire for non-gaming narrative and a need for interactivity.

    Personally I’d like to see gaming move away from narrative, at least the sort that tells me a story instead of allowing me to compose my own. And choose-your-own-adventure cut scenes aren’t enough.

  4. In a few scenes, I think Heavy Rain did approach what we discussed here. It’s hard for me to describe which without revealing a lot of spoilers, but if I can be forgiven for vagueness, there are a couple of scenes in which convoluted sequences of button-prompts (or shockingly straightforward sequences with immediate and disturbing consequences) sort of reinforced the emotional impact of the scene.

    The problem was that the vast majority of control prompts in the game were just that—prompts. What we described in the above post offered a great deal more agency to players, which would admittedly be more difficult to develop for. Too much of Heavy Rain felt like a slideshow in which the only real interaction was clicking “next” … only “next” required a strange, arbitrary sequence of buttons.

    I have a post I have been planning to write along these lines; thanks for reminding me to get back to it.

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