Narrative in video games

I am an adult

I’m not ashamed to admit that I play video games. I’m similarly not ashamed to admit that I’m old enough that I call them computer games, because I first started playing them on the ZX Spectrum in about 1983. I enjoy the escapism of them, and the sense of challenge and accomplishment, and also the bright lights and garish colours.

Sometimes I even enjoy the story. Not always. But sometimes.

Back in the early days, story consisted of “The princess has been kidnapped! [kill lots of brightly coloured monsters]…You have rescued the princess!” or “Aliens are attacking! [shoot lots of brightly coloured UFOs]…You have saved the planet!” etc. Story was just a basic framing device, a reason to assume control of a pixellated knight and start stabbing pixellated monsters or to assume control of a pixellated spaceship and start blasting pixellated xenomorphs (as if any reason were ever needed).

As the industry, technology and players aged and grew in sophistication (ha!), however, games more and more became an “interactive narrative”. I think that even in 1983 Dragon’s Lair was being presented as an “interactive cartoon” (the fact that actual cartoons did not constitute a gruelling test of fast-twitch muscle reflexes is neither here nor there). Soon enough, games became stories that the player played through.

Nowhere is this more pertinent than in the adventure game genre. In the 1990s companies such as Sierra and LucasArts gave us titles like King’s Quest, Space Quest, Day Of The Tentacle, Grim Fandango and of course the immortal Monkey Island series. It was a golden age for adventure games, and this genre literally could not have existed without the framework of a coherent and engaging story.

I am an adult

Later on, the Metal Gear Solid series, on PS, PS2 and PS3, took gaming narrative to a new, overwhelming, irritating level. Those games feel like you’re reading a story and having to play a little bit of game in between massive chunks of plot. I don’t think it helps that the exposition was all in cutscenes, as opposed to being revealed as a natural(ish) part of gameplay.

The second-generation Grand Theft Auto games (from GTA3 onwards) introduced greater and greater levels of plot, culminating, with GTA4, in a game that is heavily reliant on its storyline, a gritty tale of an Eastern European immigrant seeking gritty revenge or gritty redemption in a gritty fictional New York (plus irritating comic relief from a pathologically needy cousin).

Contemporary brain-bending retro indie platformer Braid wove an ambiguous, existential story into its time-based jumping puzzles. Fellow indie gloom-’em-up Limbo provided no narrative and no dialogue, but the (few) interactions between the protagonist and the, er, neutragonists (the interactions are too infrequent and the characters too vague to describe them as antagonists), the sense of loneliness and the beautifully subtle ending all combined to tell what was in fact a very clear and poignant (if uncomplicated) tale.

Hmm…a few paragraphs up I was about to write “games became stories that the player influenced”, but then I realised that the vast majority of games consist of a linear narrative with a player playing along “on rails”, with little or no scope for deviation from plot…which brings me onto sandbox games. The modern trend for this kind of game presents something of a problem to the storytellers. The story of a linear game can be written as a linear narrative, as you might expect, but how can a story with any depth be mapped onto a game in which a number of activities may be undertaken in any order?

Perhaps one answer is in short – or even flash – fiction. Where gameplay is composed of a number of loosely related vignettes, why not write a series of loosely related narratives for them? Why restrict yourself to one protagonist and a linear timeline? Each new level, or subgame, or activity, could take place from the point of view of a different main character, and if each new level/subgame/activity took place at the same time (from a narrative perspective) as all the others, then the player can progress through one single narrative timeline from a number of different perspectives.

I am an adult

I’m just a schmoe, however, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this has already been done and I am less of a visionary than I like to think.

Games, of course, are a very different medium from traditional narrative entertainments such as television, theatre, literature – for one thing the “reader” is actively involved as opposed to viewing passively – and ultimately we don’t play games for the story, we play them for the gameplay. But in 2011, some 30 years on from the days of guiding a frog across a busy road, it’s clear that although a story can exist without a game, a game cannot exist without a story (however flimsy). So why aren’t we seeing more, better stories within our games?

I assume that the time it takes to develop a compelling story is one factor. Most games are a ruthlessly commercial enterprise,and development times are such that I imagine there to be little room for a writer to agonise over structure, or characterisation, or subtleties of plot. Smaller, independent games might get a little more freedom, but the majority, I suspect, will always (rightly, I admit) prioritise game development over plot development.

But there are plenty of plots out there, already fully formed. The film industry knows this; if Hollywood were prevented from optioning books and short stories (primarily by Philip K. Dick, as far as I can tell) then the flow of films would slow to a trickle, I’m sure.

Will we ever see the day when books are optioned for games? I don’t know, but it’s an exciting thought.


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