The Evolution of Video Game Narrative- Part 1

For the past few decades video games have been an ever-evolving entertainment medium and part of that evolution has been the progression of video game narrative. Most of us can think of a number of occasions where we were genuinely engaged by the characters, backstory or plot of a video game, but something I see repeatedly is even the most widely praised video game narratives being branded as bland and lacklustre by some, and people asking why video games don’t resonate with them in the same way their favourite books, television programmes, or movies do. I believe that among the thousands of video games that exist there are some with truly great narratives, however I also believe the criticisms against modern storytelling in video games are highly valid and something that sooner or later the industry will have to take into account in creating new games. Here I want to look at the limitations games face as a storytelling medium and the possible solutions to these problems.

The Theory of Revolution

 There are more constraints on video games writers than most people realise.
 There are more constraints on video games writers than most people realise.

Some believe that we’ll see a revolution in video game narrative when writers start giving us deeper characters and stories. While I agree that writers could do a lot more to give us richer and better-rounded characters and stories, modern video games give writers a lot of limitations with the kinds of characters and stories they can create, and I’m sceptical that the improvement of characters and stories alone will provide the massive metamorphosis in game narrative that some are expecting.

Some say that video game stories have ruined themselves by borrowing too heavily from the world of cinema. Personally I think the influence of cinema on both the visuals and narrative of video games has done a great deal of good and I don’t think the cinematic style should be stripped away entirely. The problem is a lot of the people asking video games to be “less Hollywood” rarely have an answer as to how video games should tell stories without using the same techniques we see in films.

Some people point to video games acting as power fantasies as the fundamental trend damaging narrative, but I believe this is often a misguided accusation. Arguably all games need to be power fantasies to be true games, or at least to be vaguely good games. The player may be just one person but if they can’t see their actions having an impact on the immediate play-space around them then they’re not going to see any point in them playing the game. I believe what people actually want is the illusion that the game is less of a power fantasy; even if players are going to be tearing through the world, having a dramatic effect on the variables laying under the hood, if the industry stops repeatedly giving players the impression that they are infinitely powerful and important then in many cases the player is going to be able to have a more relatable and realistic experience. Once again though, there are limitations that make it hard for writers and designers to remove the illusion of the power fantasy, and even if they can do it I don’t think this will be enough to revolutionise video game narrative.

The Great Divide

 In many cases there's still a significant gap between gameplay and story.
 In many cases there's still a significant gap between gameplay and story.

While a good video game will make your progression through its world feel relatively smooth and seamless, it doesn’t take much deconstruction of most video games to identify the staunch divides between story and gameplay. Most games can be firmly divided into narrative sections (cinematics, times at which characters are conversing) and non-narrative sections (any time when you’re involved in the main gameplay).

If we look at the way books, films, etc. use narrative it’s clear that when it comes to building a story, the creators have a blank slate upon which they can etch any world, characters, and plot they wish, however when a video game writer sits down to do their job they’re confronted with the task of working within the tight constraints the designer has created for them. They are given strict parameters to which their story must adhere to fit in with the gameplay and the small windows of non-narrative sections limit how much substantial story exposition and meaningful interactions between characters they can present. It’s somewhat of an achievement that writers are able to create a meaningful story experience at all when about 95% of most modern game narratives actually consist of someone just running around, attacking people, and collecting items; when implemented properly these activities are great fun but not overly compelling from a story perspective.

Some have argued that the requirement of the story to be weaved around the gameplay is one reason why video games can’t meet many definitions of the word “art” and I think there’s some merit to the argument. A regular artist or writer decides on themes, emotions or concepts they wish to work with and creates their work solely around these ideas, meaning the entire work encompasses and conveys their vision. Video games on the other hand may be inspired in their gameplay design by certain emotions, themes, or concepts but their gameplay and narrative almost never work together in a way that purely conveys these ideas, instead most gameplay remains a system of calculated logic and numbers over which the story then has to be draped. Given this it’s understandable why many see video games as falling so far short of other storytelling mediums.

Breaking the Pattern

 First-person shooters are great but there are only so many stories about shooting things, right?
 First-person shooters are great but there are only so many stories about shooting things, right?

If you want to know why so many action-oriented video games depict war, violence and other human conflicts just look at the gameplay of these games. These games are highly oriented around the idea of real-time competition and the logical way of depicting this is through people fighting. It’s very hard to imagine most first-person shooters or action-adventure games without them being about the same things every action movie in existence is about; subjects like war, violent rebellion, and assassinations. It’s not just the action games though, try and imagine a management sim that isn’t about running a location or business, or a racing game that isn’t about racing vehicles.

What’s more most games pushing the envelope of interactive entertainment as a means of storytelling only do so by removing a large amount of focus from gameplay. Heavy Rain is an excellent example of this, it’s a game that many consider one of the greatest examples of video game storytelling there has ever been, however the way in which it manages to tell its story paints a worrying picture of what video game narratives are capable of under modern development techniques. The only way that Heavy Rain was able to work was by making its gameplay so basic that it was nothing more than a series of quick-time events. Looking at the amount of story exposition the game required and the subjects the story dealt with, it becomes obvious that a game like Heavy Rain just couldn’t have existed as part of any major game genre like third-person shooters or hack-and-slash action games.

So, does this mean that when it comes to story video games are eternally doomed to lurk in the shadow of every other entertainment medium out there? I don’t think so at all. Video games have been able to learn a lot from other forms of entertainment so far and that’s great, but if they are to become a truly be a great storytelling medium in their own right then it’s going to make some time to figure out how.

Duder, It’s Temporarily Suspended

This is going to be a bit of a long piece in whole so I thought I’d pause here for now. Apologies for the cliffhanger but I’ll be posting part 2 next week. Until then thanks for reading, good luck, and have Batman.