I recently said something in class about how narrative- or story-based video games haven’t developed much beyond branching events, and a someone mentioned open world games like Grand Theft Auto were very sophisticated story-driven games. Players could follow the main story-arc and finish the game, or they could focus on side-missions or no missions at all, if they want to.
I couldn’t express the missing potential of story-driven games at the time, but I’ll try now. Basically, interactive stories are still following the storytelling conventions of older media like movies and books. As they evolve, however, the old distinctions between “player,” “author,” and “character” will blur. The player of a game will not just take the role of a character in a predetermined story, but will increasingly be the author or creator of their own story.
For example, if we were to create a game based on a well-known story like Harry Potter, or Lord or the Rings, there are a few possible approaches:
- Enable players to play the role of an established character (like Harry Potter or Gandalf) who goes through a story described in the books, or through a similar adventure within the narrative structure established by the books.
- Enable players to create their own characters and go through a series of adventures within the established bounds of the books. This might be a sequel or a set of re-worked plots the player can choose from.
- Enable players to control an established character or create their own characters and take them on an adventure that goes beyond a preconceived plot unanticipated by the game designers or authors of the original books.
This last item is what I mean by the potential of interactive stories. In a truly interactive game within an “open-world” setting, you might control Harry Potter to drop out of Hogwarts and become a master criminal. Or Hermione might become the first Wizard Queen of England. In a truly open-world framework, narrative choices can be mixed-and-matched the way physical objects in Minecraft can be combined.
The personalities of other characters you encounter might be proceduraly generated the same way the terrain is generated in Minecraft, or how entire planets are created in No Man’s Sky:
To build a triple-A game, hundreds of artists and programmers collaborate in tight coordination: nearly every pixel in Grand Theft Auto’s game space has been attentively worked out by hand. Murray realized early that the only way a small team could build a title of comparable impact was by using procedural generation, in which digital environments are created by equations that process strings of random numbers. The approach had been used in 1984, for a space game called Elite, which Murray played as a child. Mark Riedl, the director of Georgia Tech’s Entertainment Intelligence Lab, told me, “Back in those days, games had a lot of procedural generation, because memory on computers was very small; it was largely forgotten, but now it is being rediscovered.” (Minecraft, an expansive world that was designed by only one person, also uses the technique).
In traditional stories, the protagonist (the main character) starts out in a particular situation and then something happens to her, and her reaction propels the story forward. There are very few stories in which the protagonist initiates the story. Interactive stories have the potential for players to be the creators as well as the protagonists (and antagonists) of their own stories. I think the recent release of Minecraft Stories (though I haven’t played it yet) points to this potential.
For writers, directors, and producers accustomed to working in film or novels, player-controlled adventures represent a loss of control and possibly a degradation of quality because players might wander around willy-nilly shooting at things or otherwise upsetting the orderly narrative arc that unites a story’s beginning, middle, and end. Storytelling itself is the oldest human art form — it evolved long before the visual arts — and thus its rules and conventions are deeply ingrained. Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, set forth 7 key elements of storytelling, which people have been trying to adapt to interactive stories. But the basic problem is built into the word itself: Story-telling, rather than Story-experiencing. The first tells an already concluded story to a passive audience, while the second recruits the audience in constructing a unique story with every performance.
It’s also worth noting, storytelling is a natural urge. Game-players tell stories all the time, as they relate the action and drama they experienced playing a game.
George Lucas, writer of Star Wars Episodes 1-3, said video games can’t have plot. Here’s a bit of what they said: “If you just let everybody [players] go in and do whatever they want then it’s not a story anymore. It’s simply a game,” Lucas explained. “And so you just have to make the divide between games and stories. The big deal is that videogames are going to have more character… But you’re not going to have a plot that says, you know… it’s not going to be Shakespeare.”
In fact there are several adaptations of Shakespeare’s work in video games, drawing in varying degrees from his poems and plays. Perhaps the most ambitious was Arden: The World of William Shakespeare, a massive multiplayer roleplaying game that was eventually discontinued because it wasn’t very fun. Any genius emerging from interactive media will be the result of the creativity of both player as well as designer. As Bill Shakespeare himself wrote, “The Play’s the thing.”
… Spielberg spoke more to games still being obsessed with the idea of “score,” and points — systems that can dehumanize and reduce empathy. “I think the key divide between interactive media and the narrative media that we do is the difficulty in opening up an empathic pathway between the gamer and the character,” he said. “You watch [a cut scene], and you get kind of involved with what the story is, and you hate the bad guy because he murders people in an airport and stuff like that, and then all of a sudden it’s time to take the controller. And the second you get the controller something turns off in the heart. And it becomes a sport.”
Steven Spielberg seems to think that a game can’t produce good stories if it keeps score, “it becomes a sport,” evidently forgetting all the great sports stories, movies and books. His mention of a cut scene (non-interactive videos inserted into games for advancing the plot) is also significant because cut scenes are widely regarded by gamers as vestigial, non-interactive holdovers from the movie industry. From Wikipedia:
Director Steven Spielberg, director Guillermo del Toro, and game designer Ken Levine, all avid video gamers, criticized the use of cut scenes in games, calling them intrusive. Spielberg states that making story flow naturally into the gameplay is a challenge for future game developers. Hollywood writer Danny Bilson called cinematics the “last resort of game storytelling,” as a person doesn’t want to watch a movie when they are playing a video game. Game designer Raph Koster criticized cut scenes as being the part that has “the largest possibility for emotional engagement, for art dare we say,” while also being the bit that can be cut with no impact on the actual gameplay. Koster claims that because of this, many of the memorable peak emotional moments in video games are actually not given by the game itself at all. It is a common criticism that cut scenes simply belong to a different medium.
Finally, if you’re curious about the blog post’s reference to Lucas “biting Akira Kurosawa films,” check out this fascinating youtube video about how Lucas adapted many of Kurosawa’s themes and technique.
Anyone can tell a story describing how they overcame an obstacle in a game or the moments of high drama leading up to a come-from-behind victory.
We shouldn’t, however, underestimate Grand Theft Auto’s great achievement in pushing the limits of ‘cinematic’ storytelling. Here’s an excerpt from an Interview with Dan Houser, lead designer of Grand Theft Auto V:
“Like all fiction, games are transportive, yet what makes them unique is that you follow your own eyes through the world,” says Houser. “Games are, at one level, a progression on from a film – you jump off a cliff rather than a stuntman jumping off a cliff – but open-world games are actually more than that. It’s the being rather than the doing. You’re going to see different things than another player, and when you walk up a hill yourself and see the sun setting on the ocean, that’s a lot different to me taking a camera up there and making you see it.”
As for that ambitious plot, you now control three protagonists instead of one, planning and performing elaborate heists as meticulously as anything out of Heat or Drive. You’re able to switch between these three characters in real-time as you create your own action set-pieces and personal dramas, an evolving score by Tangerine Dream’s Edgar Froese building tension around you. Then there’s the usual star-studded radio stations, featuring 240 licensed songs, from Bootsy Collins to Tyler The Creator. If Rockstar is the director, we’re the editor.
“Having three protagonists allows us to create nuanced stories, not a set of archetypes,” says Houser. “Rather than seeming like you’ve got this super-criminal who can do everything effortlessly, they’re all good and bad at different things.” It also led to the creation of more rounded, believable characters. “We liked the idea of a protagonist retiring with a family, and how awful that would be. We’ve never done anything like that and you don’t really see it in games – to feed into these concepts of parenting and pseudo-parenting.”