[In a wide-ranging article, former Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts narrative designer Stephen Dinehart looks at the future of game story by examining narrative theory through the ages.]
A New Paradigm
What is the future of video games? This is a large, if not insurmountable
question, especially when considering the increasing diversification of styles
within the medium. Indie, casual, core, mature -- the labels continue to
proliferate, identifying specialized niches of styles, however real or unreal,
within the larger medium.
Forming at present is
a new niche, one that threatens to pull away from the classic play-centric
design paradigm. It's forming in the cubicles over at Visceral,
at BioWare, at Ubisoft and at 38 Studios.
Many studios are aiming with different titles and terms, but the
goal is to transplant the player into the video game by all means of his visual
and aural faculties -- into a believable drama where he is actor. This is
dramatic play; interactive drama that utilizes interaction, rather than
description, to tell a story.
Aristotle began the movement some 2300 years ago with his Poetics,
dissecting plays into clear parts and functions [Aristotle 330 BCE]. Some 2000+ years
later, Richard Wagner saw a dissolving of the fourth wall of theater, bringing
the audience into the play as actors so that the stage art may breathe like
life, and seemed to them to be as expansive as the real world [Wagner 1859].
Through the next 130 years various studies and pioneers would set
out on a pursuit to hit that mark: happenings, video installations,
virtual reality, just to name a few. Though the target was
never reached and the pursuit itself seemed to fall into the land of the
obscure, and intellectual, without much effect on the everyday life of the
public and how they experience stories. With the dawn of popular video game
culture, the pursuit has gained a refined focus.
Janet Murray described how it would feel in Wagner's world of
immersive interactive story [Murray 1998], and most recently Michael Mateas
with his creation Façade and the
accompanying paper Interactive Drama, Art, and Artificial Intelligence set
out a detailed approach to creating dramatic systems [Mateas 2002].
This seemingly obscure pursuit has leaked, via some osmosis, into
contemporary AAA video game development, manifesting in such titles as Jade Empire, Dead Space,
Far Cry 2, World of Warcraft
and the author's own Company of Heroes.
These games seek to immerse the player in a dramatic role play, whereby they
assume the role of character in a different time and place, and whose actions
and presence having meaning in the world as designed.
Dramatic play is the new niche these games expound upon, a
paradigm that is the focus of interactive narrative design, a craft that meets
at the apex of ludology and narratology and conjoins the theories into
functional video game development methodologies (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Interactive Narrative Design
is the theory of play commonly used by contemporary game makers in the pursuit
to understand and craft interactive systems. Play is defined as "movement within a
system" [Salen, Zimmerman 2003].
Narratology is the theory of narratives, which is
utilized by writers, critics, and academics, to understand the parts and
functions of narrative texts, cultural artifacts that "tell a story"
[Bal 1994]. Narrative
is dramatic text that engages the reader in a pattern. Interactive narrative
is a dramatic text that engages the player in a meaningful participatory