[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.]
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
Ludology 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 pattern.