[Game writer and designer Chuck Jordan (Telltale's Sam & Max, Strongbad) visits ways in which games interact with the player narratively and offers a new way of looking at player interaction with story in our medium.]
As game developers continue to define how video games can be used for storytelling, the predominant challenge is the tension between story -- the developer's predetermined narrative -- and gameplay -- the player's interaction with the game. A slightly different way of framing the problem is not as the tension between story and gameplay, but as the tension between video games as a medium and video games as an activity.
Imagine a continuum with An Inconvenient Truth at one extreme and Tetris at the other. One is completely literal: it exists solely to convey an explicit message from the creator to the audience. The other is completely abstract: it has no message, but exists solely to provide an environment in which the audience can play. One is media; the other is activity.
Any video game -- or for that matter, any film, book, television program, album, dance performance, any creative work -- can be placed somewhere along that continuum, based on a single criterion: "What, if anything, is this work trying to communicate?"
As thought experiments go, this one is admittedly pretty facile, but it's useful for a few reasons:
First, it places no value judgment on either extreme. Discussions about video game content (as opposed to video game mechanics) are often filled with loaded terms like fun and meaning.
These can often derail the discussion into unproductive tangents as people defend ideas that were never under attack: "Games don't have to mean anything!" "Gameplay is meaning!" "Focusing on 'fun' above all else is infantilizing the medium!"
It also avoids the tendency to dismiss abstract, "casual" games as more shallow than storytelling games; or, conversely, to claim that purity of abstract gameplay is of the utmost importance, and that anyone who wants to make a more linear, storytelling game should instead be making movies.
Second, it avoids making a distinction between story and gameplay. Focusing on the overall message -- instead of story as set dressing for a game, or shallow gameplay that's bolstered by an interesting story -- means treating both components as parts of a common whole.
Most of all, it acknowledges the significance of communication in game design, not just presentation. If a video game developer chooses to tell a story with her game, then she's placed her project towards the "media" end of the continuum. She has to think about what ideas the game is trying to communicate.
There tends to be a knee-jerk revulsion to any classification of games as media, or the discussion of games as being primarily story-driven. The objection is that doing so somehow violates the purity and value of game design for its own sake.
But using video games as a storytelling medium doesn't trivialize game design, any more than using films to tell stories trivializes the arts of cinematography or film editing. Any artist choosing a medium has a responsibility to determine what's unique about that medium, and how to use the medium to its fullest potential.
The unique aspect of video games as a medium is, of course, their interactivity. They provide ongoing, immediate, systematic, rules-based, bidirectional communication between the creator and the audience. This is also known as "gameplay."
When we think about the process of narrative game design in this way, the typical distinction between story and gameplay seems even more out of place. It makes little sense to draw a line separating "thinking" from "doing," or "developer's narrative" versus "player's narrative." That would imply the creator and audience are speaking entirely different languages, engaged in completely separate activities that only occasionally intersect at cutscenes.
But cutscenes and scripted events aren't the narrative. The entire game is the narrative, and the story is told via the one thing that makes the medium unique: gameplay. The objective of the game is to get to the end of the story, and the rules of the game are the constraints on the player's character(s). Cutscenes and scripted events introduce or clarify the rules: this character is an obstacle, this path is no longer accessible, this crystal shard of darkest magick is now an objective.
It's not a dramatic redefinition, but a subtle shift in philosophy. It's not the case that the developer's engaged in telling a story while the player's engaged in an activity; it's the case that they're both collaborating in the process of telling a story.
And the language of the storytelling isn't what we've borrowed from traditional media -- dialogue, cinematography, set design, etc. -- but the language of gameplay, that bidirectional communication between developer and player.
The developer presents a new rule or new scenario, the player provides some input, and the game responds. That cycle of input and feedback is the most fundamental element of video game communication, it's what makes interactive entertainment unique among storytelling media, and it's how video game stories provide all their meaning to the player.
It's also positioned halfway between the extremes of storytelling game design: traditional narrative vs. systematic game mechanics, linearity and control vs. open-endedness and unpredictability, art vs. science, innate talent vs. rigorous study, subjectivity vs. objectivity, intuition vs. observation.
So it's useful simply to look at individual moments when a video game resonates with the player on a level that's only possible in the medium of interactive entertainment. How do games transcend the mode of two independent monologues, the developer's voice and the player's voice? How does a game close the loop of communication from player to developer and then back to the player?