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Soapbox: Active Storytelling in Games


July 7, 2005
 

Disclaimer: I speak for myself, and kind of as a customer (not so much as a developer).

I've been doing a lot of reading about storytelling in games, about compelling narrative. However, I find myself wondering if this is really the correct vocabulary for the next stage of video game development. Is it worthwhile to tell a story with a game? Can it even be done? Ultimately, I believe the point may be completely moot, because games are interactive, not passive.

Which is to say, when you read a book or watch a movie, you are, in a way, a passive recipient of the creator's storytelling. You can turn the page prematurely, or pause the DVD, but generally, you experience the story elements of a novel or movie the same way as any other passive audience member. Games are not a passive medium, as they require player interaction. Consequently, no two players will have identical experiences (or stories to tell afterwards).

I don't think we're going to get where we're headed by employing techniques of passive media in our games. In fact, I believe that we are on the cusp of a tipping point for video game development, in which we are just beginning to explore the possibilities that our nonlinear, interactive medium affords us, in terms of player experience and contextualization.


Illustrated by Greg Brauch
Contextualization?

I say "contextualization", because I believe that creating a context for action is the valid goal of the video game developer. I don't believe that telling a story or narrating is the correct way to approach this. What the hell am I talking about? That is a good question.

In the early days of game development, programmers were severely restricted by the amount of information that could be crammed into a game. Consequently, the manual often told the story and introduced major characters.

When I was a kid, I'd buy these games with box art that depicted wizards and dragons and aliens and barbarian warriors with gleaming swords. Then, I'd turn on my Atari or Intellivision or whatever, and there would be a red square on the screen. I'd make the red square go over to this part of the screen and I'd push the button, and some dots would come out of the red square, and the green square would go away. And I'd say, the dragon is dead! Because the green square was gone! Then I'd watch Thundercats. You know why? Cheetara, that's why.

But look - my actions in those old games were contextualized by the fantasy world that I had bought into. I saw the box art for the game, I saw the warrior battling the evil monster and I thought, yes, that looks cool. You got into it, you saw what you were hoping to see. If you didn't get that context, the images on the screen were cool, but a little confusing.

Manuals played a similar part in the contextualization of abstract images on the screen. You'd read the manual and say, oh, okay, those circles are Martians. I'm fighting Martians. Sweet. And then you'd play the game with a new appreciation. Take that, you green bastards.

In fact, to this day, many games still feature a blurb in the manual that clumsily contextualizes the game world for the player. The question is, why? After all, the player has presumably already read the text on the box, and has no doubt played the game as well. The player already knows what world he or she is visiting. What is the purpose of this information in the manual? A large part of this is tradition. After all, we no longer require the manual to contextualize our actions for us. Games have evolved to the point where we can now create a great deal of context in-game.

However, because of the various technological restrictions that hinder our characters' ability to emote, the cinematic sequence became a vehicle for the contextualization of player action. The cut-scene is a method of storytelling borrowed from film, inappropriate for the interactive world of gaming. It was a necessary evil, though. It enables the developer to engage the player for a moment, and show him or her a carefully choreographed series of events that would serve to contextualize the next round of action.

The cinematic would also reward the player for completing a goal or mission, by advancing the storyline, which also contextualized the player's actions once interactivity resumed.

Cinematic is a Four-letter Word

There are two fundamental problems with the cinematic sequence.

First, many developers are good at creating gameplay, but god-awful storytellers. You know this to be true. Master of unlocking? Holy crap, where's the mute button?

Cinematic sequences vary wildly in terms of quality, and many leave a great deal to be desired. For instance, many cinematics are simply too long, and frustrate the player. How many times have you put down fifty bucks for a game, popped it in, grabbed the controller, ready to rock, only to discover that during your first twenty minutes of game experience, you were only permitted five minutes of gameplay? The rest of the time, you were a spectator to some badly-directed and poorly-written computer-generated movies. They were intended to contextualize the game for you, but in reality, they postponed the fun and made you impatient.

Disgusted, you began to skip through them. Then, you started to play the game, but it didn't make that much sense to you, because you didn't know what was going on. You weren't sure why you were in London. Weren't you just in an airplane? If only you'd finished watching the cut-scene, you'd know why you're in the streets of London right now. And where the hell you're supposed to be going. Damn, now you have to read the manual.

The second problem: the cut-scene is inherently inappropriate, regardless of quality.

It is not an interactive storytelling method. In a way, it is a letdown for the player. The player, after all, is expecting an interactive experience, but is forced to endure a passive one. The player is forced to relinquish control of the game. Then, after it's over, the player can return to the previously scheduled action sequences, which have hopefully been contextualized by all of this passive media. Even if the cut-scenes are well-executed, it's still reducing a participant to the role of audience member.

The New Breed

However, this is gradually becoming less necessary. Like the blurb in the manual, this method of storytelling is a holdover, a relic from an early stage of game development. Many recent games have explored in-game contextualization to the extent that passive storytelling is no longer necessary.

For example, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. A cinematic sequence introduces the game, but without it, the game's action remains meaningful and valid. The game's context is furnished constantly through a steady stream of conversations with NPCs, and via hundreds of pages of text found in books and scrolls that the player can read as desired (or ignore completely). The player is in control of the story, as well as the action. Furthermore, the gameplay is extremely nonlinear, featuring a framework of myriad short- and long-term goals that the player can elect to pursue or abandon.

What's interesting about this is that the developers cannot accurately be referred to as storytellers, given that the player is the sole arbiter of the flow of narrative in this game. The designers have furnished a fully-realized world, but the player is free to create the story.

A new breed of sandbox-style games, such as Grand Theft Auto, Mercenaries, King's Field: The Ancient City, and True Crime, all feature a similarly nonlinear gameplay style, authored to various degrees by the player. In the military shooter genre, games that formerly channeled the player through a linear "story-driven" experience are now promising wide-open spaces with numerous paths to victory.

As games continue to mature, the interactivity and nonlinearity of our medium will triumph over the current dependency on passive storytelling techniques borrowed from other media.

The Zoetrope, an early motion-picture device, was invented in 1867. The first edited motion picture, The Great Train Robbery, wasn't released until 36 years later. Prior to that, films were merely home movies or recorded stage events, or footage of a guy sneezing (and people paid money to watch a guy sneeze, believe it). The introduction of editing changed everything.

We are in the process of a similar evolution, but we must abandon the old approach if we are to evolve.

______________________________________________________

[Article illustration by Greg Brauch.]


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