Narrative in games is a topic I’ve read a lot about, and pondered a lot about, without coming to many definite conclusions, but a recent blog post on gamasutra (“Why We Suck at Subtext and How We Can Fix It“) solidified several of my ideas. Basically, I agree with it, and I also think there’s more to the difficulty than that.
Storytelling has been around arguably as long as language. It’s traditional forms (e.g. spoken, written, acted) have been codified as far back as ancient Greece (see Aristotle’s Poetics, for example), if not further.
One important understanding is that different techniques are available in a different medium. Written forms can make use of the size and shape of words or paragraphs. Spoken forms can add volume, tone, and speed. Theatrical forms allow re-enacting of the events of the story.
The modern world has introduced two significant new mediums with the invention of cameras and computers, each of which have their own allowances and restrictions on what techniques can be used to tell a story. Film and television productions have been more extensively studied, due to being around longer and having a large overlap with an existing medium (i.e. theatre), but they have still developed their own extensive vocabulary of techniques relating to camera angles, edits, lighting, focus, special effects, etc.
Computers have created a whole new environment for games which is far from fully explored. While games (like stories) have been around as far back as we have any record, most non-electronic games have little in the way of story owing to the need for simplicity. Often the “story” can be better described as a “setting”. For example, chess would be the same game if the pieces had different names/shapes—you could play with a bunch of small stones and a board scratched on the ground if you wanted to—it needed to be simple enough to remember all the details*.
Even with the extensive resources video games have available, however, there is a general sense of being underwhelmed with the stories associated with them. Pundits frequently speculate on when (if ever) we shall see the “Citizen Kane** of gaming”. I don’t think we’re there yet, basically because if we did, there’d be a lot more consensus on it. Most of the games put forward as candidates are a victim of the polarising that comes from internet hype; there’s no middle ground, something is the “best/worst thing evar!!!11!!!eleven!!1!!bbq!!@@!outrageoushyperbole!!”. There are many games that have done remarkable things with conveying moods, themes, etc. but the large-scale “AAA” games are largely stuck in the play-it-safe blockbuster mould.
There’s a lot of potential in video games to craft truly amazing experiences; to take players places they’ve never been before; to explore different facets of the human condition. They just don’t do it much, yet. Next time I’ll explain why it’s proving so difficult (as far as I can tell, anyway).
* I realise there are a lot of modern board games that are far more complex and have more of what we would call a story, but these generally require much more… well… stuff. You really need to have the box full of cards, dice, miniatures, tiles, etc. in order to play the game, and even experts will refer back to the rulebook during play to clarify a particular circumstance.
** “Citizen Kane” is used as a simile for its significant innovations to the techniques of film-making. Basically, it went out of its way to do things that hadn’t been done before, and were unique to the medium of film.