Story Time Are Videogame Narratives Levelling Up?
Published Oct 24, 2011There are great challenges to writing a videogame versus other art forms. In books, comics, movies and TV, the writer is an omnipotent unspooler of story threads, architect of plot points and creator of characterization. But in gaming, the writer not only takes a backseat to coders and designers, but must hand much of their own godlike narrative power over to the player and let them choose their own adventure.
Game narratives have rarely had much respect because story has historically been subservient to game play. But the rise of story-free multiplayer has siphoned off gaming's anti-narrative faction allowing it to take on ever-larger importance to single-player campaigns ― beginning with the ingenious storytelling of Rockstar Games' Dan and Sam Houser and the likes of BioShock scripter Susan O'Conner ― which is now attracting outside writers into the medium.
Paul Dini, for instance, is a legend amongst Batman fans. The award-winning writer cut his teeth on the early '90s classic Batman: The Animated Series and subsequently penned plenty of beloved Gotham-set comics. In 2009, he branched into gaming as the head writer on Rocksteady's acclaimed Batman: Arkham Asylum, which instantly, and in no small part due to Dini's writing, became the benchmark for all superhero games.
"It's a very different animal to writing a movie or a TV show. You have to first and foremost make the entire experience engaging for the player," he told the UK Telegraph newspaper in 2009. "Rocksteady were very good at guiding me with where I was writing too much story, or where the gaming experience was getting lost in too much character motivation."
But unlike most games that use story as a mere convenience to string together set pieces and justify game design decisions, Dini's twisted tale of a Joker plot to take over the asylum and create an army of superpowered inmates was a welcome addition to the Dark Knight's canon, not just a fun game to play like X-Men Legends or Marvel: Ultimate Alliance with their barely-there stories.
It also laid the narrative groundwork for the sequel Arkham City, set a year later as the asylum's former warden and Gotham's new mayor Quincy Sharp decides to cordon off the slums and turn it into an open-air prison where Batman's rogues gallery run the show inside, sort of cross between Escape from New York and Batman's late '90s No Man's Land storyline. When Two-Face threatens to execute Catwoman, Batman goes in and the game takes off.
Later this month, the UK Writer's Guild will be doling out an award to the best game script. Last year, they rewarded Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption and this year's strongest entry is the post-apocalyptic epic Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, based on a classical Chinese story and written by Alex Garland, best known for his breakthrough novel The Beach and his 28 Days Later screenplay.
Garland, a long-time gamer, told Edge magazine there was a "fucking gulf" between characterization in games and in movies or literature. "I just see games as being like cinema was in the '20s and '30s. It's moving at a more accelerated pace than cinema but it's got unbelievable potential. And I wanted to be at the coalface at some point, trying to figure out that potential."
Now early cartridge games couldn't include much more story beyond rescuing kidnapped princesses or shooting alien invaders. Disc-based games allowed some storytelling, but primarily via animated cinematics. A few progressive games like Michel Ancel's Beyond Good & Evil were able to tell an interactive tale, most flip-flopped between story-heavy cut-scenes and story-free game play. Recent games have experimented with interactive narrative, from the cinema-indebted thriller Heavy Rain to Portal, a tech-demo that became a phenom thanks to its script's politely menacing AI and promises of cake.
At October's GDC Online, cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson discussed the medium's limitations at the Game Narrative Summit. "It's difficult and awkward to have the story really develop. You can build a world that has a back story. You can tell all sorts of stories about what happened in the history of that world, but in order for game levels to work, you have people acting out the same little story fragment, over and over again," he said during a Q&A. "I suspect that in ten or 20 years, we'll look back on that as a kind of transitional phase."
To make this transition, the industry needs to recognize that writing is as important as game play while writers need to better suss out how interactive, branching and/or non-linear narrative uniquely functions because, as Garland said, when the immersion of gaming meets the characterization and story development of other mediums, "you're going to have an art form that is obliterating in its impact and importance."