Should there be story in videogames?
I first saw this question posed on a comment board I frequent. To me, it seemed like an odd question with an obvious answer.
“Of course!” I shouted at the screen.
But I’m biased. There’s not much I value more than storytelling.
So where does this question come from? When I look deeper, I find I’ve stumbled onto an argument hotly debated by some of gaming’s best and brightest.
Let’s dive in.
Imagine a movie or book where you’re in control of the main character. Instead of watching and waiting to see what the protagonist will do next, the question is thrust upon you. What will you do next?
This control over what happens in the story is what sets gaming apart from all other types of media. Cliff Bleszinski, CEO of Boss Key Productions, describes this as “instant empathy”. You’re instantly more invested in what’s happening on the screen because it’s happening to you.
So why does narrative get such a bad rap?
One of the largest misconceptions about writing for games (and movies, for that matter) is that a writer’s only job is to write dialogue. To me, a writer can only be effective when he or she is integrated into the entire storytelling process.
Surprisingly, a great example of the importance of narrative in gaming is Pac-Man.
At first glance, this classic seems as straightforward as pong. But as it turns out, Toru Iwatani had a lot more in mind when creating the game.
Toru’s Pac-Man is actually a complex hero complete with motivations and flaws. Even his antagonists have their own character traits. When you dig into the game of Pac-Man, you discover a tragic hero fighting against forces of evil – forces that he can conquer only temporarily, never permanently.
Pretty deep for a game where a yellow circle eats a bunch of dots.
And yet, even though narrative has been part of gaming since the beginning, the idea of story still irks many gamers. Why?
Because they’ve been hurt by story before.
Ask a gamer what storytelling looks like and they’ll talk about cut scenes and filmic plotlines. For them, cut scenes equal time that they’re not playing the game. Plotlines equal things that limit their options within a game. Both of these industry standard techniques commit the same crime: They reduce interactivity.
With his narrative design “Play, don’t show.” mantra, Cliff once again hits the nail on the head. Need a cool chase to happen? The player would love to be a part of that. Have a quippy one-liner for your protagonist? Make it one that the player chooses to deliver. Game makers may have a specific story they want to tell, but without trusting the player to experience and understand that story, it will always feel forced.
The videogame industry is in transition.
Games are no longer just a toy to play with – they have become their own entertainment medium.
I believe that story holds the key to the medium’s growth. For that to happen, it’s becoming clearer that there needs to be a reinvention of the way that story is handled in video games.
What will the post-cut scene incarnation of storytelling in games look like? The answer can only come from a new generation of game writers who choose to integrate storytelling into the medium itself.