Video game storytelling: The real problems and the real solutions

If any one element of gaming has dominated discussion of the medium over the last few years of this generation’s stubborn battle against the reaper, it’s narrative design and storytelling. With the rising prominence of indie developers through console and PC download services, as well as the increasing cinematic ambitions afforded to triple-A studios by steadily improving tech, this is arguably the console generation during which games segued across from being a mere plaything and staunchly set up shop in the realm of the bona fide medium.

If you’ve been reading GamesRadar for more than five minutes, you’ll know that narrative is the area of games most likely to make me stroke my beard to the point of starting a small chin-fire. So, with the imminent start of an indie-friendly next-gen heralding a potentially even greater increase in narrative-driven gaming, I feel like it’s time to take stock of where we’re really up to and where we’re going. What are the real problems in telling a video game story in 2013, what are the real solutions, and just how powerful a storytelling medium can games become?

Rising action

Over the last month, I’ve spoken to a variety of developers on the forefront of interactive storytelling, so rather than simply ramble on about what I think, I want to take insight and inspiration from the people pioneering this stuff for real. Because whether you personally play games for the story or not, narrative is one of the most important issues at play as gaming evolves into a mainstream entertainment medium. We’re past the point where games are a novelty, or have to exist solely as bit of escapist amusement. They absolutely can be those things, just as cinema once was and in some spheres still is. But, by having at their disposal the tools of all pre-existing media, as well as the unique factor of interactivity, games have the potential to be the most powerful storytelling tool of all. As Tali Goldstein, of Papo and Yo (opens in new tab) developer Minority (opens in new tab), says:

“We think that we can achieve so much more with the power of interaction and simulation, because we have something in our hands that makes you feel like the world is… we have this ability to put you in other people’s shoes, and we are not using that. So if you see books, if you think about movies, if you think about pieces of art, they are always pushing people to feel something, or to express more elevated ideas. We are not using our best option ever–which is the video game–to do that. Why not?”

Why not indeed? There are multiple reasons that story is only now starting to be taken seriously as part of the game development process. First and most obvious, in the triple-A industry at least, is the financial pressure to avoid experimentation in favour of committing resources towards tried and trusted wins. Says Goldstein:

“Sometimes we find a recipe that really works. Big companies have this pressure on themselves to do these magical franchises that will bring in more money. You know the progression, right? The first one doesn’t make a lot, but the second one builds a franchise, and the third one, WOW! So sometimes it’s easier to just stick to the recipe and make money out of it.”

Particularly when, despite an increasing number of critical and commercial hits over recent years, narrative-driven gaming is still a relatively new player within the overall ecosystem.

“…emotional gaming, balancing intellectually challenging gameplay and storytelling, it’s not an easy thing to do. And there’s also this bravery that’s necessary. Sometimes you just need a little bit of courage to tell certain stories. There are so many things that are related to that. There’s this audience that are so used to having a kind type of product in their hands, and they don’t know really how to react to a new type of gaming. But there’s also this big audience that wants something different, that are craving it.

Casual problems

There is indeed. And as gaming expands its ambitions and its audience, story is going to be an increasingly important hook. As any long-term, ‘hardcore’ gamer will know, this generation has been typified, perhaps as a result of Nintendo’s early success with the Wii, by an obsession with snagging the nebulous ‘wider audience’ by way of the equally nebulous notion of ‘accessibility’. The results have been varied, but the method has frequently been the same. Take an existing, triple-A, ‘hardcore’ franchise, simplify the controls, and wait for the casual dollars to come flowing in.

I’ve never been convinced that mechanical difficulty was the right target. Surely relatability to the often idiosyncratic worlds and workings of video games is a bigger barrier to entry for the newcomer? Did Ubisoft’s heavily simplified 2008 Prince of Persia (opens in new tab) really pull in droves of non-gamers? Did a raft of casual players suddenly fall in love with Metal Gear Solid (opens in new tab) once the stealth and shooting became more forgiving in part four? I don’t think so.

Yet narrative-focused games like The Walking Dead (opens in new tab) and Gone Home (opens in new tab)–games which operate very differently to the experiences usually found in a triple-A big hitter–have found great success among multiple demographics simply by telling universally comprehensible stories with care and craft. I put this point to Mike Bithell (opens in new tab), developer of much-loved narrative platformer Thomas Was Alone (opens in new tab) and newly announced retelling of Robin Hood, Volume.

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