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Narrative in Video Games (or, Let The Professionals Have A Crack, Why Don’tcha?)

Last Friday, Dragon Age: Origins was released for the PC and XBox. It’s a game I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, since it was developed by a company called Bioware, and Bioware are, frankly, the kings of storytelling as far as videogames go. Tragically, I still haven’t got to play it: my PC is too slow to run it properly, and I’ve heard the PS3 version is better than the XBox one, so I’m waiting for that. It comes out in a couple of weeks, which should neatly coincide with my delivery of the first ‘proper’ draft of The Black Lung Captain. Simple chance, or evidence of a divine intelligence that plays videogames? You decide.

The reason I’m excited is because Bioware is one of the only software companies I can think of that habitually treat videogames as a proper storytelling medium (the others are Black Isle – now defunct – and Bethesda Softworks). Videogames outsold movies for the first time ever last Christmas, and it’s an industry that’s growing fast, but a huge percentage of games released annually are still the same old stuff they’ve been churning out for years, with a fresh gloss slapped over the top. It seems that the only excuse anyone needs to come up with a new FPS (first person shooter, for those who don’t know) is some minor tweak of physics or slight graphical improvement. In this one, you can fight in zero gravity! In this one, you can absorb powers from your enemies. But wait, this one is set in the 60s! And this one has comic-style graphics.

People. They’re the same game. Most of them use the same game engine (the Havok engine, in case you care) which is why most of them, underneath the graphics, behave in a familiar way. I have the same problem with RTS (real time strategy) games. Dress ’em up all you like: in the end you’re only playing Command & Conquer Episode 27.

So why, you may ask, do I have a PC and an XBox and a PS3? After all, I’m evidently so cynical about the games market that I hardly ever use them, right? It’s because occasionally, perhaps once or twice a year, I find a game that does the kind of thing that I know videogames are capable of. A game that swallows you up, something that is more than just an orgy of repetitive destruction or a sequence of missions to be completed. Something that is more entertaining and absorbing than reading a book or watching a film. Usually – not always, but usually – it’s by one of the companies I mentioned above. Because they know how to tell a story.  Most other developers don’t bother. And by ignoring that aspect of videogaming, I truly believe they’re shooting themselves in the foot.

The most important thing, as an author, is to make your reader care about your characters. If you do that, then they’ll follow you wherever you like. If you don’t, you don’t have a chance. Similarly, screenwriters will allow us time to get to know the protagonist of a movie before the action kicks in. Otherwise, why do we care when their daughter gets kidnapped? Without that setup, it would be as emotionally engaging as reading about the kidnapping in a newspaper.

Videogames have an advantage over both mediums, because the gamer doesn’t need to be persuaded to empathise with the protagonist. Since they have control over the character, they automatically invest a portion of themselves in it. That little bundle of pixels becomes an avatar: the player’s representation in the game world.  That’s the hugely important difference between videogames and any other popular storytelling medium. In books or films, you are shown only what the author or director chooses to show you; you have no control; you’re a passenger. Games are the only medium in which you get to participate in the story (well, aside from Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, but we’ll leave them aside for now).

We shouldn’t underestimate the strength of that. I remember creeping through old houses in Resident Evil, terrified out of my wits, because my little avatar might get attacked at any moment by a zombie hiding in a cupboard. I knew nothing about the protagonist. The worst thing that would happen was that I would have to reload my last saved game when I died. But the psychological trick that put me in that house was enough to make me feel scared even when my character was barely a character at all.

Given that, wouldn’t it have been that much more powerful if I had known something about the character? If I’d cared about them, even a little?

The point is, the games player is begging to empathise. They’re primed and ready for it. In a situation like that, surely it would be easy for someone – say, a professional author, who was used to eliciting empathy in the much tougher medium of print – to grab that games player and twang his heartstrings like a lute until he was blubbering into his D-Pad?

Well, probably it would. The trouble is that games companies, like many major film companies, have traditionally regarded the story – and the writer – as the least important element of the package. The gameplay is the most important thing. Graphics, level design, game physics. The story? Well, it’s just there to tack together all those awesome levels we’ve just created. Give it to the office junior; he’ll do it.

Rhianna Pratchett, one of the few writers who gets a lot of work in the videogame field, sums it up nicely:

“Gameplay and story can sometimes have quite different goals that can often see them fighting for space. And nine times out of 10, story loses. It’s really about finding the common ground between the two and thinking about story early enough in the development cycle that it can properly fit together with the gameplay. Not just lie on top of it like a kind of narrative custard.”

Gameplay and story are not exclusive. They just have to be made to work together. The Half-Life franchise married the FPS genre with a good storyline, and allowed the player to learn about the world and the story by making it part of the action. That’s why it won a bazillion industry awards and still sells tons of copies today, whereas the technically superior Doom franchise has languished. Taking it further is Bethesda, whose Elder Scrolls titles have swept up awards over and over. Bethesda specialise in creating massive open worlds, and allowing the player freedom to do what they like in them. There’s a story there, if you want to follow it. If not, fine: there are plenty of other sub-stories you can follow. Hell, just go into the forest and punch out a bear, if you like.

That brings me to another important difference between books and films and videogames. Books and films are linear narratives. Games can be, but they can also be what’s called a sandbox or open-world setting, in which the player can behave as I described above. Many games fall in between – basically linear, but offering the illusion of freedom, or comprised of small sandbox ‘episodes.’ Either way, it requires a whole new take on storytelling. Instead of telling the player what they see, games companies are forced to create an interactive world and let the player discover. Since you can’t predict what the player will do, every angle has to be covered. I personally find this idea very exciting. Lack of linearity makes a traditional narrative hard, but you can instead have multiple narratives that the player explores at their own pace.

Now I’m not saying that every game needs to have a great story. Sometimes games are just games. But most games would have been improved by a great story. Half-Life wouldn’t be the phenomenon it is today without it: it would have been just another Doom or Wolfenstein. And I’m also not saying that any old writer can drop in off the street and understand how a videogame narrative works: Raymond E. Feist and Orson Scott Card have both been involved in videogames back in the day, with underwhelming results (though, to be honest, I don’t know how much input they were really allowed). But professional writers, in general, are well practiced at making people care about their creations, and they’re very good at telling stories. If the industry at large started using that resource, then the world of gaming might be that little bit more original, and a lot more absorbing.

And really, there’s no reason not to. Games nowadays, like movies, are multi-million dollar affairs. The hiring of a writer is the cheapest part of the package when compared to the millions spent on middleware and coding time. And, just like with films, that little bit of money and time can turn an average game into a good one, and a good one into a classic.

Luckily, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Some people in the industry, aside from those companies I’ve already mentioned, are waking up to the potential of storytelling in videogames. Electronic Arts, in particular, have begun looking into ways to get professional writers onto videogame projects at early stages of development. I hope it catches on. Not only for my own sake (can’t you tell yet that I’d love to get in on that action?) but for the industry as a whole. The first gaming generation, of which I am a part, never stopped playing them, you see.  We’re in our thirties now. We want grown-up stories, not simplistic dialogue and clumsy drama used as a bridge between one bout of carnage and another. Games are becoming incredibly sophisticated now, but the stories that power them are lagging behind. You wouldn’t get a plumber to wire up your electrics, would you? So get the professionals in!

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