This is What Video Gaming Narratives Need to Do to Be Taken Seriously

Interactive stories that play out through our consoles can be riveting; but the gaming medium is still seen as "weaker" than novels and movies. How do we change that?

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May 20 2016, 5:38pm

Ellie and Joel, the main playable characters in 'The Last of Us'

Hold your comment, your pithy tweet, your caustic Facebook post: I'm not saying that video games cannot tell amazing stories. Those of us who play them regularly enough know that games have long been adept at articulating affecting narratives through a medium that began by smacking a dot back and forth, by shooting a basic model of a spaceship from the sky, by murdering sentient mushrooms with your plumber's crack. Games evolve on what feels like a weekly basis, and while this progression is inherently partnered to advances in technology—from interface innovation, to orchestral scores and fully voiced scripts, to shinier graphics and more gruesome goriness—their storytelling power is something that's existed far longer than near-perfect photo realism and Hollywood-comparable castings.

But there's an obstacle, isn't there, between your games-oblivious proverbial man on the street and the acceptance that what can be seen strictly as playthings—and I do feel that the verb we use, to "play" video games, is a problem in communicating their contemporary complexities to those who still see Sonic and Mario in their mind's eye—are capable of moving us, constructing lasting memories based on story, the fate of the player-controlled avatars on screen, above and beyond how we maneuverer them from place to place. I don't need to list examples—you'll hopefully have plenty of your own, as I do mine.

But, assuming we even need to, and I feel we do: how do we explain this to that naysayer, that dismissive guy, those who are too quick to dismiss our art of choice as folly, trivial, meaningless beside literature, the theater, and cinema? I see stories everywhere, every day: in sports reports, in the weather forecast, in the wooden train track layout my two year old assembles in readiness for me breaking my ankle on later. It might be explicit, but it could be expositional, environmental, and games take all these approaches and more to constructing compelling plotlines, many of which are amendable by the player's own decisions—which surely makes them all the more impactful, doesn't it?

A screenshot from 'Uncharted 4: A Thief's End'

When it all comes together right, absolutely. But even strictly linear gaming experiences can wrap you up in moment-to-moment situations of stunning significance, as vivid as anything told on paper or celluloid. Naughty Dog's rightly feted The Last of Us is but one case in point, albeit one that itself riffs on Cormac McCarthy's The Road for inspiration.

"The wonderful thing about games is that you can tell great stories with even the simplest vehicles, and in a variety of ways," Gabrielle Kent tells me. Gabrielle is the author of the Alfie Bloom fantasy novels for middle-grade children and also a senior lecturer in the computer game department at Teeside University, where she directs the Animex International Festival of Animation and Computer Games. She previously worked in the games industry, on racing titles for Atari, Accolade, and Midway.

"Over-complexity of control systems can put players off taking on non-essential tasks, which can result in them missing out on additional story," she continues. "Thomas was Alone had very simple controls and made me care about geometric shapes with basic mechanics. So developers must find a balance between challenging and testing the player and engaging them in the story. The Last of Us employed a variety of excellent storytelling methods, but I do know some non-traditional gamers who loved the story but had to abandon the game due to difficult combat sections."

A screenshot from 'Life is Strange,' a story-driven game that puts the player in charge of decisions that affect both their own fate and those of many others

So one thing that video games need to do in order for people who don't regularly play them is provide a way for those unfamiliar with standard interfaces to break through what can be an intimidating skill barrier. We've seen a number of very passively interactive titles emerge, such as Telltale's The Walking Dead and Tales from the Borderlands, and DONTNOD's Life is Strange, which provide tension through putting certain decisions on a tight timer, but generally don't test the player's eye-to-hand-to-screen reactions like, say, Gears of War or The Last of Us does. Those require a degree of capability with squeezing one button to aim and another to fire, while simultaneously moving from cover to cover, or lending support to fallen allies. There's a lot to process going on, and that can certainly interfere with the story happening on the sidelines of any given firefight.

"In Uncharted 4, though, I've observed that there are some sections in which you can just dart between cover and the non-player characters with you will take care of the enemy characters. This is very interesting, as confident gamers can leap into the fray, but those who struggle more with combat aren't forced through a trial by fire."

And so the story progresses even if the player isn't all that competent with a handgun. Having played through Naughty Dog's Uncharted 4, it is a game that demands dexterity on the As and Bs; but it's also very aware, more so than The Last of Us was, that this is blockbuster entertainment, like a big-budget movie, and when you pay your money you expect to see the ending. It's not a game that is going to grind you down, difficulty wise, unless you really want it to.

"Dark Souls is also very interesting," Gabrielle adds. "It's brutally difficult, very unforgiving, and may appear to not contain much of a narrative. But it actually contains a lot of story, from hints in the dialogue of NPCs to the narrative embedded in the environment itself, much of which is left for the player to interpret in their own way."

In the Souls series, from Demon's Souls through to Bloodborne and now Dark Souls III, makers FromSoftware only very rarely place their hand on the tiller and steer the narrative a specific way. Environmentally, the player is relatively free to wander where they like, meaning that the environmental clues as to the events unfolding now, and in the past, can be discovered in any order. For someone unfamiliar with the series' deep and complicated lore, though—and I raise my hand, here—it can be overwhelmingly tough to parse a real sense of the story from initially unrelated objects, a bone here, a bell there. To those who've bowed out from a Souls game in the past because they couldn't manifest within themselves what this character's primary motivation is, I can relate.

"In games, it's so much harder to make the player feel for the character they are controlling, as you can't get inside their head in the same way you can with a novel," Gabrielle says. "You have to show how they are feeling in an external manner, and this might also conflict with the gameplay. For example, Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Pratchett wanted to show Lara Croft's first kill take a toll on the character emotionally. This was an impactful scene, but to progress through the game Lara must then go on a number of killing sprees. Obviously a writer would like players to see the characters' stories develop at a smooth pace, and a designer wants the player to remain engaged and challenged by the gameplay, sometimes it is hard to reconcile the two."

2013's 'Tomb Raider' was widely revered but still suffered from what Clint Hocking famously termed "ludonarrative dissonance"

Can that be improved, though? One of the very biggest criticisms of both the rebooted Tomb Raider franchise, developed by Crystal Dynamics, and Uncharted is that their protagonists kill indiscriminately without ever truly being painted as bad guys. Games designer Clint Hocking coined the term "ludonarrative dissonance" back in a 2007 blog entry, in response to 2K's dystopian shooter BioShock, writing that it suffered from "a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story"; that the ludic side, the playful aspects, clashed uncomfortably with the story at its core.

Hocking concluded in his post: "It seems to me that it will take us several years to learn from BioShock's mistakes and create a new generation of games that do manage to successful marry their ludic and narrative themes into a consistent and fully realized whole." I dare say, looking at Uncharted 4, as great as it is, and any title that declares that you simply must complete this essential quest but grants you the freedom to do whatever else you like instead (ahem, The Witcher 3), that we're still waiting for that generation of games to arrive.

But perhaps there's a different angle to take. Perhaps we shouldn't be looking to compare the stories told in video games to those of other mediums, at all? Says Gabrielle: "Literature, theater, music, and cinema have their own forms of non-verbal storytelling. However, video games are already progressing past these techniques to tell new kinds of stories by exploring paradigms of agency, modes of interaction, our connection to other players in multiplayer environments, and presence in virtual worlds."

The scene-setting introduction to 'Half-Life 2'

"The advantage games have over books is that we can embed so much story within the environment itself," she continues. "We do this through background scene staging, set dressing, found objects, notes, signage, and advertising, and the condition of the environment itself. For example, look at the train ride and station at the start of Half-Life 2. It tells us a lot about what has happened to the world, from the signs to the brutality of the Combine. Players can look around these settings carefully and take in everything we are telling them about their world and situation—or, they can just dash through and get on with the missions."

And that's what gave BioShock its headache: its makers knew that the shooting came first for a lot of its players, so however much that violence appeared to be contrary to the themes at work, narratively—of self-determinism, destiny, and overarching notions of Objectivism—it was necessary. BioShock was not a story game—it was an action game first and foremost. So too is Grand Theft Auto V, but the way in which Rockstar's open-world crime caper can be played can have a fascinating influence on the events unfolding within its LA analogue of Los Santos.

A screenshot from 'BioShock'

"When Joseph Delgado added VR support to Grand Theft Auto V, he was shocked at how the sensation of presence created a sense of guilt unparalleled in any other form of first person perspective narratives," Gabrielle tells me, continuing:

"Many games broaden our ability to co-operate with other players in-game with the ability to heal, rally, and steal from others, while external channels allow a variety of communication such as team speak and webcams to enable wildly unscripted events remembered only by those watching in real time not to mention enabling abusive behavior from anonymous trolls. Of equal interest, though, is when game developers remove or restrict these modalities, as Journey does, leaving us to fill in the blanks with our muted companions. Journey's composer, Austin Wintory, once recounted a story about a player who went through the whole game convinced that their silent companion was the ghost of their recently deceased father."

All the architectural elements necessary for video games to constantly provide fascinating stories are in place, it seems. And through touch-screen hardware and simplified control pad schemes, we are gently nudging down the barrier for initial entry. (Not that the properly challenging titles pairing amazingly intense combat with compelling narratives are going to water themselves down any time soon; we're never likely to see an official "easy" mode in a Dark Souls game.) Writing, though, remains so important, however advanced gaming's methods of delivery become. And the way I see it, there's just not enough great writing in games right now. That's why something like the Indiana-Jones-goes-Goonies-via-Romancing-the-Stone clichés of Uncharted have so long been held up as stellar examples of video game storytelling: too many alternatives are just so weak in comparison. The answer, though, is not simply to employ writing talent from other mediums, individuals with no prior experience of writing specifically for video games.

"I've seen terrible stories churned out by design directors turned writers, who think their experience in games and an interest in writing makes them more qualified than a professional writer," Gabrielle says. "But also, many games with great writers on board have been hampered by these types changing the work of the contracted writer, breaking story arcs and generally adding bizarre scenarios which don't fit with the overall themes, all for the sake of ego and a writing credit.

A screenshot from 'Journey,' a game that tells a small but impressive story (well, I think it does) without saying a single word

"I think games need professional writers who play and understand games, but as long as they are brought in right at the very beginning of a project I don't see that they would need to be bred within the industry itself. The main problem with games writing is that studios tend to bring in writers once a few levels have been built and then say, 'Okay, we've made an underwater level, a prison, and a Mayan temple, write us something to tie them all together.' By bringing writers in right at the beginning of a project they can sit down with the designers and create something with depth and structure and discuss what is going to be told through dialogue and what elements of the narrative are going to be embedded elsewhere.

"That said, gamers are already a vastly broad demographic. We will continue to get all of the flashy make-up as developers push the capabilities of the hardware; but beneath that we are seeing more emotionally engaging stories, deeper character motivations, and more rounded characters in general. There will always be games for those who favor mechanics and don't care about story either way, but there are now many more professional writers working in the industry and it is starting to develop a roster of games writing stars, in much the way the film industry has its go-to people for particular types of stories. I've noticed a lot more writers and readers starting to engage with games, because they now see the stories as becoming as engaging as novels."

Gabrielle's seen vast improvements made over her time in and around gaming, then. But for the future, the roadmap to breaking video games as a perfectly valid—indeed, incredibly innovative and important—storytelling medium into the mainstream conscious is reliant on two key points. Firstly, writers are installed on a project from day one, working beside directors and designers to collaborate on the game's play and plot, and how these pillars relate to one another. And secondly, that we understand as consumers, audience, players, that gaming's rule set for plot-driving discourse, persuasive prose, and affecting interactions is a very different beast to that written down in books or enunciated from a stage. The trick is to make the mechanics, how everything plays, work for you, and not against the story you want to tell. A little dissonance need not be destructive, if you can harness its potential productively, and that in turn will help affirm the language of storytelling in video games: both for those who know it fluently, and others who've previously been alienated by its surface-level indecipherability.

Thanks to Gabrielle Kent for her time. Find her on Twitter, more information on Alfie Bloom at Facebook—the next book is due in early June—and the Animex Festival here.

Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.