"When will video gaming have its Citizen Kane moment?" That, inanely, seems to be the question that encapsulates the debate revolving around narrative in games.
Nobody should take the query literally, but it does highlight the inherent laziness and troubling, self-inflicted limitations that underpin the design and discussion of gaming stories, plots and characters.
By comparing games against the benchmark of cinema, we are prevented from thinking about what narrative in games can be. Instead, our attentions focus on when games might be like something else. And for gaming to centre a crucial part of its thinking around playing catch-up with other media is, at best, demeaning. At worst: cripplingly destructive.
There have been relative successes in the world of gaming when it comes to merely mimicking the storytelling standard of cinema – the three-act structure and camera rules that a great many movies adhere to. But these triumphs are only considered such when directly contrasted against games that copy films to lesser results – and it's rare that any video game delivers a tale significant enough to feature as a blip on the radar of the cross-media landscape.
The Uncharted, BioShock and Half-Life series are praised for their great narratives, but are they actually that wonderful when compared to masterworks more naturally exploiting the cinematic techniques that these games are so eager to mirror?
Unsurprisingly, when using techniques sculpted for film, a game's interactivity gets in the way of the narrative – which is why there remains a reliance on cutscenes, creating a disconnect between your actions and the plot around them. Such a problem is plain to see in the likes of Uncharted, where the heroic and lovable Nathan Drake of the cutscenes warping into a bloodthirsty maniac during gameplay.
The Uncharted games, so far, and so many others like them, have failed to figure out how to blend their stories with the very thing that makes them games: interactivity. Hence, you find yourself in the position, as a player, of not being able to summarise the plot after you've finished playing, as the overall experience is a confused collision of two completely separate and competing structures.
But what also links Uncharted, BioShock and Half-Life is their presentation of memorable characters. These are just one part of a narrative framework, but it's the only one that games have been consistently able to portray with any degree of skill and success. The interactivity, the act of being the character and interacting with others around them, is what makes them memorable.
Interactivity is the key differentiator between games and other mediums, so it comes as no surprise that it's this sense of "being" that stands above all else in games with narrative aspirations. The Last of Us isn't revered because it tells a unique and interesting story, because it doesn't. It's because it provides memorable and engaging characters to play as and to understand.
Yet an increasing number of games are starting to think more deeply about how to use the unique possibilities of the medium to provide a form of narrative – one that requires more input from the player, but results in a stronger experience. An experience in which not only characters, but setting, pacing, misdirection, plot and a sense of personal struggle are all presented in equal measure and, most crucially, in a manner that doesn't drearily rely on copy and pasting ideas from elsewhere.
Achieving this, though, requires an abandonment of what we tend to think of as narrative. Being told a story is what narrative has primarily meant in games, in the past, but being able to absorb one through interaction is what we should be focusing on.
What that doesn't mean is falling back on clichéd attempts at allowing players "freedom" by letting them choose their own quest paths and dialogue choices, like you'll find in Skyrim and Mass Effect. You're still being told a story in a traditional manner, albeit through a series of sections that you're (somewhat) free to arrange into an order that fits your personal wants and needs.
Doing away with these dialogue options entirely and trusting players to decipher and interpret their stories is what more games need to do, opening the door for a wide range of understandings centred on a single title. An array of interpretations will lead to genuinely interesting and progressive debate as to what gaming can achieve in narrative terms.
From Software has long been a master within a field of few peers in providing exactly this type of narrative. Dark Souls (the original and its sequel), Demon's Souls and Bloodborne revel in their ability to create a meaningful and deeply personal narrative experience by relying on the interactions you choose and how you decide to draw meaning from them.
One of the most memorable and powerful narrative experiences I've had in a long while involved being stuck in a rut within the emotive and beautifully designed trappings of Bloodborne's Yharnam. Struggling to defeat a boss that had killed me countless times already, I approached its domain with trepidation and a sense of loss before the next attempt had even begun.
Moving the camera around and looking at the surroundings, however, I caught glimpses of areas that I'd visited previously; of other challenges that had tested my patience and skill, but that had eventually been bested. That moment communicated a narrative of a kind so powerful, personal and complex that to compare it to the likes of an Uncharted game or Skyrim seems churlish and crass. The boss defeated me again, but the narrative had already been served to the point that I was inspired to continue trying in order to garner more meaning from new events down the line.
Far from sticking to realm of film, this form of communication engages with the very core of what makes games a unique medium. From Software's Souls series uses the tools available to games and sticks firmly to asking "what can these be?" instead of "when will a game be as good as a film?" As a result, Bloodborne does what it does in a way that a film could never begin to match – highlighting just how banal and ridiculous close comparisons between the two mediums are.
To a degree, From Software's games share more in common with architectural design than they do with cinema or other "narrative" mediums. Both the best examples of architecture and of game design play on the idea of providing a space for people to inhabit, explore and absorb a range of emotions and sensations, depending on the precise stimulus at the time.
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Walking through a building when it's deserted, packed, light, dark, warm or cold results in a very different experience. This rings true for games that embrace their potential, too: the space and the interaction holds the key to understanding and meaning.
If Bloodborne is architecture, then Don't Starve is a poem. Like From Software, its makers at Klei Entertainment have managed to use the unique traits of video games to tell a narrative within a supposedly story-free trial of hardship and survival. While the plot might not be presented in an instantly recognisable format, your personal struggle is more memorable than the plight of Nathan Drake or Half-Life's Gordon Freeman. Anyone that has lived long into Don't Starve's run time will be able to regale you with stories of near-death nights and overcoming impossible odds. Most people can barely remember the story of any Uncharted game, beyond their set-pieces.
Like a poem, the core text and language of Don't Starve remains the same to all players. It's the deciphering and the absorbing of the text, however, usually based on personal experience and outlook, that makes it hit in different ways. Such a strong outcome isn't available to games that simply copy the safer, easier-to-understand ideas of cinema.
Games, then, should be working more diligently to rid themselves of their poisonous reliance on repeating established plotline patterns. Designers and publishers should give their players more credit when it comes to understanding a form of communication that isn't yet a common tongue. And only through developing and delivering the unique language available to games can that understanding of language grow to the point where it is as easily digestible by a mainstream audience as film and literature already are.
Plainly, it's time more games stopped playing impersonator and started standing on their own feet. Only then will the medium have succeeded in banishing the Citizen Kane question to the trash where it belongs.