I’m a story addict. If you don’t have a story, you won’t keep my attention. The greatest reward for me isn’t a new level or new ability or new armor. It’s more plot. There are three broad lines of thought on how narrative in video games takes place now.
The first demonstrates how game development branched off of filmmaking – classical linear narrative. This has you follow a pre-scripted story, using either gameplay mastery (like in Mario or Sonic) or architectural exploration (like in Doom or Quake) to progress you from one moment to the next. The finest example of this at E3 was Valiant Hearts: The Great War. Games, especially a decade ago, were obsessed with World War II – it was a necessary war in an age of unnecessary ones, filled with tales of individual heroism in the last war where the majority of combatants could see each other’s faces.
World War I has been largely ignored in gaming. It was a meaningless war played at by endangered monarchs desperate to measure the size of their armies against each other. Its biggest impacts on history were mechanized warfare, chemical weapons, and laying the political groundwork that led to Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. Gameplay would be difficult to adapt – trench warfare consisted of weeks of digging out your own third-world country followed by minutes of mass murder. In other words – not something that can be easily or respectfully game-ified.
Yet game developers are beginning to feel brave about making artistic statements. Critics of other art forms – most famously the late Roger Ebert – have repeatedly claimed games cannot be art. I always held the sneaking suspicion that Ebert might not have truly felt this, but rather used his position and bearing as a challenge to developers to start prioritizing art over entertainment. Regardless, the indie boom of the last few years (which Eden O’Nuallain wrote about on Monday) has forced major developers to look at telling more difficult, emotionally challenging stories. And if the trailer for Valiant Hearts: The Great War can make me well up with tears inside of two minutes, I have high hopes for the game itself.
The second narrative style is emergent narrative. These are typically formed in open worlds, or sandbox worlds (as Forrest Walker discussed for us on Tuesday). Developers design these worlds to exist without the player – characters and animals in the world will carry out daily functions regardless of the character’s intervention. Involve yourself in any number of pre-scripted plots or just point yourself in a direction and go, creating your own plot along the way.
The most famous example is The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, a high fantasy world of craggy mountains and foggy marshes. Follow a main plot involving the emergence of dragons and a bloody civil war, become a thief, go to a school of magic, or just book it to the nearest pub and make a quiet living as an explorer or hunter. Or do all of the above at once. These narratives are called “emergent” because many of the story elements arise out of the functions of the ongoing world itself. The world-building, geographical design, and artificial intelligence need to be top-notch in order to create a believable-enough illusion of a land that existed long before you arrived. Every player will have a different experience.
This brings me to No Man’s Sky, a title that evokes in name and gameplay the pioneering freedom of Firefly.
Emergent narrative hasn’t been developed very strongly in space flight games. Choosing to be an explorer, a soldier, a mercenary, a trader, a manufacturer…none of that’s new in the genre. What is new is being able to set foot to ground and explore the very surface of a planet, discovering new flora and fauna while mapping out planets like an intergalactic John Muir. (Intergalactic John Muir is all I’ve ever really wanted to be, by the way.) I’ll probably end up shooting spaceships in this game at some point, but what really excites me about it is the evocation of exploration and discovery in a science-fictional setting.
The last narrative style is that of choice. Think of a more mature version of Choose Your Own Adventure. This transfers the architectural exploration of early games into a narrative exploration of motivations and philosophical imperatives. Players are given agency to make decisions that guide how the plot develops.
Choice is something that movies, books, poetry, theatre, no other medium can really do very well. Yet it’s something that gaming can do beautifully. It’s not mutually exclusive to linear narrative or sandbox worlds – it’s more of a modifier that can be applied to either. The Walking Dead is a linear game that comes to an emotionally devastating yet philosophically uplifting conclusion; it’s built not so much from the choices you’ve made as it is from the very act of choosing in the first place.
Perhaps the best gaming moment I’ve encountered was in Mass Effect 2, a semi-sandbox universe. As an operative in a doomed science-fiction universe, I was asked whether to keep information that might one day eliminate an intelligent, yet warlike, species of life. No, I said. That was someone else’s fight. Destroy the information. Later, I was asked to risk saving a hated enemy who had killed a friend, or take them out of play by eliminating half their population. I considered the character I’d been shaping in-game: emotionally torn by death, overburdened, and whose snap decisions were only based on morality when tactical advantage didn’t get in the way. Here, the universe was at stake – it was my fight. I was a hypocrite. Destroy the species.
As a writer, I adore this style of narrative – it gives me a chance to inhabit a character who thinks wholly different from me, but whose various paths are written by someone else. It allows me to entirely focus on a character’s psychological make-up, analyzing why he makes each decision.
Which brings me to The Witcher 3.
Take the over-the-shoulder perspective out and this has all the look and feel of a movie trailer. Compare it to Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s strong yet nonetheless generic trailers. Witcher has the character, sense of place, and feeling of consequence that Dragon Age lacks in its advertising. Compare it also with The Witcher 2‘s “Hope” trailer, which promised not a high fantasy experience, but rather a melancholy one, a rare tone in tales of swordplay and magic.
People who play games are more and more seeking out different, intelligent, artistic experiences. We want the medium to challenge us like film and literature can. The Witcher franchise, already unique for being a canon continuation of a series of best-selling Polish novels, demands decisions of players that are often ill-informed, manipulated by untrustworthy characters, and that are faced with siding alongside a variety of unappealing evils. By asking players to make judgment calls which could very well be wrong and repeatedly have unforeseen consequences, it forces players into situations of damage control, mourning, and some pretty honest vengeance.
That we’re given agency over the story itself to effect, avoid, or suffer a character’s feelings of melancholy, loss, and anger only makes the experience more poignant, more affecting, more vital as a piece of art. This style of narrative gives games the opportunity to speak to us in ways other mediums can’t. As for the Witcher 3, this trailer promises a dynamic story, beautiful locations, phenomenal music, but most of all…it hints once more at a rare combination of epic world and raw emotion. To look upon foreign, fantastical landscapes and react to them with the full scope of your emotional range is a truly compelling experience.
For other E3 reactions, I linked Eden’s and Forrest’s articles above. Also see: