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As a medium videogames have been kidnapped by their easily-achieved engagement. Simple gameplay is so much fun on its own that storytelling has never been needed in order to draw an audience. Compared to films, the element of storytelling is seldom elevated in videogames. Is it time for a walk down that lesser-known path, leading to better narratives in videogames?
When the first films appeared 120 years ago, they were shown under amusement-park-like conditions. By peeping into a Kinetoscope, the audience (one by one) were able to get a short experience of moving pictures. For instance, as in Fred Ott’s Sneeze, by W. K. L. Dickson (1894), anyone willing to pay could watch an engineer sneeze.
As you can imagine, these clips felt pretty boring quite quickly, which led to an immense pressure to make moving pictures more interesting. The first step was to find something more fascinating to film than a sneezing engineer. In the late 19th century, a steam engine arriving at the train station fell into this category, as the Lumière brothers proved in L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895).
But there’s a limit to how many moving objects people are interested in seeing on film, as well as in ways to top previous experiences. There was a need for something that caught the attention of the audience, something that would make them come back for more. Enter – narration!
The first attempts to tell the audience a story built upon simply filming theatre plays. At the same time, film developed into its own medium, and filmmakers started creating new tricks suitable for film, which increased the audience engagement in the story. This is when a lot of interesting things started happening. For instance, filmmakers realized that not every part of the plot had to be filmed. By simply implying actions and events, the audience would still keep up with the story. Film editing became a crucial part in tinkering with the narrative, and storytelling in film evolved greatly.
Let’s compare this to how games work. This is what one of the very first video games (Pong, 1972) looked like:
Contrary to the first attempts at film, this game is still quite fun to play. In fact, there are still new games being made based on Pong’s gameplay.
Obviously this version has a lot of new features and graphical decoration, but it still relies on the same concept as the original game. This differs widely from the evolution of films. No one would consider making a film based on the same concept as Fred Ott’s Sneeze. There is just something inherently fun about interaction that makes an old game like Pong still worth playing. This is not just true of the very first games and films; if you compare works like Pac-Man (1980) and The Birth of a Nation (1915), the former stacks up far better.
Dealing with video games it was pretty clear from day one what the interesting thing was – playing is simply fun! The medium itself presented new ways of making gaming even more fun, which were being used in all possible ways. Compare this to a scenario where a similar evolution took place in film production. The film equivalent would be movies still being all about watching small clips  and most of the effort during the last 120 years would had been on extending this aspect. In the games industry, this is the progress that basically took place.
Before I continue this post I need to clear up a term. When I talk about “the fun of interaction” I mean a very specific case of gameplay where you have a core mechanic that you base the whole experience around. Examples of this are: shooting spaceships, jumping over chasms, avoiding incoming hazards, leveling your RPG character and so forth. This is the type of gameplay where the aim is to make it feel as “fun” as possible. Even if the graphics are just made up of simplistic shapes, this sort of gameplay remains very engaging. I will henceforth refer to this as “classical gameplay” in order to differentiate it from other forms of gameplay (e.g. exploration, anticipation of monsters, dialog, etc). I also need to make it very clear that I think the future of the videogame medium lies in interaction and play, and we should not strive to remove this – quite the contrary. With that said, let’s continue.
From a pure classical gameplay perspective there is nothing wrong with focusing on the fun part of gaming. Most of what we currently see in the videogame world is there thanks to this focus. However, it has held back videogames as a storytelling medium. In movies, it’s crucial to get the storytelling aspect right as you really don’t have anything else to fall back on. Sure, there’re always blockbuster movies that can make the audience overlook so-so storytelling by offering a visual spectacle. However, these are the rare cases. The vast majority of films relies foremost upon having good storytelling, and it’s needed even in order to make spectacle work. The narrative, however corny, still has to be front and center. Not so for video games; as long as you get the core gameplay working, the audience will be happy.
Storytelling which is just added as a sort of extra spice has long been the standard in videogames. In fact, most attempts of storytelling often feel like they get in the way of the classical gameplay. Not only is storytelling something that isn’t really needed; it can even worsen the experience by acting as an impediment to classical gameplay. From this perspective, it’s no wonder storytelling has had a tough time to progress in videogames. For a long time, it hasn’t really felt needed and has been seen more as a hindrance than an opportunity.
This sort of thinking still permeates game development. “Make sure your core [classical] gameplay gets done first” is one of the most basic pieces of advice given to any aspiring game developer. And once you get that basic classical gameplay working, only then should you try and make your story fit into it – if you need a story at all, that is. It’s important to note that classical gameplay-wise this makes a lot of sense and is a fundamentally good thing. If you’re aiming to make your games as much fun as possible to play, getting your gameplay loop working first is a wise move. It also makes sense from a commercial perspective, since classical gameplay is the easiest way to get the audience’s attention. Narrative-wise though, this is far from an optimal strategy.
Historically there have been two game genres of note that have resisted this trend: adventure games and horror games.
Adventure games share the same issue as movies: the core gameplay isn’t that much fun. The players basically (through text or using a mouse-based interface) give commands that a character might carry out for them. And unless there’s some sort of greater context involved, this gets boring quite quickly. One way of fixing this is to put more effort into the storytelling. When the character you are indirectly controlling is part of an engaging narrative, it becomes a lot more fun to control them.
Despite this, storytelling-wise, adventure games stopped evolving quite quickly . There are a bunch of reasons for this, some of which I outlined here. Another especially important reason is that almost all adventure games revolve around puzzle solving. They haven’t really given up on their game legacy. The player can always go into “I am just doing this for the puzzles”-mode, and thereby avoid much of the game’s attempts to tell a good story. So we’re back to the initial problem – classical gameplay standing in the way of progress in narrative.
Horror games take on this issue from a different angle. This is one of the few (possibly only) bigger genres where classical gameplay turns into a nuisance. The most basic example of this is: if monsters are too much fun to encounter, they stop being scary. So horror games have been forced to tone down on one of the core engagements that has been a cornerstone of many other types of videogame. By giving up on the most fun part of the medium, the genre had to turn to something else in order to keep up the engagement level – storytelling. Many horror games – Silent Hill is a great example – feature clunky combat, and much of the time it is more stressful than fun to encounter enemies. But by offering a story that ties into the player’s actions, you can take something that is not so much fun on it’s own and turn it into an very engaging experience.
To convey horror by purely system-based means is hard, and therefore a narrative is crucial in order to provide the right experience. However, crafting these sorts of experiences is also hard, especially if the storytelling is supposed to carry the heaviest burden. As a way of making up for this, instead of putting more focus on the narrative aspects, horror games have always added all sorts of other systems to provide a basic engagement loop. In the end, this is what made the golden age of the PS2-era horror games come to an end. When the genre started to stagnate, Resident Evil 4 came about, putting all focus on gameplay and becoming a huge success.
Resident Evil 4 is an amazing game on its own, but it really did a disservice to the horror genre as a whole. Just like we have seen in the past with classical gameplay being the cornerstone to fall back on, the horror genre ended up doing the same. And with it much of its narrative-based ambitions never got a chance to properly evolve.
What this all leads me to is the following: When it comes to storytelling, games are inherently just too much fun for their own good. I think the problem comes down to being stuck at a local maximum.
What I mean with this is that as you are developing a game, you will come across a bunch of ideas that you can choose to follow. There will always be a lot of tension between getting the game’s gameplay and storytelling to work. Scouting the territory of the possible design choices, the ones where the gameplay wins are the ones that will almost always come out victorious. Following the path of narrative-focus will almost always decrease the perceived engagement. Think of these gameplay-focused solutions as going upwards towards a peak, and the story-focused ones as going downhill into a valley.
But that doesn’t mean that focusing on gameplay is optimal in the long run. It just means that given the solutions at hand, most of the time, the best one will seem to be the ones with gameplay-focus. There could be another, much higher, peak further away, but the only way to reach it is through tough terrain and deep valleys. By this I mean that a method will not show its value until you let it evolve to a certain amount. But in video games the classic gameplay is so interesting on its own, that it’s is unlikely anyone would want to make this journey.
I think that a lot of features of modern film have been sitting on a distant peak, but because the simple joy of the medium wore out so quickly, people have been forced to take this treacherous path. Video games have never been forced to do this, and this is likely why we, narrative-wise, haven’t been able to evolve to the extent I think this medium is capable of.
Traveling down this path is not easy, and just walking it blindly will not generate anything useful. You will just end up lost but not found.
One way of approaching this problem is to take another medium as a springboard and to use all of its core engagement as a foundation to build upon. The best example of this is in interactive movies, which use film as their base and then build a game on top of that. This works fine at first, but you will run into similar problems as with normal games; you get stuck with a local maximum. These games rely on the language of films to provide the core engagement, and this is bound to break once you step too far away from those foundational aspects. And just as in games, every nearby path in solution space will give you a worse result.
I think a much more fruitful approach is to break down games into their basic elements, and then start building from there – now with the core goal of achieving better storytelling. Games like Dear Esther have been great pioneers in this regard, and have shown how building engaging experiences without a lot of features, thought to be crucial, is possible. Sure, these sort of experiences are far from perfect and not everybody’s cup of tea. But to dismiss them would be very foolish indeed. We are now starting to gather knowledge about what makes games tick in a way never seen before. Now it’s time to figure out where to go next.
It is my belief that in order to make more progress, we need to start analyzing what makes games special and, instead of just applying these findings in classical ways, figure out new ways by which they can increase our sense of interactive storytelling. The path ahead will be harsh, unfamiliar, and filled with challenges, but at the end we shall reach a peak greater than what we have ever seen before.
: I guess one could argue that we are back to the good old days of Fred Ott’s Sneeze with Youtube and gifs, but I don’t think that is true. When people watched Fred Ott’s Sneeze, they watched it for the “cinematic” experience that it provided, for seeing things recreated on a screen. But when we watch a clip of something silly happening, we are watching it for the sake of the event itself. People played the original Pong because it was fun to interact, and the same reason is still valid.
: I am sure that people will disagree with me on this, but to me adventure games reached a peak, storytelling-wise, with games like Full Throttle and Broken Sword and it has not really improved much since.