Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pushing Game Narratives Beyond Linearity

I remember a student telling me the other week that she thought writing stories for games was easy, and wondered if there were jobs doing that.  I had been giving a presentation with a professor from Carleton to high school students, and my part was all about connecting your passion to computer science.  I've been thinking about that comment, and considering the fact that it may seem easy to come up with a general story, but to make it truly interactive is another thing altogether.

Mini Book I: Uncovered
Mini Book I: Uncovered by B_Zedan

Most stories in games are written as a 'string of pearls.'  The main structure of the story is fairly linear, but each pearl allows the player to solve puzzles, explore, and generally interact before moving on to the next chunk of the story.  There are sometimes branches, but they often come back to the same junction, or aren't overly complex if they stay diverged.  After all, as pointed out in this fun video about storytelling in games, designers would have an awful lot of content to create for a story with many different paths!

Despite this common form of narrative, I think games have found some interesting ways to tell their stories that might not be the same in printed word or on film.  For example, I've been playing Bioshock with my husband and really enjoy its storytelling mechanisms.  The game itself is fairly linear, but the insight into the world of Rapture is revealed slowly through recorded audio diaries scattered throughout.  The voice acting is really well done, and getting just small tidbits of how the city fell from the mouths everyday residents is fascinating.  Without cut scenes, the emotional accounts of events that have already happened or are currently happening at the time of recording allow you to use your imagination.  I quickly found myself getting excited every time I saw a tape recorder lying around, ready for the taking.

As game design progresses, I think we'll start to see new twists on storytelling.  (I want to say "just like we saw in film" but since I don't really know the history, I can't know if this is the case - perhaps some film buffs can enlighten me.)  One of the ideas I had was a take on the "see the ending first" technique movies and TV shows often use.  You would begin playing the game and making choices until suddenly you realize you just played the end.  The traditional "x years earlier..." would appear on screen, and you'd start playing from the beginning.  The twist would be, however, that how you played at the end would very blatantly affect how the rest of the game progresses.  As a player you'd be thinking, "Oh no! Why did I do that?!" but feel helpless to change it.  I haven't decided what sort of scenario this would fit well with, but I feel like it could explore some of the darker aspects of human nature since you aren't just watching how a particular event ends up  happening - you see how your own actions end up being taken.

Have you seen any unusual narratives in games? Have any interesting ideas? I'd love to heard about them, so please do leave a comment!


Daphne said...

The first part of your blog that caught my attention immediately was "I remember a student telling me the other week that she thought writing stories for games was easy"

My First thought: Absolutely NOT true! There's so much more complexity to writing stories than many actually think, let alone coming up with a story for a game. Take rpg's for example. The multiple story lines based on your actions. The author has to constantly come up with the allowable 'What if?' scenario, if or not that decision thus impacts anything that happens later down the road.

"I think games have found some interesting ways to tell their stories that might not be the same in printed word or on film." -- agreed, it's been a while since I've personally played any games but i still do hear a lot about games and the interaction players have with them.

I like the idea you have at the end, I'm not sure if I have seen/heard of something like that done or at least attempted (unless I imagined it). but it would be quite an interesting concept and to see the game play for that would be very fascinating!

Hats off to game writers!!

Eugenia said...

You might be interested in Mass Effect / Mass Effect 2 - I haven't played them yet, but friends have praised the depth of the stories and how each action can change the outcome of your game.

Vanessa said...

I hope you write more about this. Several years back, I worked up a proposal and resources for an after school program writing class writing narratives for games. Unfortunately, the program director and school admin were dead set against anything involving or encouraging games. Researching the proposal, I learned a lot about game narrative structure. Not easy but definitely interesting.

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