Alex Phillimore: (alex.phillimore-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2013-07-11 04:54:41
Guest Article # 1 - Storytelling and The Last Generation of Gaming
Written by Corey James Soper
With the controversial unveilings of the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One, the old console rivalries are dead - gone the way of the dinosaur, the roguelike and Peter Molyneux's credibility - and we turn the page on the next chapter in gaming history. But what have we learnt? This generation was the first to assert gaming as a mainstream, acceptable art-form, and big-name releases like Skyrim or Black Ops became household names. For the first time in gaming history, your mum had probably heard of what you were playing, and big names from Sean Bean to Liam Neeson to 50 Cent were prepared to feature as voice-actors.
The buzzword of the early 2000s, the 'Interactive Movie', reached an apex in the last generation. The idea that a game could function like a film, with us - the player - sat on our couch, eating Doritos and being the hero. These epics of our recent past are epitomised by Bioware's offerings this generation: the ambitious space-opera Mass Effect and its fantasy-flavoured alternative Dragon Age. They were known for their voice acting and depth, and the characters certainly won hearts for their complexity and sophistication. On first attempting the Mass Effect 2 Suicide Mission, I had accepted that I would let the chips fall where they may and not read any guides or take any advice. When Thane Krios, my Drell assassin soulmate, was dragged away by a Collector Swarm, I turned off my console in horror and started the mission again. Bioware's triumph was creating a cast of characters and a universe that felt like it was worth saving. Bioware was commended for having the ambition to continue a story through games, and give player's choices very real consequences for their actions in a dynamic, reactive world - to make real the 'Interactive Movie'.
Or so the advertising fluff claimed. In reality, this was not quite the case. Mass Effect's much-reviled final moments made all your choices essentially meaningless, and your prior actions were summed up in the presence or tardiness of some off-screen participants in the final scrap. Seeing the characters you'd bonded with over three games and hundreds of hours of gameplay to be reduced to a stat-block in an options screen didn't give closure, and it cheapened the drama that had built the series. Dragon Age II retreated from the issue of dealing with player choices by upping sticks and dashing from Ferelden to monster-filled wastelands anew, reducing the ensemble cast of the first game to a few cameo appearances. The problem, which perhaps should have occurred to Bioware during development, was that the choices would branch out exponentially until the range of parallel universes far exceeded what any game could achieve, and they'd have to start pruning those possibilities. In the end, the death of a character would replace them with a re-textured, re-named other NPC who would more or less function in the same way to advance the same plot. Towards the end, there were so many deux ex machina holding the plot together nothing had much meaning.
The 'Interactive Movie' never quite works out as intended, and perhaps that's because it can never pre-empt a player's actions: forcing the player into a certain track and giving the illusion of choice. In the world of pen-and-paper role-playing, this is called 'rail-roading' and is infamous for boring players and destroying their sense of agency. Dragon Age's much-vaunted backgrounds system was a painful example of this. It was painfully obvious in the Human and Dwarven backgrounds that you'd soon be betrayed and who would do that, just as it was painfully obvious that Teryn Loghain's dark mutterings and cryptic threats probably didn't make him the most trustworthy royal advisor. But no matter whether or not the player could easily see through these threats - could plainly see the Loyalist Conspiracy of Dishonoured was corrupt - you have to wait for the grand reveal, anyway, and pretend to be amazed and surprised like a child receiving a crappy Christmas present. In Pen and Paper roleplaying stories this is referred to as a 'Gotcha!' moment, where the Game Master or Storyteller wants to spring a 'twist', and is quite happy to rip any and all agency from the player's hand to show off his or her cleverness.
More recently, The Last of Us and Uncharted billed themselves as 'cinematic games', the Web 2.0 generation's nomenclature for 'interactive move', and bested the earlier efforts with their lack of heavy exposition and brilliant cinematography. The title 'Gaming's Citizen Kane' was bestowed on The Last of Us by Empire, which represents that in-between the macho stupidity of Gears of War or Halo, this generation has been the first time genuinely emotionally complex stories have been part-and-parcel of most mainstream titles, even if many people have felt the title to be superlative. The issue with narrative-driven games, no matter how brilliant their execution, is the gaming form is arguably best suited for different sorts of storytelling which focus on player choice, and that conventional narratives are best told by book, film and other conventional media.
One of those newer forms of storytelling which really came to a head this generation was what has been described as 'emergent story'. Dwarf Fortress epitomises this attitude with its dazzling, absurd complexity and incredible levels of choice. How many games have rules for how worried a Dwarf is about being misinformed about the tax status of a room and simultaneously gives you the capability to drain the oceans and breed domesticated sea serpents? In adventurer mode, you can even tour and loot your own dungeons, and revisit and plunder all those Dolomite Statues of a Cat Which Menaces with Spikes of Chalk your dwarves made in ages past. The game-world is alive with stories and myths in which you have been a pro-active part, and even the most basic actions will often be rationalised by the player into a form of narrative.
Tarn Adams, one of the creators of Dwarf Fortress, highlighted that players will always assume there's more going on under the hood than there really is: the human need to explain will create stories out of AI quirks and priorities. Crusader Kings is a great series for this: the murderous feudal soap-opera's cast of thousands often feel like real people, and it is very easy to get involved in the dramas. A character I'll always remember - the beautiful, lustful and scheming Duchess Eadflaed of Norfolk - was entirely generated by an RNG and some pre-ordained AI programming, yet I had a genuine feeling she was out to destroy me and my family, and she was on the opposite side of every conflict in Britain. Eadflaed churned out children like an ant-queen and built a network of alliances that troubled me for decades, culminating in a campaign of grisly murders and me seizing the throne and exiling her - I eventually had her assassinated in some godforsaken Swedish inn at the age of 83. From the chaos of intersecting AI, random events and player-action, the sandbox had delivered a genuinely engaging story.
Around games built on this model, there's often a rich culture of After Action Reports, Let's Plays and other forms of storytelling, and this practice has exploded in popularity during this generation as access to recording tools and YouTube becomes more popular: a quick search on YouTube for Let's Play turns up over almost ten million results. One of the greatest examples of this is BRAVEMULE; a surreal David Lynch-meets-Tolkein saga of misery, oppression and cupidity based on someone's fortress experience. The events themselves are pretty vanilla for Dwarf Fortress: your plucky midgets are building, digging and trading whilst various procedurally-generated nasties try to eat them and they gradually go mad - but one player's interpretation created a narrative with everything necessary to tell an engaging story.
There are flaws in this form of storytelling though, which is a tendency to return something reasonably bland, or completely absurd, or just entirely dull. Dwarf Fortress' creator Tarn Adams defends his case by pointing out that "most fiction sounds computer-generated anyway", and there's certainly a grain of truth in that in relation to the stories told in games. As stories are wrapped around the necessity of making the player engage in tests of controllermanship for about 40 hours - the format of "move from place to place killing or avoiding everything between point A and point B until you kill the biggest thing of all" fits even most games whose stories have been well-received by games journalists, like Bioshock: Infinite, The Last of Us or Dishonoured.
Gamers also have an issue in that we're scared of sub-optimal choices and of losing out, especially in RPGs. Decision points can often hinge not on a character's motivations or story-relevant actions, but which route will net the most experience and shiny + 1 Swords of Efficient Goblin-Slaying, and this can kill good story-telling. Let's take Skyrim, the goliath RPG built. On paper, the dragons have returned, the civil war is ranging and all is doom and gloom. But aside from a few scripted moments, there's no indication that this is the case: the world is static unless the player causes events to happen. Alduin won't ever get around to eating the world. When players sank their teeth into the Dawnguard DLC, they were suddenly shocked to find vampires murdering their favourite NPC shopkeeps, quest-givers and flavour characters - and they were pissed. Bethesda had delivered their dynamic world, their sense of dread, but it undermined a player's power and forced them to be a hero. If you didn't take the fight to the vampires, Captain Lonely-Gale wasn't going home to his kids. The 'Red Wedding' moments, those twists that define a story and give the player a sense of risk, are almost entirely absent from the gaming format, so we're left with toothless villains.
There are a few counter-examples: the brilliant X-Com: Enemy Unknown enforces the hated permadeath on soldiers. This created a real sense of loss and risk, and gave the story a real sense of drama. There was even a memorial, complete with bagpipes and photos, to wrench a player's heartstrings. Of course, as with all games, this sense of immersion was easily circumvented with a dainty press of CTRL-F5 to quick load another timeline without your tactical boo-boos. The Souls series, whether Dark or Demon, ripped the control of saving and loading right out of a player's hands with gleeful sadism. If you die, your souls are forfeit, your humanity is forfeit, and the game gloats - Y O U D I E D. But these aren't story-related setbacks or defeats, they're purely mechanical. If a major NPC dies, the mission is failed and you restart, or reload, or redo, and the story loses all meaning. The 'Red Wedding' moment, the sense of defeat and of loss which put the whole story into perspective, has not really been achieved this generation.
These moments of disconnect in priorities can create an awful lot of what is rather pretentiously called 'ludonarrative dissonance'; where what you're doing on screen simply doesn't match up with the story that's being told, making the whole scene ridiculous. There has been a move to more action-orientated openings and the tendency to start games in media res, in the middle of the action, in this generation: Bioshock chucking you in at the deep end of Rapture, or the explosive first moments of Skyrim in comparison to the staid, tedious tutorial levels of yore. But despite these moves we can't get away from fetch quests in the middle of the apocalypse, despite the fact that they are completely absurd. No self-respecting hero would help a villager find his lost diary whilst the armies of darkness overwhelmed the forces of good, or play the gambling mini-game whilst the evil prophecy is on the cusp of being fulfilled. So we're torn, between a stale game-world content to wait for a hero, and a real, dynamic world which makes a player lose any sense of control, and increasingly trying to drop the gaminess and the padding: the pointless quests and tutorial sections, whilst retaining the coveted 40 hours length.
Hopefully, a move towards emergent or procedural gameplay will make this possible, without ending up with bland outcomes or railroaded plot. One of the innovations that might shed a little light on this possibility is buried way back in Left 4 Dead, Valve's explosive and antsy 2008 co-op shooter. The game featured an 'AI Director' which responded to the team's success. In dramatic story-telling, we want to see the heroes scrape by, to struggle; and the omniscient AI director would slap a zombie ambush on a great team, but would lay off on one that was limping towards the Safe Room with half the team in a Tank's digestive tract. This adaptive difficulty was an acknowledgement of the kind of story players deserve - a victory snatched from the maw of defeat with every trick employed, every item utilised, to give a real sense of dramatic potency.
Dark Souls featured one of the weirdest, and most unique forms of story-telling this generation. There was a story, somewhere, but it was told in such a minimalist fashion that you were never quite sure there was one. If you haven't played, it's hard to fathom: but the Dark Souls community have unearthed invisible statues (revealed by firing thousands of arrows at them to make an impression visible), character backstories hidden in the item locations, backstory, and hidden dialogue and an alternative ending which is genuinely difficult to find. Lordran, Dark Soul's setting is bleak, bereft of any real comfort and limited exposition - almost all the characters you meet are essentially insane and as clueless as you. This interpretive aspect makes the game alluring and haunting, and a lot of players really invested into the investigative aspects of the game, especially finding out the mysteries behind the enigmatic Pendant, an item you could select at character creation with no known effect. This style of investigative story-telling has formed part of the marketing campaigns of other games, such as The Secret World, but has otherwise genuinely been absent: one of the quirks of its unique brand of interpretation was it started to use things like abandoned test cells and cut content to form its narratives; make the code and the Ur-Game the developers had almost made part of the story. Of course, whilst these different forms of story-telling really seize on what makes gaming a great medium, they're limited in what they can achieve, and require player investment that is unlikely to come from a mainstream audience.
Looking forward into the next generation, we can only hope that this experimental tone will continue. With organisations expanding the amount of experimental, low-budget titles like Steam Greenlight and Kickstarter, and an expansion in the market for such content via Xbox Arcade and the Humble Indie Bundle we can hope that the diversity in story-telling methods is going to increase exponentially, and deliver the sort of experience which would truly suit the gaming form's strengths. Gaming is growing-up.