The narrative adventure genre is a curiosity in the gaming industry. Encompassing walking simulators and choice-oriented 3D story games alike, the genre stands at odds with a general tendency—particularly within the AAA sector—towards ever bigger and more spectacular experiences. The likes of The Council, Life is Strange, and the output of the dearly departed Telltale Games offer a splash of difference from most of what is available on store shelves. These titles feel different because they clearly manifest that video games are part of a new kind of storytelling made possible by the digital revolution.
Even before the internet, literary theorists such as Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari were proposing a radical rethink of the way text is constructed. Rather than providing a sequential ordering of information, these future works would be characterised as networks or rhizomes, comprising of endless links between and within texts. While not exactly the fulfilment of these visionary proclamations, hypertext—the underpinning language of the internet—enables the interconnectedness and availability of information on a scale unprecedented in human history. As an educational resource, hypertext is invaluable; as a new vehicle for narrative, the form is intriguing.
The reason for this strangeness is hypertext’s apparent incompatibility with storytelling. Narratives are highly structured constructs that rely on techniques such as characterisation and plotting to produce an emotional or intellectual reaction from the viewer, reader, listener, or player. In contrast, by its very nature, hypertext is a pool, a transient form that the user can move through following links and exploring almost entirely at their own leisure. Moreover, hypertext is a two-way medium: the reader is also a writer, even if one subordinate to the “original” author, as in the comments section at the bottom of this very page.
At this point, the question must inevitably arise of what this theory has to do with narrative adventures. The answer is simple: such projects are the first, probing experiments into what might be termed hyperfictions to be found within gaming. However, these titles remain as nascent examples of this new form because they have (mostly) not yet developed to a point where they embrace the fundamental spirit of hyperfiction as it has emerged in writing.
The most often cited example of hyperfiction is Michael Joyce’s seminal work afternoon, a story. This electronic novel allows the reader to begin, ‘wander’ through the story according to the whims of links and random chance, then exit once they have had enough, regardless of whether they have found catharsis, meaning, a line of enquiry, or nothing at all. Such a book—for no other term is quite as accurate—upsets traditional notions of narrative, such as rising and falling action. Other hypertext narratives, according to prominent hypertext theorist George Landow, are even less structured, eschewing even a defined starting point and thus leaving the reader awash in pure information.
To date, no game embraces this spirit of a story without borders or clear definition (though Ken Levine’s narrative Lego concept is promising), even though procedural generation systems such as those found in Skyrim or the Middle-Earth games show a grasping towards it. Perhaps paradoxically given their restrictive and highly constructed premise, narrative adventures are at present the closest genre to being recognisable as true hypertext—not because of absolute freedom, but because of narrative multilinearity and its realisation of the reader-as-writer.
Other games put players in control of making stories through emergent gameplay—The Sims, XCOM, Minecraft—but Telltale’s The Walking Dead and its successors demand players make meaning through their choices. Players participate as characters rather than avatars and therefore manage and maintain the kinds of deep human relationships more frequently portrayed in literature than games. More closely tied to hypertext is the presence of branching—the nodes and links that allow multilinearity and unique player experiences. Because of this freedom to choose, players are also the writers of the story they experience in a manner quite different from the emergent narratives in systems-oriented games.
However, such games lack the boldness of open-endedness often found in hyperfictions, to their detriment. Life is Strange is a powerful exploration of youth, friendship, sexuality, and rebellion driven by player choices. However, after all of Max’s weird experiences with time travel and burgeoning relationships with a myriad of characters, players are faced with a stark binary decision. Moreover, the stakes involved in that choice are far higher than anything that the player has had to contemplate previously, and either option is an abrupt, unsatisfying end. Meanwhile, many Telltale games ‘course-correct’ the player, making the choices feel frivolous. Given development realities and current technologies, this kind of ‘railroading’ is almost inevitable, but it weakens the very concept of choice-based narratives and runs counter to the ideology of hyperfiction by creating a pseudo-multilinearity.
However, the genre continues to evolve, and DONTNOD is currently at the forefront, with Life is Strange 2 incorporating a more unpredictable algorithm to simulate the behaviour and attitudes of the player character’s younger brother. In altering this fundamental aspect of the genre, DONTNOD is changing the rules, giving the creation of meaning in part to the machine rather than forcing the player to do all the heavy lifting. This change is also tied to the presence of more nuanced choices that emerge organically through gameplay, rather than all being clearly depicted by interruptions. Games such as The Council and Thief of Thieves aim to bring the gameplay of narrative adventures more in line with that typically found in other genres, but DONTNOD is pushing the boundaries of what ludonarrative storytelling looks like, and maybe—just maybe—that will lead to a promulgation of the hyperfiction ideology in video games.
Next week, StoryPlayer Chapters will take a look at how DONTNOD is pushing those barriers, with a deep-dive into the narrative strategies deployed in Life is Strange 2.