Here at OnlySP, we love our stories. We adore the cinematic stylings, gorgeous acting, brilliant writing and excellent pacing of such memorable games as Bioshock Infinite, DmC: Devil may Cry, Tomb Raider and The Last of Us, to name but a few of the more recent titles to hold us in thrall. Each of these presents a meticulously crafted narrative to act as a selling point and differentiate them from their contemporaries in an age when gameplay within genres is becoming increasingly standardised. We are all hopeful that this tendency of developers putting evermore effort into the creation and portrayal of their characters and worlds through writing continues into the next generation but, at the same time, I find myself wondering whether this really is the best way to go about things.
Mistake me not, the production of such embedded narratives is the most direct route towards infusing games with literary merit, the recognition of which is essential for any artistic medium to be taken seriously. Without direction and cinematic breaks, the politics of Bioshock Infinite, the abusive father/child relationship of Papo & Yo, or Binary Domain‘s dissertations on the Frankenstein Complex, could never have achieved their respective successes. A linear approach works wonders for allowing developers to say what they want, but it doesn’t really play to the unique strength of our medium: interactivity. By shunting players along corridors, through conflicts and ultimately to a foregone conclusion, we are robbed of the right to be authors (of a kind) in our own right and, more often than not, leaves even the most spectacular and bombastic gaming experience feeling pedestrian.
The result of games being heavily scripted is that players fail to engage in the moment-to-moment gameplay as strongly as we do in titles that focus, instead, on providing the opportunity for emergent narratives. These types of games are those that grant so-called ‘watercooler moments’ where what you have done is entirely your own. Titles like Skyrim, XCOM: Enemy Unknown and State of Decay adopt this idea to great effect. Undoubtedly, there is something incredibly compelling in feeling as though you are in complete control of your character or squad, controlling their destiny and seeing them through to success through your ingenuity. The ‘X-factor’ is that you are telling the story and coming up with an interpretation that another player may not.
Unfortunately, such games do not have quite the same intellectual impact as the former sort and universally fail to ask or answer any of the questions that comprise life. You may tell a story, but it is one of mindless action where death is meaningless, emotion lies solely in the realms of tension and relief and character is non-existent. It is a format that, right now, does not allow for a deeper discussion on humanity. When considering this, I can’t help but ask, “does it have to be this way?”
I think not. As players grow into designers, design is refined and technology continues its inexorable march onward, we will see games where literary merit is found even while we remain in control; the nature of the gameplay will have us asking the big questions; and player-driven stories will have more to say than, “this was cool“. In the near future, we will begin to draw our own conclusions, rather than those prescribed to us. We will stop playing with loaded dice.