Welcome to the next in the series of OnlySP spotlight features – shining a light on the intricacies of game development.
This time we’re trying to answer a question that’s really important to us here at OnlySP: what goes into creating a great gaming narrative, and how have they evolved over time in relation to other media?
We look at the similarities and differences between games, books, and movies, charting gaming’s progression through Zork to The Order: 1886 with the help of developers behind some of the most highly acclaimed narrative-based adventures in recent memory: Fullbright’s Steve Gaynor (Gone Home, Tacoma) and Frictional Games’ Thomas Grip (SOMA, Amnesia series).
WHAT THE PLAYER DOES
When it first released on PC in 2013, Gone Home caused a stir in the community. Players arrive at a seemingly deserted mansion in the middle of the night, and are tasked with piecing together the story of the people who lived there – interacting with environments and collecting documents to fill in the picture. There’re no aliens to squish, sliding block puzzles to fume over, or things to collect; Gone Home relies on the strength of its environmental storytelling to pull players into its enigmatic mystery.
Fullbright’s latest game, Tacoma, is much in the same vein, but introduces another layer of mechanical interactivity.
“It’s a story game where you explore an abandoned space station, but the technology allows you to interact with these holographic recordings of what happened before you got there,” Gaynor explains. “So you as a player are exploring the station, you’re unlocking different parts of it, you’re getting access to the entire facility, and along the way you have control over being in the room with these people while the events that led to the state of the station happen. It’s this interactive, digital exploration – pulling yourself through what happened before you got there and putting the pieces back together.
“I think what we’ve realized over time is that the hook [of Tacoma] is, yeah it’s a cool abandoned space station, it spooky. But, what’s important are these augmented reality figures that you follow around; you’re in the space with them, you have control over them – fast forwarding, rewinding – and being an active participant in investigating what happened.”
Frictional Games, however, are lauded for their creeping, psychological horror, full of phantom footsteps and Lovecraftian nightmares. But while it’s more than adept at frightening the pants off of YouTubers big and small, SOMA, like Anmesia before it, isn’t scared to bring up tough moral and philosophical quandaries.
“SOMA is a first-person horror game that explores what it means to be human, the self and consciousness,” says Grip. “It’s basically about putting the player face-to-face with the disturbing facts about their being.
“It’s a first-person exploration, adventure game where you go through situations and confront issues that’re connected to these themes of what makes a human, what is our consciousness and what is our self? It’s hard to say more without spoiling too much, because there’re spoilers from the get-go.”
The most difficult part of writing can be finding where to start, and penning the story for a game is no different. Techniques differ, and building a winner can be a frustrating and laborious process.
“In my point-of-view,” says Gaynor, “it always starts with what the player does.
“It starts from the mechanics of what abilities you have as a player and what you do in the game. With Gone Home, if we say you can walk around, open drawers and cabinets, read things, pick up objects and turn lights off and on. That’s the starting point, then the question becomes, ‘what is a story that can be expressed through those things most effectively?’
“Sometimes there’re false starts, and sometimes it’s like, ‘what about this?’ and when you start working on it the game wants to tell this other kind of story. I think it’s really important to work within constraints in terms of the design of the game and what the player does. If those are your starting constraints, ‘here’s what the player can do, what kind of story can you tell with that?’, that’s a really useful frame to work in, rather than, ‘what’s a story that I want to tell in the world?’ It’s really good to have the game directing you from the outset.”
He continues, “There’re so many constraints on what you can do in a game, as far as scope and what your team’s good at building. Those things are going to describe themselves very naturally, sort of like, ‘here’s something we think we could pull off, now what story do we put in that’, not, ‘what’s a story I think would be cool to talk about’, because that’s just so broad.”
Grip however, looks at the problem in a different way: “When we sat down and designed Amnesia almost ten years ago, when we started in something like 2007-2008, I wanted to have certain themes in that game,” he explains.
“I was very interested in what makes someone evil, what’s the difference between good and evil, and is evil something you are or something dependent on the situation. The idea evolved that you as the player should play a character in Amnesia that the more you found out about them, the more repulsive they were. I thought that would be a very interesting conflict for the player – a big thing that people picked up on. Then, when we released the game, no one really mentioned it.
“It felt like a bit of failure, not being able to push that far enough. So with our next game, for SOMA, there was another theme I wanted to explore: consciousness – which is a super broad topic. I wanted to try and do it properly this time, so now we needed to focus on it from the get-go and it’s going to be the main focus of the game, to explore these concepts.
“We had no goals in terms of gameplay, we had no mechanics or anything like that. We just explored what you could do, and then we came up with the premise. You start the game, take a brain scan and end up somewhere else.”
Despite these differences in perspective, overlap is inevitable – and creators always advise on doing what works best for you.
“I agree with the sentiment that a game should tell its own story,” Grip says. “It’s just that, from the beginning, you have to inject your themes. You have to very consciously inject them into the game and then the game tells you what parts of those themes you’re able to tell. I think that was the problem with Amnesia, that we added them not as the main thing, but in the background of the story and hoped that it would get across.
“The whole thing of letting a game tell its own story is something that I agree with very much, but you can’t only rely on that. You can’t just try anything and what comes out comes out – you have to have some authorial control over it as it goes along. It’s a very hard process to balance because you need to have a certain amount of control, but you still need to let the game be what it wants to be according to the mechanics and what flows best from it.
“It’s hard for me to say how one should [make a game], we’ve done it differently for every single project we’ve worked on – it’s an evolving process for us.”
LOOKING TO THE PAST
Since the days of early text adventures, novels have always informed the stories in games, both in genre and form. Many classic adventure games incorporate elements of fantasy and mystery writing, borrowing their tropes and familiar structures.
Frictional Games embrace this spirit, drawing inspiration from Lovecraft, Stoker, Poe, and other Gothic literature – going as far as naming their custom C++-based engine the ‘HPL Engine’, after the initials of Howard Phillips Lovecraft. More obvious influences aside, the genuine connections between horror games and written fiction are striking, including a similar emphasis on setting and tone, to the use of the epistolary structure, which tells a story through letters, diary entries and other documents.
“If you compare Gothic literature to horror games, there are a lot of interesting overlaps between them,” Grip explains. “One thing that’s very common in Gothic literature is that it’s very ambiance-based. You have a lot of stories by Edgar Allen Poe and Lovecraft which don’t really have a strong plot, it’s almost non-existent or very tame. But they thrive on provoking a certain atmosphere and feeling in the player. You see the same thing in horror games as well, the plot for something like Outlast, ‘You’re in an asylum, get out’ – that sort of thing.
“If you read something like Dracula, it’s made up of diary entries and newspaper articles – the whole book is written in like a journalistic form, like it’s a collection of documents. And games do that too; we did it in Amnesia. The story’s mostly told through documents, which is very typical of survival horror games, Gone Home as well. It’s the Dracula style of storytelling, just you’re walking around the mansion getting the documents.
“Then another common thing is the first-person. In Gothic novels it’s ‘I did this’, and that sort of thing. Again in horror games, it’s usually first-person, or at least you’re the active force in them. It’s very interesting if you just compare those two, there is a lot of overlap.”
Games owe a lot to films too. Early examples like Maniac Mansion pay homage to B-movies and slasher flicks, while it’s hard to imagine Ninja Gaiden and Contra existing without the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone raking in the cash at the box-office.
“I was a big fan of point-and-click adventure games,” says Gaynor. “I was a little bit young for the era of classic Infocom text adventures. I think that when A Mind Forever Voyaging, or Zork, those kind of foundational text adventures were coming out, they were just a bit over my head.”
“Really, it mostly started when they ported Maniac Mansion to the NES ,” he continued. “They highlighted that in Nintendo power magazine and I played it at my friend’s house and was really obsessed with it. Then he was like, ‘you really like Maniac Mansion, there’s other games like that on my Dad’s computer’, so I started playing Sierra adventures and early LucasArts adventures. I feel like I had quite a broad upbringing with games because I was playing platformers on NES at the same time I was playing Monkey Island and stuff. But I think what really excited me was they allowed you to be in the game-world in a way where you could occupy that space.”
Nowadays, games like The Order: 1886 wear their cinematic aspirations on their sleeve, banging the drum for photo-realism and ‘cinematic’ experiences. However, questions remain over how desirable this really is.
“I don’t think that trying to emulate what is good about another medium that has a totally different form is the most valuable goal that our medium could aspire to,” says Gaynor. “I think there’re certainly ways in which we play games that have strong influences from film that feel cinematic without achieving that in the same way as cinema actually does.
“I think you can have experiences, like for instance Red Dead Redemption. You know the part where you get across the Rio Grande and you’re on your horse riding into Mexico, and they start playing the soundtrack song as the vista spreads out in front of you. Practically speaking, they put you on a horse, make sure they aren’t any enemies around and start playing a song – you have total control, you can sit there, get off your horse and run around in circles. But I think players are drawn into that moment so strongly that you play along with it. That’s one of the most cinematic moments that I can remember experiencing in a game – it accomplishes a moment that feels sweeping and cinematic without trying to fit against what you’re naturally able to do in that game on an interactive scale. Those kind of moments are the best examples of when a game can feel cinematic because it feels like you’re participating in the kind of moment that’s great when you see it in a movie – not because you’re like, ‘this is great, it’s like I’m watching a movie.’”
Grip feels the same way.
“There are interesting differences that people are still figuring out,” he says. “My pet peeve in horror games is when they have a cut-scene to show the monster’s first appearance. That’s typical in a horror movie, the protagonists enter a room or a corridor and at the end a shadow swoops by. In a game, the creator gets very anxious that the player’ll miss the shadow, so they have to make sure they saw it and then get back to the game. That’s bad design, you want to make it so the player always sees the shadow – trick them into looking there, or only have it go off when the player’s looking there. These are remnants of how you do horror in movies.
“It’d be very good for games if they ditched certain things that you do in movies, but there’s always a bit of anxiety that the player won’t work it out on their own.”
However much they borrow, games aren’t novels or movies. They’re their own discrete medium with their own style of storytelling that’s not possible in other forms. And what’s truly exciting, is that new archetype are still being coined.
“With the kinds of games we make, we’re explicitly not about letting the player affect the outcome of events, but what we try to do is have the player be directly active and interactively involved in discovering the story that does exist piece by piece and reconstructing it on their own terms,” Gaynor explains. “It’s this active interpretation, you’re saying, ‘here’s this whole pile of information, and no one’s going to tell me what this all adds up to, it’s my job’.
“I don’t think that trying to emulate what is good about another medium that has a totally different form is the most valuable goal that our medium could aspire to.”
“That’s generally true in a book or a film too –you’re stepping from page to page, or scene to scene, and you’re encountering information that often isn’t presented in chronological order – you’re doing that active reconstruction. But I think there’s an additional layer of not just interpreting the information as we introduce it to you in a prescribed order. The information provided to you is more in the shape of a net or a cloud. You are also responsible for what order you encounter it, and what you do with it.
“I think that’s interesting, but it’s not like a value judgement. It’s not like, ‘therefore games are better’ or something. Let’s say it allows people to engage with the game-world that they’re inhabiting more like you do in your own life. If you just went to a place and there’s nobody there and you’re given information to look around, you could just look through the drawers and figure out who these people were and what happened. That can give you access to the significance of those people’s lives in a way that you can feel very invested in because you were the person who extracted all of that and put it back together – nobody told you, ‘look in that drawer first’. This is all here for me to discover and I did that, and here’s what I think of it. I think that has a certain power in of itself.”
“A few years from now, there’s going to be a thing that lots of people are doing that we don’t even know was an option,” he continued. “I think you see that with big genres, you see that with Minecraft, you saw that with Grand Theft Auto.
“I think and hope that games like Dear Esther, Gone Home, and Firewatch are a smaller version of that where it’s like, ‘oh, you can make a first-person game in an immersive environment that isn’t about action, but there’s still something there that’s worth exploring’. I think that as we go, people will discover more things like that.”
The only limit on this evolution is the creativity of game developers. While some may suggest that modern audiences are more open to mature and complex narratives, they can only respond well to them if developers are putting them out there. Technical advancements get the headlines, but the broadening scope of what a video game story can be has just as much of an impact on what we’re playing.
“If you look at action-adventure games and early ‘90s platformers, they make no sense at all,” Grip jokes. “There was no one the team asking, ‘why are there people in every single window, throwing pots at the player’. Those questions at that time were totally irrelevant.
“If I were to explain to someone that we were making SOMA in the early ‘90s to someone who’s only played Super Nintendo, they’d be like, ‘what the hell are you talking about?’”
Follow OnlySP on Facebook and Twitter for the latest news, reviews and interviews. You can find more from Steve Gaynor on Twitter and at Fullbright. For more on Thomas Grip, find him on Twitter and at Frictional Games.