There can be little doubt that both stories and storytelling techniques are going through a gradual process of improvement within the realm of video games as the medium is finally accepted as a viable one for more powerful and nuanced themes. Among the most highly acclaimed in recent times for efforts at moving this area forward is Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. Neil Druckmann, the game’s creative director, recently sat down with GamesIndustry.biz for an interview on the topic, covering the past, the future and the approaches that should be taken to elevate this segment of gaming.
The interview begins with Druckmann stating that one of the main reasons that we haven’t really seen such a focus taken widely until recently is that the technology was simply not up to the task. The available platforms were largely incapable of providing “a lot of subtext or expression, so the dialogue a lot of times had to do a lot of heavy lifting“. This meant that much of the narrative had to be presented in an obvious way, sidelining any semblance of nuance.
As technology has advanced, the possibilities have really opened up, with more realistic characters and environments allowing narrative elements to be displayed within the play space, and this will only continue going forward. Druckmann says that his team was running out of memory in the number of animations that Ellie could perform and how much dialogue could be streamed at one time – barriers that the next-gen consoles promise to reduce by helping “in the dynamic area of the game where the story is responding to the player’s input on a moment-to-moment basis“.
In addition to this, he posits that indie games like Gone Home and Papers, Please, which tell narratives not usually found in video games in innovative ways, could help the AAA industry make a shift to more mature stories:
“As more and more examples come to light, I think more people are pursuing better narratives. And I hope criticism of games and game narratives is becoming more sophisticated. I think before you would have had a hard time talking about tropes and how women are represented in games, or how characters of colour are represented in games. But now I’m kind of excited by the discussion and the kind of criticism games are getting.”
It was an inevitable process. The more aspirational developers become in their storytelling efforts, the more critics and journalists will uncover greater meaning within the games that they are reviewing. Furthermore, gaming is gaining a lot of mainstream traction and this opens up the audience to people that are attracted more to the exploration of humanity, personality and society that have been pillars of novels and films for decades. To ignore a subset looking for something that will stimulate their intellectual side is a perspective that can only hold back gaming from what it can ultimately achieve.
It’s an interesting interview from a developer that clearly knows what he, and his team, is trying to achieve, and the direction that he wants to see our medium take. Most of the points have been covered here, but there is more to be gleaned from the original interview, so make sure to check it out.