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Let me tell you a story…

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Advancement in technology is a wonderful thing. Just a decade ago I was singing the praises of the Digital Versatile Disc and yet there I was on Saturday night, G&T in hand and jaw on the floor, as Fight Club played out in HD glory on my PS3. It had been several years since I’d previously seen David Fincher’s brutal adaptation of Chuck Palahnuk’s novel, but, as clichéd as some may consider the fantasised Tyler Durden, it’s a wonderful yarn to weave. Full of anti-capitalist tendencies, a brow furrowing plot and the assertion that you and I are certainly not special.

And it got me thinking. How would such a story be played out through the medium of video games? Could such a tale be told without removing what made the original so compelling: the sleight of hand, the duplicity of a single character, the depiction of insomnia, the visceral nature of the violence. Contract the majority of studios to do a game adaptation and the most likely result would be a poor Streets of Rage homage lacking any of the film’s unique qualities. Given the anti-materialist tone of said film, I can’t see Tyler being happy with his story resulting in yet more mass produced crap.

Even away from the notorious domain of movie licenses, story driven games are tricky things. Cast you mind back through recent times and consider whether you have played a game with a storyline that could truly be considered good. Great, even. Great, that is, in the sphere of storytelling and not in just games. Far too many rely on derivative tales of revenge and bloodlust with little or no character progression or even consideration for story arc other than to move the player to the next exotic level. Halo, Modern Warfare, Gears of War; all massive selling franchises but with stories little better than a Michael Bay Victoria Secret’s commercial.

Taking Halo as an example, it may have a great deal of lore defined behind the scenes but this is ultimately just the building blocks from which the game’s universe is formed from. The adventures we actually embark upon with Master Chief are, when stripped down, little different to Mario’s original quest to find his Princess: one man striving to save something of value to him, running through mostly linear levels to be met with more supposition on their completion. For Master Chief this is a well lit cutscene depicting the latest twist in the war against the Covenant, whilst in Mario’s case it comes in the form of a Toad professing that he knows nothing of the princess’ whereabouts and suggests looking in another castle.

Although that may seem unfair to some, the story telling within ODST brings Halo 1-3′s (and most FPSs) into starker relief. There you find the same elements of a mystery, a love story and an adventure, but they are then backed up by a group of soldiers each with their own personalities and traits. Not only do they add more depth but these characters’ story arcs are shown through a series of flashbacks revealing that developers can attempt to express stories in less than conventional ways successfully.

However, the most successful story tellers of this generation to my mind are Bioshock and Portal.

Part of Bioshock’s accomplishment is down to the completeness at which Rapture has been realised, allowing anyone treading its subterranean hallways to be full immersed in its dark atmosphere. From the very beginning you are involved in a plot to bring down certain figureheads through a plot of deceit that has apparently been many, many years in the offing. But it’s not just that makes Bioshock standout as it is the amount of optional story that can be found through audio diaries that really starts building up certain characters.

Speaking at GDC, Bioshock’s Ken Levine detailed how their team build up characters ahead of time to make them feel more imposing, a more integral part of the world. Discussing the importance of using storytelling to make up for the deficiencies of game characters, “When we finally meet [deranged doctor] Steinman, he’s just an A.I. with a machine gun and a medical mask, but players have been set up to invest emotion in the guy. At the end of the day these digital actors are not Brando.”

Portal’s storytelling is also subtle. Although constructed like a common or garden puzzler with stark levels and a seemingly predictable path, it soon breaks off into something very surprising. With a homicidal computer attempting to control proceedings and the story of others played out through graffiti in hidden nooks, it has a tale to tell if people are willing to invest time in to seeking it out but equally does not burden those who just want to play with reams of text or cutscenes. A policy continued with the Left 4 Dead series.

No matter how much subtlety developer’s can include, the medium itself falls shy of the many expectations heaped upon it. Despite the progression in processors and the raw power available in comparison to at the start of the video game revolution, we still cannot hide that video games are not in the whole treading their own unique narrative path. Rather they are following in the footsteps of others, namely Hollywood.

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Yesterday we spoke of the influence Hollywood had on storytelling in videogames. It is an influence that has brought about an abundance of immersion shattering cutscenes and quick time events (QTE). Developers have strived so hard to produce dramatic set pieces aimed at thrilling the player visually, and yet at the same time these scripted dramas can’t help but mock them.

Stood before you is the character you have been guiding for the past dozen hours, dodging falling masonry and firing a rocket launcher into the underbelly of an escaping helicopter, and yet you are no longer in control; the game is playing itself to a conclusion. The culmination of your adventure has been played out without you, or, and possibly even more heinously, has been played out whilst asking you to occasionally press a random button to keep proceedings flowing; the game intimating that you couldn’t have possibly have done that on your own.

For the most part, videogame storytelling has aped film because during videogame’s growth it has been the standard in visual storytelling, but it is now time for videogames to evolve past that and stand on their own. Whereas films themselves are a single interpretation and vision of a storyline, namely that of the director, games must cope with many players all trying to do different things and so must seek their own way of expressing such narratives. Speaking to CVG last March, Square Enix producer Yoshinori Yamagishi commented that “in film, the creator has control over how he gives the story to the viewer – it’s easier to control the emotions and feelings expected from the viewer.” Hence why when something important needs to be said the safe option is to head into a cutscene so that the player does not miss it, misinterpret it, or ruin the atmosphere by standing on a desk and attempting to stab you boss whilst he tells you of your next deeply important mission, ala Assassin’s Creed.

Some developers already understand this as an error. David Cage, creator of Heavy Rain, compared this standard approach to that of adult films. In an interview with Gamasutra he said of Uncharted, “it gives you a bit of story, then action, then a bit of story, then action – like porn movies, when you think about it.” Not one to speak without actions to backup his comments, his work with Fahrenheit and the forthcoming Heavy Rain attempt to challenge preconceptions about stories in games and make it a core focus for a player.

Though well received, Fahrenheit was something of a mixed bag. Its closing chapters left a lot to be desired and could be sadly likened to a poor episode of the X-Files. The opening scenes, however, captured players’ imagination with their ability to shape a sizeable part of the early story. Waking from a trance in a restaurant’s filthy men’s room, you found your hands convered with blood and a stranger lying dead at your feet. How do you respond? Should you run before anyone comes in? Maybe attempt to clean up the crime and pretend nothing happened? Or would you prefer to turn yourself in? Many things are possible and with it the replayability as you sought to experience the consequences of each possible avenue of choice, almost like the classic Choose Your Own Adventure books of the 80s.

With the imminent Heavy Rain marked as Fahrenheit’s spiritual successor, Cage’s work looks set to continue. But is this the future? Whilst the web of storytelling maybe an intriguing prospect, how game-like can it be? Fahrenheit descended into little more than pattern matching and QTEs by its finale; will Heavy Rain be any different? And are any other titles going to follow suit if it does?

In a recent talk at Game City, David Braben compared the current state of the videogame industry to that of 1930s Hollywood. More specifically, declaring that the likes of Activision and EA are the equivalent to the then MGM and Warner Brothers: “production units that ensure consistency of quality and professionalism at the expense of pushing the envelope and exploring the broadest potentials of their medium.” No great examination is required to reveal that the larger publishers play it safe to recoup the most for their investment, and this doesn’t just go for styles or genres but for storytelling too.

So as with many interesting developments, the indie scene can be seen to be thriving when it comes to pushing a whole menagerie of envelopes. With comparatively little risk and many projects born out of sheer passion, many bedroom coders throw their all into their games with the hope that it will get a little love in a world dominated by multinational giants.

Although approaching its fifth anniversary, indie game Facade has always struck me as a very clever game with an interesting narrative. The entire premise is that you, invited over to a friend’s apartment, witness the end of their marriage. At least, that is one possible outcome. Thrust through use of a first-person view directly into the situation you have the power to talk and act in a bid to help salvage your friend’s relationship or, conversely, drive the final wedge between them. Whereas Fahrenheit used actions to branch its tale, Facade uses words. With an impressive comprehension of most things typed you can play through its short runtime attempting a variety of different tacks.

Though technically a polar opposite, Facade also shares something with Modern Warfare 2 and its terrorist scene; both dramas will continue with or without your involvement. Locked into the first-person perspective you are free to walk around, possibly prompting responses from others but never being forced to react yourself. If the general comparison for videogame story telling is cinema, then this approach is more like theatre-in-the-round, where the audience between them can see every angle of the performance before them. With such a production there is no “one perfect angle”, an informality as the actors turn to address each sections of the audience, and almost a sense of the audience itself intruding in what is unfolding.

For the most part, however, the stories that prove most compelling are those that the players make themselves – the metastories. The week after GTA IV was launched, conversations were all too frequently laden with tales of narrow escapes from the police, amazing feats of driving skill, or of how helicopter gunships were flown back from the pub and parked in someone’s front garden. And it doesn’t just have to be sandbox games, anyone can regale you with how they escaped the horde using nothing but a toothpick in Left 4 Dead, manage to do two loop-the-loops in a warthog and land square on an opposing player’s head, or even how they were moments away from death in Tetris before that long thin block appeared and helped them clear the screen. No matter what type of game it is there will a personal tale to tell.

And for now I believe that it is the player’s own experiences that will craft the greatest tales, for I do not believe that gaming has yet had its own Citizen Kane. We do not know what the best way of how to tell a tale because it hasn’t happened. It is an intangible possibility waiting in the wings. Industry names can all talk about why using cinema as a template may not be the best way to present narrative but until we have our own Rosebud moment we will be just like the cinema of the early 1900s: full of gimmicks and novelties to attract the paying public but with very little lasting substance. Back at the turn of the last century they were stunned by images of a moving train, and in a century’s time will Burnout be regarded in much the same way?

In the same talk Braben asked the question of “when did the games industry start?” Was it with Space Wars? With Pong? The NES? The advent of 3D? Whilst there is an industry, I believe the answer is “when we start telling stories in our own unique way”. The answer, is not yet.