As an impartial observer, I often find myself perusing online forums in search of titillating new discussions, mostly pertaining to video games and all the rage surrounding them. However, on one fine evening while enjoying a fine beverage and listening to some wonderful jazz musics, I uncovered a rather interesting string of posts on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. I quickly became a very partial observer.
The issue at hand was whether or not video games, as an artistic medium, could be vehicles for narratives and storytelling, particularly ones that portray and promote a specific ideology. When I ask myself the question, "can video games be narrative vehicles as powerful as literature," I think, 'why, yes, they certainly can be!' and a few great games start to come to mind. Games like The Witcher 2, BioShock, Mass Effect, even the great Deus Ex - but where does fiction stop existing for the sake of expanding upon itself and instead exist only to perpetuate the gameplay and move the player from setpiece to setpiece?
It's important to make the distinction between games, as an interactive form of media, and their otherwise static counterparts like literature and film. A book does not know that it is being read, in the same way that a film does not know whether it is being watched. A person can interface with a book, that is, a physical manifestation of text printed onto paper – but the book cannot offer choice based on the reader's decisions, discounting of course those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. Neither can a film. The stories are locked in place; they exist as a separate entity, and remain unaffected by those who choose to watch.
Interactive forms of media, specifically video games, are the exact opposite. The narratives do not exist without the player's input. A game knows that it is being played and will present itself based on the player's choices, reacting to each of his moves, and responding to his disposition. For anyone who has ever read a book or played a game, I'm sure you know right well exactly what I'm talking about – so why am I patronizing you? Because interactive media has so much untapped potential, and frankly, we're not doing it right.
I have my own theory about how games should be made. I call it the “Dungeon Master Theory,” and you'll soon see why this is exactly what we should be focusing on if we want to further expand games as a narrative device.
First, I think it's only fair that I preface this with the following statement: Games will one day surpass both film and literature as the dominant form of media entertainment. This does not mean that the film industry is doomed – there will always be a demand for movies, much in the same way that there is still demand for books over a century after the invention of the film projector. However, should we continue to evolve as a species, I'm willing to venture that the next step in stimulating entertainment involves the use of a mouse and keyboard (or a controller if you're a big fan of consoleboxes). The reason is the persistence of choice that allows a real human being like yourself, to immerse themselves into the game world. As we've discussed, narratives in films are fixed, and with the addition of choice, the player can truly feel as though their on-screen character, or more appropriately, their “avatar,” plays a pivotal role in their universe.
It's also important to note the differences between an avatar and a character. An avatar in an RPG is a virtual manifestation of the player's attributes. It has all of the qualities of the person controlling it, and as a player, it is your way of existing within a virtual space. A character has its own qualities that may or may not reflect upon the qualities of the audience, or in this case, the player. Both forms have their own strengths and weaknesses. A character is often times conflicted by poor or misguided writing to have an extremely broad appeal. The goal of this would obviously be to sell more copies by appealing to a wider audience, but often times the character will lose his own sense of self and become someone he isn't, only for the sake of pleasing the masses. An avatar, on the other hand, can have as many vices as the player chooses, however the main issue here is presenting this character in a way that people would find acceptable. We go to movies because we don't want to have to make tough decisions that have weight and consequence – we want to shut down and let someone else do that for us. However, if that's what you expect from a game, you're looking in the wrong medium. A game presents the objective, the obstacles, and then allows you to interface with it within a set of bounds to complete that objective how you see fit. Anything less is not a game.
This brings me to my “Dungeon Master Theory.” If you've ever sat down with some friends and enjoyed a rousing game of Dungeons and Dragons, you should have no problem understanding this concept. For the rest of you, allow me to explain: It's essentially the concept that all modern games are a variant of Dungeons and Dragons to some extent. In D&D, you have a group of players, each with their own avatar, working in tandem to explore a fictitious cavern or cathedral or other contrived fantasy setting. However, one of those players does not have an avatar, and they are referred to as the “Dungeon Master” or DM, for short. They're responsible for the planning of this dungeon and the placement of all of the enemies and loot hidden within. It is their responsibility to provide a consistent stream of challenges to keep the avatars working together, irrespective of the decisions they make while traversing the dungeon. For example, a good DM will provide a choice of physical direction in the level layout, or even make the map a large region to explore. A bad DM will keep everything on a straight path, and even though he may provide some semblance of choice, it remains for the most part a predefined, linear experience with only a single outcome. In order for the players to be fully and properly immersed, some sort of choice as to how they go about conquering their objectives has to be presented.
That is, not to say I have an issue with linear narratives. A friend of mine mentioned Metroid 4 to me saying, “that's a fine example of a game with an incredibly rigid but rich plot,” and he's right. But while the computer certainly tells you what to do, the sense of exploration still exists. Do your actions affect the plot? No, they do not – but they do not have to. Like with Wolfenstein, you create 'micro-stories' just through playing the game. The computer is not constantly telling you what to do, but rather providing you with an objective and some context to give you the impetus to move towards that location. How you get there, and what you do in the meantime, is up to you. Another fine example of that is Red Dead Redemption. Sure, most missions are pretty formulaic, beginning with a brief conversation followed by a ride on horseback to the location, some quick western gunplay, and then your reward; but the things you do in the meantime are up to you. Want to walk into a town and hold up a bank, then ride off into the sunset with the cash on your saddle? Go for it. The game won't hold your hand or penalize you for doing what you want, instead it reacts to what you did. The connection that you have to John Marston, Samus Aran and Wolfenstein Guy are so much stronger because of that. The way I see it is, all a game has to do is say, “you're at point A, now make it to point B.” Then it leaves you alone and lets you enjoy the act of physically playing the game. The obstacles along the way craft tales specific to how that particular player chose to handle the situation.
This is what games should strive to achieve. A game is a structure composed of rules designed to perpetuate the existence of fun as a player, or group of players, attempts to achieve a set goal through the use of tools. What would it look like if you took all of the actions that your avatar or character completed or experienced with those tools, during your gameplay? Here's where the Dungeon Master theory comes into play. Dungeons and Dragons is mostly imaginative, interactive storytelling. Everything that occurs is generally said out loud; for example when you open a treasure chest, the dungeon master might say, “The Avatar cracked open the lock, lifted the rusty hinge and grunted as he swung the chest open, revealing a small fortune's worth of treasures.” The more detail you can include, the easier it is to imagine what the situation was really like – it's easier to become immersed in the story, and grow closer to your avatar. Note that this is all done with little to no physical imagery whatsoever.
In essence, my point is this: games have the potential to be the most powerful form of media on the planet, yet it remains entirely unrealized. There seems to be an inherent fear among publishers about the graphical finesse and overall content in relation to telling stories with their games. It's all connected to making money, of course, but they seem to be under the bizarre impression that if a game has any semblance of unexplained player choice, or a decision that the player can make without their understanding of the possible ramifications at that precise moment (much like split decisions in real life), it will be too confusing or difficult for the player to understand. In other words, the majority of the game's budget goes into making fancy graphics and ensuring that the story never gets any more complex than a summer action movie. If a Dungeon Master were to read the events that occurred during a single-player shooter made today, it would read something like, “And the generic grunt moved down the corridor and shot at each of the men who popped up from behind cover.” When you put a quarter into a Pac-Man machine, did it lead you down a predefined path towards victory, or did it let you dart around the maze however you deemed necessary to avoid the ghosts?
As I said before, there simply isn't a personal connection to that kind of character because what you're experiencing isn't a game, it's an animated action movie. Developers who make these single-minded, linear tales of generic men who shoot at things should honestly consider switching to a new medium. All they're doing at this point is holding the innovators back. When publishers see that a game sells, they copy the formula. When the public demands yet another bland shooter where the instructions are literally relayed to you at every waking instant, giving you absolutely no choice but to progress down the corridors to set into motion yet another big explosion or scene with corny dialogue. To be completely honest, I find that ludicrously condescending. Apparently, developers seem to think that I can't figure out where to go, when the levels are all completely linear, my comrade has already told me to “follow him,” and every time I deviate from the path, I'm severely punished. Apparently, they need to constantly update me with tooltips and arrows leading the way, too. Moreover, I'm appalled that people still purchase these types of games, especially considering the extreme power of gaming. If the publishers are correct, gamers are really just sex-depraved, violence-obsessed basement dwelling teens who would love nothing more than to be told where to go and what to do at all times.
However, we should all know that this is simply incorrect. Frankly, I'm tired of not having control of my games – did we not create the virtual space so that I could explore it? What's the point of developing a story in a game when it plays out like a film? You, as a player, are fundamentally detached from the story when you experience it as an outsider, looking in. That does not mean that all games must be in the first-person perspective only; I believe we can achieve similar levels of immersion from all sorts of perspectives, with all kinds of graphical styles. Neither photorealism nor steamroller-esque linearity are necessary for immersion, although studies have shown a link between personal connection with a character and their appearance, as relative to someone in reality (spoiler: real people tend to evoke more emotion).
What does good game design look like, then? Well, firstly, it applies all of the aspects of a good dungeon master to its design. A great example would be Skyrim, since it already bears resemblance to Dungeons and Dragons in that they are both role-playing games with heavy focus on exploration and the wonder of discovery. When you enter a cave in Skyrim and are confronted by a troupe of reanimated skeletons looking to eviscerate you, that's the game presenting its challenge for you to overcome, much like a DM would. You then have a series of choices that you can make, in regards to combat. Do you want to sneak around and take them out with a bow, hopefully gaining an advantage with the sneak attack critical hits? Or would you rather charge in with an axe and try to overcome them with brute force? One might argue that this isn't an example of good game design, since that's exactly what role-playing games do. But perhaps that's the point – games have the ability to put us into the shoes of the hero, or the filthy sabatons of the anti-hero, just like your avatar in Dungeons and Dragons.
This can be applied to all games, not just the role-playing ones. Their ability to captivate through the physical capacity to choose the fate of your character or avatar is, by definition, more engaging than the predefined narratives found in movies and books. That's exactly the reason why it's so disheartening to see games go entirely underdeveloped. Too much money is put into developing the visual aspect rather than providing and reacting to all of the possible player movements. I like to think of Deus Ex as the best example, because it never says, “here are your choices, now push button to receive ending.” Instead, you just play the game, and the game reacts. You didn't kill a boss early on? Well now they're back, and conflict seems unavoidable this time. I suppose that you could argue that non-linearity in terms of plot is unnecessary, and you'd be correct. A game can pull you in by just leaving you to play with the mechanics in the way you see fit, but considering that this is the only medium where plot choices can be made, I'd say it's reasonable to desire just a few game-changing decisions every once in a while. Call them choices, call them “optional quests,” but whatever they are, this is the only place on the planet that we can effectively use them in our storytelling, and yet we're constantly avoiding it.
But that isn't all that we have to fix. Condescension is another huge issue that must be purged, and not just from video games. If I'm watching a film, say, the recent “Safe House,” I expect to be treated like an adult with the capacity to pick up on and understand trends and patterns. You'd think it'd be difficult to survive without that skill, but filmmakers and publishers seem to think differently. Anyway, let me set the scene (and don't worry, I won't spoil anything): The main characters are driving down the road. The camera begins to pan towards the sign, and then zoom in, as if to say, “hey, audience, look at this sign, because it might be important later!” The driver of the vehicle then begins to turn towards that road, emphasizing the importance of the sign. By this point, you should fully understand the complete and utter importance of the location written on the sign and the impact it will have later on. Later on arrives. Instead of merely referencing, with great skill and subtlety, using solely the camera and some clever tricks in shot composition the reoccurring importance of the aforementioned sign, as a director should try to do; we're shown an obnoxious flashback detailing the entire moment once again. It's as if directors forget that cameras can be narrative devices, too, and instead choose to just treat me like a moron. Games need to achieve the same, because a game is a space rendered through the eyes of a camera. The camera can be used to show and hide plot-specific details and teach the player about its mechanics without a computer popping up and saying, “gee, if you fall down into this fiery pit of spikes, you'll die!” Once again, it isn't the linearity of the narrative, but the non-stop handholding that we're forced to endure and the lack of even the slightest semblance of choice. It's lazy game design, it's unnecessary, and it has to stop.
As I experience new games and new movies, my hope for a bright future in gaming is disappearing. With so much of the content directed towards a mature audience, with all the shooting and violence and whatnot, it's strange to see so many games just bossing players around. You don't feel like a hero. Hell, you probably don't even feel like you're in control at all, and yet we keep spending our money on this overproduced crap. Shooters, RPGs, action-adventure games, platformers – they're all starting to feel like an amalgamation of bad movie sequels and Call of Duty spinoffs.
I don't know how else to say this: We have a form of media you can interact with. There's so much power associated with that statement. We don't want to play movies, where you just push buttons to keep the explosions happening, we want to play a game. Let's raise the stakes – we don't want to play just any game, we want to play an intelligent game; A game that doesn't require instructions from a computer every five seconds because I'm not keeping at the pace it wants me to move at; a game that teaches me through its design, not through condescending instructional “tips” or strangely funneled levels; but most of all, we want a game that recognizes that I simply don't want to kill that politician, and gives me the choice not to.
Let me put it this way: if you're in the games industry and think, “we sure could use another corridor shooter,” get out. I'd like to mention a great Bill Hicks quote about marketing, but I'll let you take a look for yourselves. Leave gaming alone and go into animated movies. Those fifteen-year-old basement dwellers you're aiming for hardly represent a significant percentage of our population. As human beings, you should realize on a very fundamental level that what you've done to this industry is appalling, and you should be ashamed. I have felt more of a connection to characters in Ultima 5 than I have to your overly-masculine operatives and warfighters. Publishers, I realize that you're making money by copying a formula that has sold millions of copies of (frankly, atrocious) games, but there are others of us that feel like we need something a little more stimulating. There was a time when all forms of entertainment were reserved exclusively for those seeking a thought-provoking good time. Video games need to harken back to that spirit of intellectualism and niche appeal if we ever want to achieve true entertainment. These generic tales spewing explosions and explitives and teasing us with scantily clad women shouting, “ARE YOU BEING ENTERTAINED YET?!” are simply not cutting it.
Are we to look at the future of gaming with a dash of optimism? Certainly. Imagine when your aunt Bernadine who loves to sit on her couch and watch those cliché Lifetime movies can instead sit down in front of her computer and experience “Lifetime Movie Network: The Adventure Game.” In all honesty, I think that interactivity makes for such a powerful form of media that it simply cannot remain ignored by the masses. More developers are going to be cropping up everywhere, and a ludicrous amount of money will be made, but right now we need to set an example. When Lifetime gets their own development studio, from whom do you want them to take their inspiration? If they're smart, they'll look at Deus Ex, Mass Effect and The Witcher, because those games innovated in the way they told non-linear narratives. Do I yearn for the day when Lifetime Movie Network is making adventure games for your aunt? No, but the point is that we need to start realizing the potential power of interactivity and what it can do to a story. We just need to tweak our already mature themes, match them with an equally mature and intelligent audience, and then throw in gameplay that makes you feel like you're in control of the action. Violence for the sake of violence is always wrong, but condescension for the sake of treating me like an incapable imbecile is even worse. I'll go where I want to go because it's my story – it's the developers job to make sure it all holds together when I get there.
All that being said, I heartily endorse Dishonored, coming out this October. Pre-Orders available on Steam.