The Garden of FTW: Video Games and Nonlinear Narratives
A good amount of my friends were at the 2011 Game Developers Conference here in San Francisco this week. As I looked through their program scheduling I noticed that once again there was a lack of panels on storytelling. Matt Peckham has written multiple articles on the subject that we as gamers need be critical of the story-writing wrapped in many of the “cinematic games” that have come out recently. This doesn’t mean we need to criticize a game like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, because it honestly did its job right in making great one-liners and amazing action sequences. For that matter, Heavy Rain, despite the at-times awkward gameplay and dialogue, still managed to take the player deep into a serial killer thriller to great effect.
I’ve asked those that I know in the industry a simple question: what are the first three games that come to mind, in terms of story and writing, what is the best games they’ve played? The one that has come up the most is the Mass Effect series and Dragon Age: Origins. Bioware, the game company that developed both game series, have not only made great strides in gameplay, but also have also set up a good universe to create stories in. Dragon Age: Origins is particularly interesting in the fact that one could get a very different path of the story depending on what race you choose in the beginning.
The problem is that all the games mentioned are like many games in that they give you the illusion of choice. Most games have a narrative structure often called “the creamy middle” by people in the industry, where there are many options of things to do in the game, but it eventually comes back into one ending. It’s that particular ability a player has, that of choice, is what could take storytelling in games reach new levels. I gave another look at this video of Salman Rushdie discussing how video games can affect storytelling . He brought up “The Garden of Forking Paths”, a Jorge Luis Borges short story that’s primary focus was on a man’s obsession with making a novel that was quite literally a labyrinth composed of all the multiple paths one can conceivably go down.
Game writers and designers should shoot for that garden, so to speak, and find ways to produce content that would create a game that has not only multiple paths, but have true multiple endings and outcomes as well. One way to do it could be through using procedural content such as the type used in games as recent as Minecraft to make randomly generated landscapes. Why not use it to make randomly generated story paths? This could definitely add the replay value of a game, as the next time it’s played a completely different story emerges from the differences in choices you can make. Another option is to add user-generated stories that work in-game as a mod, similar to what some people are doing using the StarCraft II Editor to make small games that are vastly different from the actual game.Will we ever actually see games like this? Probably not for a while, but if I see any game that does something genuinely cool with its story, I’m going to make damn sure all my friends buy it.