Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Week 8 – Storytelling and Games

I agree with the opening quotations that storytelling and listening to stories is fundamental to our natures and desires. The power of myth is often underestimated, but over a long enough period of time, stories can even be transformed into what is established by common belief as fact. A lot of the stories we consume we do so without realising, which can lead to the idea that they aren’t important; which we’ve seen so in games of the past where plots seem like they’re thrown together at the last minute or are full of deus ex machina. Depending on the genre/tone of the game, story doesn’t have to be a fully fleshed out and developed plot, I think even simple thematical narrative can be sufficient if the emotional impact is communicated.

Does story make a better game? Usually, I think, yes, but of course there are varying degrees to what extent ‘story’ is necessary. The primary purposes of story in games are to give the characters [and players] motivations for their actions, to lay out a beginning, middle and end, and to make the player become emotionally connected to the game. I think this aspect in particular is easily overlooked. It is the difference between a game you enjoyed playing that is fun, and something that stays with you in the same way a novel or film does, and games have perfect capability to do that to the same extent. They have the same tools as film – image, sound, and voice. But they also have the extra dimension of interactivity. Depending on the genre, the depth of the story is of arguable importance. For instance, in a puzzle game, an interesting premise/theme is enough, and usually a narrative is a nice bonus that I think should be included more often and usually works well, for example in the Puyo Pop series, the puzzle battles are connected by a simple but appealing narrative that corresponds with the light-hearted style. On the other hand, in games that deal with human killing and other weighty issues, I think they require a heavier level of depth to justify those kinds of themes without appearing arbitrary and shallow.

Reaching a certain point in the game can make the storyline progress by the use of cutscenes, but those are still linear narratives. Some games take the concept of narrative and make progressing through the story the main element of gameplay. The player can be presented with choices at different stages of the plot which lead onto different ‘routes’, and branch off even further to a multitude of outcomes. Even with that type of setup, all the player is really doing is switching from one linear narrative to the next.

After looking at some articles dealing with story in games such as this, and this, while making some interesting points which I will not quote or analyse at the risk of making this entry too long, seem to ignore a genre of game that immediately came to mind after I read the title of this task, Visual Novels. Although classed as ‘games’, examples of this genre are more like interactive fiction, hence the term. All the gameplay consists of is choosing options at decision points; in other words the ‘gameplay’ is completely limited. Does it sound unappealing? Gameplay is usually the thing which we focus on completely. Capcom’s Phoenix Wright series is the best example of a popular visual novel, and I am struggling to think of any more games released in the West which incorporate this style, apart from maybe Atlus’ Persona series as Miles' mentioned or maybe even some parts of Harvest Moon [but even then it’s more of a dating sim, different to a VN as they’re based on statistics where as VNs are based on routes and ‘flags’]. 70% of Japan’s pc game market is made up of visual novels, and not recognised as a genre in the West. The actual narrative content of VNs varies, genres which lend themselves to the medium are typically drama/romance and mystery, character depth is usually the focus. The platform is mostly PC because it’s easier to make the games for, and successful titles are sometimes ported to PS2 or PSP. Some of the most popular manufacturers [I’d link to their home pages, but most people reading this might find the anime artwork rather eye-searing] are currently TYPE-MOON [started as an amateur group, turned professional after Tsukihime, their most popular series is Fate/Stay Night], Key [makes particularly melodramatic titles, but I’m finding Clannad quite enjoyable] and Nitroplus, who have a subsection which makes VNs aimed at women, which unfortunately have not yet been translated into English by fans. [Right now, I’m playing this game on my PSP. The point is to go through the events of the tv series it’s based on as your own character. I’d try to explain the appeal of that, but probably could not do so in so little words without sounding like an odious fangirl, so perhaps another time.] So why aren’t VNs exported to us? Some of them have been , and they haven’t sold because they’ve been marketed the completely wrong way. I won’t go into it today because this entry is already tl;dr.

The fact that there are pretty much no non-linear narratives in video games could suggest that they’re simply inappropriate for the medium, but I somehow doubt that. Game creators are not postmodern novelists, and I just don’t think the majority of the audience would [literally] buy it. However, considering the standard of game writers, I don’t think the narrative aspects should be ‘dumbed down’ into an easy to follow story when they’re capable of producing more complex things. Instead let people be dazzled and set the standard for other games. I wish. Amateur works probably have a better chance of attempting it rather than big producers which have risks and audience targets to reach and so on. Also, related to the topic I found this which I’d read about in an essay on storytelling once, but I can’t get the Java on my browser to work for this site.


Aby Bagulay said...

ahha, i see the Zeitgeist myth statement has has an impact!

Aby Bagulay said...

wow, i love the middle bit, u said alot of what i was trying to get across, but u did it way better!! and the extra knowledge on the japanese market too, nice touch... personal too! ^^

Blair said...

Haha, I know right? I'll write about that movie sometime...Its true though! How scary.

Thanks, but I wish I knew as much as you about our market!

Anonymous said...

No non-linear storytelling in games? I guess you haven't been following the development of FarCry 2.

Dynamic storytelling, emergent storytelling, narrative design -- this is what you should be looking at.

Blair said...

Oh, that's an FPS isn't it? Will keep that in mind.