The Evolution of Digital Storytelling

In this article, game designer Sande Chen reports on Sam Barlow's presentation at PLAY NYC, in which he describes how the digital world is transforming the art of storytelling.

[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect under the topic of Branching Narrative.]

Speaking at PLAY NYC on August 11, 2020, Sam Barlow, the mastermind behind the award-winning games Her Story and Telling Lies, explained the sweeping changes that have occurred in storytelling in his presentation, "The Death of the Container: What TV and Movies Should Learn from Video Games."

The line between television and movies is blurring, he said, with the increasing variety of new program formats. Content creators can no longer package neatly wrapped story content, i.e. a container, in this digital world. With smart TVs and access to streaming, consumers don't tune in at a certain time to watch programs. Instead of Must See TV, the operative word is now "binging," in which viewers watch through several episodes at once. That's a lot like putting in the hours on a game. Personalization, which used to be limited by genre categories in a video store, is commonplace. NetFlix even personalizes thumbnails for you based on algorithms. 

But television and film are still limited in choices. The viewer choice boils down to: Do I continue watching or do I stop?

Video games are known for player choices as well as self-expression and exploration. "Stories," said Barlow, "are information with emotion. Can we explore them?" Like the digital newspaper that assumes its readers won't read page by page, video game stories are unbounded, allowing players to replay, rearrange, and watch again while looking for new context. Video games purposefully acknowledge player participation. Players are allowed to explore with curiosity, usually in an open world, and feel immersed. Moreover, players are the main driver of the story. Players create a rich, full story in their heads and it's not only due to the order in which they came upon the story.

Barlow cautioned content creators not to get too excited about branching narrative and popular story choice apps, which he said only gives an illusion of a system with cause and effect. He finds that players want to go deeper, not broader, which is to say that the Why is much more important than the What If. To him, emotion comes from specific emotional moments, which requires an understanding of the story, and not from exploring different story branches.

In summary, Barlow offered up this analogy. The audience is saturated with storytelling. They've eaten a lot of pie. We shouldn't offer them mini pies and think that's special. A smart chef would offer a deconstructed pie. Similarly, he said, "To cater to the information overload generation, we must deconstruct stories for them so they can experience them fully again."

Sande Chen is a NYC-based writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

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