Today I want to talk about how video games are approached as an interactive medium by the multitude of developers that decide to create a piece of this emergent form of art. This is not, as directly advised by Espen Aarseth, writing about the narratology vs. ludology topic, rather a look at historical, technical and cultural aspects that make up the fabric of each individual game, its intent, the way the developer(s) wish(es) it to be perceived by players, whether that’s even relevant in the greater view of the gigantic industrial complex that is video games and what the future may hold for this intersection of traditional entertainment forms with the additional layer of pushing buttons.
Historically video games began as digitized versions of existing concepts or game formats, such as, what isn’t actually, yet considered as such by many, the original video game, Pong.
As many likely already know, Pong is a minimalist version of the game of Tennis, usually played by two players and consisting of very barren visual representations of tennis players, shown as rectangular blocks, and the ball, a square, with a dotted line representing the net at the center of the field. Goal of the game is to reach a certain amount of points and as such the winning condition is met. Controlled solely by the movement of individual joysticks, thus relatively simplistic in retrospect, Pong doesn’t offer much, or any story to speak of. There’s not even a textual story bit about a guy named Tommy trying to break out and get into Wimbledon as a way of escaping poverty or the like. The only form of verbal communication or interactive storytelling would happen between the players, likely bantering competitively while trying to demoralize their opponent to get an easy score.
Other icons of the video game stone age, such as Asteroids or Space Invaders stick to this simplistic mantra, technical limitations being the primary reason at the time. Story elements were, if ever, generated through franchise or movie associations that added the extra bit of content through a relatable image on the cover of the box for the title.
Coinciding with the rise of the home entertainment system at the time were arcades, which entered the field a bit later, but covered a lot of space by drawing in large crowds and creating competitions for high scores and certain multiplayer games.
Around that time hardware was created that enabled the addition of content unrelated to gameplay, such as cutscenes, story in the shape of texts and dialogues, sometimes even with, admittedly grainy, audio bits.
One important aspect worthy of consideration when thinking stories in video games, is that in most cases story happens to the player, that is to say, any story elements that have been added by the developers are contained within the experience with no option of modifying or altering that content. Giving the player branching story options may seem like a diversion from those principles, yet the ability to deviate from the predefined framework stays out of the question, as even those dialogue options are simply that, options within a branching tree, giving the possibility of experiencing different story elements, yet excluding player agency from creating their own story elements. Of course, only video games with a certain structure would contain these ways of letting the player navigate the pre-scripted elements such as they are presented to them.
Other games, such as town building simulators, let the player create their own story by giving them creative tools to do with as they like, within the possibility space of the construct, of course. Then again, any textual or cutscene story elements will be delivered to the player with no alterations once triggered, regardless of surrounding actions taken. So will, for example, someone who spent a considerable amount of their playtime constructing buildings and improving their environmental conditions by planting trees, adding income through creation of manufacturing facilities and engaging in trade with either NPC characters or other players still be delivered the same lines of dialogue when contacting a specific NPC in their village, with the possibility of certain variations and so on, but ultimately activating a piece of text or speech predefined from a content pool associated with that character.
To further specify these constraints, yet another look at the ever popular Minecraft might help. In Minecraft, the player has the ability to construct from the “materials” in their surroundings any object they desire, with no limitations apart from their own imagination. In that way, they would be able to make their own story and even invite others into their world, by creating a public or online server for them to join, exponentially increasing the potential for high level interaction density through social activity and multiplayer action, allowing the participants to create their own stories within the previously created world by engaging with each other and constructed elements, such as buildings or other objects, that may to some degree predefine the potential stories told, as per association to cultural elements, such as castles.
But Minecraft is a standout and multiplayer that incorporates any way for the players to communicate, will always enable emergent storytelling. The majority of story driven video games are single player experiences, that deliver a series of constructs to be played through as if on a, sometimes, multi-path rollercoaster, in terms of scripted story elements, often allowing for perceived player freedom through visual modification of the player character or change of play style by adding skills or other roleplaying elements from a suite of options.
Rewriting history within any of those experiences is not possible, though, as they are pieces of entertainment, with confines and restrictions in place, to keep the player entertained, to guarantee a level of experience and to keep the experience from changing to a negative or unexpected situation and ascertain content restrictions as per industry guidelines.
In multiplayer games a main concern often is to encounter that obnoxious 12 year old, who’ll not only outperform players in terms of skill within the game, but also bombard them with curses and defamatory speech, until called by their mom to bring out the garbage.
The elimination of those nasty surprises is often one of the main desires of consumers of games, video games being a form of escapism beyond entertainment and such.
When games began adding major story elements in the late 90’s, with the genesis of many role playing titles like Planescape or Vampire the Masquerade on PC and other platforms, the culture around video games once again began to shift, this time away from arcades and back into the living room or someone’s parents basement, greatly increasing the potential for playtime focused on a handful of or even just one title, that possibly didn’t even require the silly sounding 56k modem to be plugged in, as it would provide much story on its own. When video games became more common through the creation of higher speed internets and other, physical forms of distribution penetrating the markets, the movie industry began to notice the existence of the video game industry, checking it of with a wink, a nod and a bunch of horrendous crossover titles.
Many damaged movie goers may remember films from that era, such as Street Fighter, one of Raul Julia’s last roles, as M. Bison nonetheless, or Mortal Kombat, another example of mediocre acting, scripting and low budget CGI special effects.
Soon, more collaborative instances would become normalized through the addition of major actors, Angelina Jolie’s interpretation of Tomb Raiders Lara Croft comes to mind, but at the same time horrible, low budget movie making would continue, with one German director feeling responsible for holding up the magic wand of making C movie material based on popular video game franchises through much of the early 2000’s, keeping up the tradition of the movie industry inadvertently making fun of video games.
Video games developed during that period kept increasing in scope as a result of the capabilities of hardware expanding simultaneously, culminating in groundbreaking titles like the Mass Effect series in 2007, which initialized an epic space saga of never before seen scale, letting the player embody the persona of commander Shepard, even giving the option to pick their gender of choice if that was male/female, or the dystopian vision of Bioshock, released around the same time.
While Mass Effect was lauded by both critics and players alike, receiving many accolades and selling very well, it remained a construct of entertainment, allowing the players to shape the world around them and make their own decisions, selected from a decision tree that was based on a moral compass, letting the player make “good” and “bad” decisions, which the developers named Paragon and Renegade, creating the ever popular dichotomy of good and evil, letting those with potentially repressed emotions be the bad boy/girl for the duration of the game and giving the peaceful a chance to commit good deeds.
Embedded in a rich world with story elements like diary entries and logs that could be read by players, if they so chose, the game series also offered a grand scale story, with many in-game cutscenes that included fully voiced dialogues and often strange and alien looking characters, along side the human protagonists and even giving the chance of experiencing romance with a set of available NPC characters, whereas the relationships would have to be nourished to come to fruition at some point on a secondary story arc, which would be determined by actions the player took to positively interact with those NPC’s and signal interest. The series even went as far as letting players import their character safe files between the titles, to allow for an even more personalized adventure.
Even as all this immensely impressed players, allowed for a high degree of replayability and many different minor story plots within the main story arc of the saga, one should always keep in mind, that any decision the player would make, apart from randomly running into a wall for half an hour for no particular reason maybe, would be tied to the games construct. At no point within the game would the virtual rope be untied to let the player freely roam and have never before seen interactions with never before seen characters, but the illusion was strong enough to create a believable and emotionally relatable game, with the added bonus of being able to share story snippets between players online, effectively letting everyone have their own personalized same story as everyone else who played Mass Effect.
BioWare, the creators of Mass Effect eventually got into hot waters when they released the finale to the series, the biggest game of the then trilogy yet, with multiple possibilities for endings based on decisions made, but the player base rebelled, appalled by the 3 endings they were able to choose between, forcing BioWare to release an update to the game through an online patch, that somewhat dampened the anger, yet had dire consequences for the company regardless.
This goes to show that one of the biggest titles in video game history operated on the basis of delivering pre-constructed content in the shape of game engine movie sequences and textual story content, combined with the interactivity of a role playing action game with lots of shooting lasers to great success and much fanfare, demonstrating the structure of story as it is represented in close to the entire catalogue of video games, whenever present beyond player created content.
Player created content isn’t a very recent innovation in the video game space, older titles such as aforementioned Vampire the Masquerade Redemption already gave the players tools to create their own environments and play out their own scenarios within those spaces, a nod to pen and paper roleplaying games, where game masters would lead players through adventures they’d either purchased from a lore book or self written content, which, of course, is easy to implement in textual form into a video game, but difficult to reconstruct as a full fledged campaign or even chapter thereof, based on the amount of time required to construct all the assets of those virtual environments, not to mention behaviors of agents, dialogues, sounds, music and so on.
Technical limitations at this time still don’t allow for emergent storytelling or player created story past picking one of several possible story branches in a single player game, that could be different for each player based on a variety of factors, such as their own actions but maybe also random settings such as environmental conditions, temporal shifts i.e different “start” times for each individual and potential story constructs based on reconfigured elements, many of which technical potentialities I’ve discussed in a previous blog.
Another reason for this relatively rigid model of incorporating story elements into video games could be the possibility for relatedness, that would greatly decrease if each individual were to play through their own version of the game, only linked to others by constants such as the main character or general setting of the world the game takes place in. Imagine the most popular TV show without coherence, message boards, reviews and shared excitement about specific scenes would cease to exist, hence eliminating a considerable portion of viral or auto generated marketing. Then again, the most attractive, wild or plain entertaining stories could float to the top of social media and give individual players greater exposure with little active contribution on their part beyond algorithmic luck, but this remains to be seen.
Some upcoming titles, like the heavily anticipated Cyberpunk 2077 try to innovate on the moment to moment level by giving players choice within dialogue that could incur immediate action as well as lead the player down a diverging conversational path.
As seen in one of the game demo videos, the player will be able to approach a negotiation in several different ways with several potential triggers that would each escalate into violence, which, admittedly isn’t a great suite of options for this specific conversation, but the preamble possibilities, or set of potential stories the player could bring to this specific situation, allow for greater gameplay variety.
The player character in the demo comes to the negotiation table with the mandate of fulfilling a mission for an NPC and is equipped with a credit card that will incur severe consequences on the gang members, if the player manages to trade it for the spider bot. Initially, the player will most certainly not even know that the chip is rigged and as such is likely to approach the trade a little more blue eyed from that perspective. Other configurations that would cascade down or up a highly branching story tree that might even go around corners at times can all be triggered from within this single negotiation and as such, again, offer greater variety. One might say that this novel method of approaching communicative interactivity is simply incorporating quick time events into dialogue options, but one won’t.
Storytelling in video games is a historical amalgamation of previous forms of storytelling and as such hasn’t greatly innovated any aspects of these elements within the framework that we understand as ‘video game’. As video games have overtaken all other combined forms of medial entertainment in revenue and become an economic powerhouse, they are at this time primarily driven by quick and easy mobile games that generate revenue through microtransactions, while triple A franchises create larger singular sources of income for their corporations by heavily investing in large scale marketing and often creating very cinematic experiences to go along with the mostly action packed gameplay scenarios.
As technology becomes more capable and allows for potentially varied experiences through deep learning algorithms, adaptable AI, larger branching story trees and so on, we should experiment with those capabilities, while also keeping in mind the responsibilities tied to the creation of entertainment and potential emotional impact any major deviation from preset structures could have on a developing psyche or a fully developed brain for that matter, when the intend is to have fun an be entertained, while random insertion of experiences could create a less than desirable effect.