Before I was a writer and narrative designer, I was (and still am) an actor that specialized in musical theater, and one day, when I was stuck on a game I was working on, it hit me: holy crap, games and musicals have a ton in common. ...At least when it comes to storytelling.
The incredibly bizarre fact is that the process of writing The Last of Us is much more similar to writing Hairspray than it is to writing World War Z. Why? Because games and musicals are the only two forms of storytelling in which the writer is expected to stop the story dead in its tracks in order to provide a completely separate form of entertainment. In essence, the writer is expected to say “hold on to that thought, we’re going to sing a song now,” or “hold on to that thought, now you’re going to play a game.”
Storytelling in games is new enough that we’re still trying to figure out, frankly, what the hell we’re doing, but musicals have been around for almost a hundred and fifty years now, so they have a long and exquisite history of combining multiple art forms into a single narrative that we may want to take a few lessons from.
To get a basic sense of the history of musicals, the first ever “musical” is widely considered to be The Black Crook which was produced in 1866. It was over five and a half hours long, but managed to pull in over one million dollars –that’s right, one million dollars in 1866- and ran for 474 performances. The success of The Black Crook began a string of operettas that mimicked it and, eventually, led to the era of the “musical comedy”, in which musical geniuses like Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, and Leonard Bernstein wrote “pop” songs and a story was built afterwards in order to lead the audience from song to song. These “musical comedies” include Kiss Me Kate, Anything Goes, and Of Thee I Sing. Audiences purchased tickets to these shows because they were already familiar with the song or the composer; story was an afterthought.
Then, on March 31st, 1943, everything changed when Rogers and Hammerstein opened Oklahoma!, which ran for 441 performances and began what’s known in the industry as the “Golden Age” of musicals, as well of the development of “book musicals”. The key to the success of Oklahoma! and the principle behind all “book musicals” is that all other separate forms of entertainment within the experience (singing and dancing in the case of a musical) exist to serve and progress the story. The songs in Oklahoma! are built to explain the desires of the characters, and the fifteen minute “dream ballet” sequence serves to reveal Laurey’s feelings about the two contrasting men in her life. Within two years the "book musical" was the new, and soon only, way to write a musical.
Since then movies and television have knocked musical theatre off of its pedestal as America’s first choice of entertainment, but today “book musicals” are still the most widely accepted form of musical. The reality of the theater industry today is that the average producer (the theater version of a publisher) is going to laugh any new “musical comedy” out of the room. Keep in mind that they do this not out of a sense of obligation to art, they do it because musical comedies don’t make money anymore. The only exception to the “book musical” model is a “jukebox musical”, or a musical where a story is built around pre-existing, commercially successful pop songs (examples include Rock of Ages, Mamma Mia!, and Disaster!, all three of which are currently running in New York City.)
Nowadays, the importance of story as the “king” of the musical is drilled into all new performers and writers who study the medium, in direct contrast to how the songs were once “king” and the story was an afterthought, made simply to string the songs together into something less emotionally schizophrenic.
I think we can all agree that the addition of player interactivity makes expecting any outright parallels between the paths of games and musicals a bit ridiculous. That said, in the only other form of entertainment where multiple arts are brought together with a narrative, it was ensuring that every element within the experience served the story that transformed it into America's primary form of entertainment and art. That fact gives me just enough confidence to make a few predictions.
- Whether it’s next month or years and years from now, we’re going to see an abrupt and rapid shift in how video games are developed. The commercial benefits of using gameplay as a storytelling device will become more prominent, and many AAA games will begin treating story and gameplay as equally important, using gameplay to help tell the story, rather than observing the current attitude that gameplay is king and all other elements are subservient to it (a process I think we’ve already seen begin with successes like The Last of Us).
- Games without stories aren’t going anywhere. Musicals and pop music thrive side by side, and just because stories are going to become much more important in games doesn’t mean that games without them won’t be commercially relevant. However, games that do include stories are going to use gameplay in order to further develop their characters or else they are going to be outpaced by their competition.
- Any games that include a story but are not focused on integrating the story and gameplay will have to be based off of a pre-existing franchise or pre-existing gameplay system that will aid its marketability. Any new IP will have to be "integrated" (as it's referred to in the musical theater industry) or have no story at all to be competitive.
In a sense, it’s helpful for me to think about the games industry as both the pop-music industries and the musical theater industries combined. There are always going to be successful games that don’t include stories, just like there will always be music without stories attached, but the future of storytelling in games might, just maybe, not revolve around ways the story can better serve the gameplay, but instead hinge upon what gameplay can do to help the story.