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Games and Storytelling

What makes a video game distinctive from other forms of digital (cinema) and classic entertainment? Is it only media of entertainment in which the viewer has the ability to be immersed in the environment as well as the ability to interact with it?

Volodymyr Nz, Blogger

February 21, 2017

6 Min Read

How it all started

The history of storytelling goes back to pre-historic times. Studies of Australian aboriginal people shows how storytelling was used in ancient times by analysis of the caves paintings. The stories at that times was told using combination of oral narration, music, rock painting and dancing. Cave storytelling is one the most ancients forms of art, which evolved in literature, theater, cinema and later — gaming. However modern storytelling introduces new approach.

Why we care about stories in games

Now is time when we are going further away from classic medias. Twenty years ago nobody would have considered gaming industry as form of art, let alone the one with strong narration and compelling  storytelling. I believe that one the one of the paths digital narration will travel is gaming. Gaming will be at the intersection with storytelling, with focus on narrative, intelligent gaming with adaptive story telling. Next steps for game designers would be to understand:

  • how modern technologies can enable better story-rich experience for players

  • how to control player story immersion levels

  • how to transition from fixed narration to completely freedom of choice, while preserving story and immersion levels.

What keeps people interested in game story-line?
Games with narration that have roots in cinema:

  • unpredictable ending - Silent Hill 2, Spec Ops The Line, Red Dead Redemption);

  • protagonist background - Planescape Tournament, SW KoTOR

JRPG is quite popular because of complex, twisted stories - Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Kingdom Hearts, To The Moon

If we take a look at studios that make interactive stories. For instance, Quantic Dream  games  plot is based on common human feelings and emotions, multiplied several times. Journey to adulthood -Beyond: Two Souls ; family - Heavy Rain. Tale tales plot is based on popular franchises - Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us, Tales of Borderlands, Minecraft, this is used to attract people to the story in the first place. Another games in this categories - ones that tell life stories, people could relate to - Valiant Hearts, L.A. Noire. “Walking Simulators” usually have good narration line, besides nontrivial setting — Dear Esther, Everyone Gone to Rapture, Stanley Parable

How the game plot is conveyed and tied to game-play is also important factor, besides the plot itself and ending — Prince Of Persia: The Sands of Time, Portal 2, Legacy Of Kain Franchise. Themes and characters serve important roles ion the narration - The Last Of Us, Metal Gear Solid

If gameplay creates right mood and setting, players can make a story themselves - Limbo, Dark Souls 1, Braid, Journey

Horror games generate strong emotions, immerse players into setting and scare him , this makes player feel as part of game world and feel for the game protagonist — Alan Wake, Rule of Rose, Amnesia, F.E.A.R, SOMA.

Soma isgreat example of raising philosophical topics.
Thanks Rob Obsidian for this image 

Modern storytelling

In modern storytelling, the person goes from being a passive observer to and active participating character in the story, if not even, the protagonist. What was once used as means of conveying stories (written text, songs), now becomes part of larger cluster: video games. Games, similarly to theater and cinema include, music, narration, dialogs but they differ from them by letting the viewer to become the protagonist. Video games first started as a simple arcade experience. Then, as how technology advanced, along with strong customer demand, more immersive experiences emerged. Modern researchers are working on developing new methodologies for better interactive storytelling, which focus on either achieving a specific objective, such as educational, or creating the ultimate dramatic story experience. Games are, undoubtedly, the largest interactive story telling media in the modern world. No doubt, that other media, such as theater, can actually benefit from rise and popularity of gaming.

Tale Tales Walking Dead is great example of interactive movie experience

Player immersion

Player immersion states. What makes a video game distinctive from other forms of digital (cinema) and classic (theater) entertainment? Is it only media of entertainment in which the viewer has the ability to be immersed in the environment as well as the ability to interact with it? Of, course arcade like games have little story and immersing level, they are used just to spend fun time. While, naturally, being popular (arcade games), people still play many more mature games with deep story and character progression. Players spend tens of hours in RPG games, exploring world, doing quests — leaving game protagonist life. Being similar to gaming, cinema and theater, allows us to borrow storytelling technique to write game script. By focusing research on story driven approach we can research new methods of player emergence into game world, by introducing new narrative driven experience. As Henry Jenkins (author of Convergence Culture: When Old and New Media Collide) noted in his interview –“So stories and games are intimately connected because they’re two sides of the same impulse. Stories give rise to play, and play gives rise to stories. Think of Star Wars, and all those action figures, and the fan fiction that came out of it — story transmuted to play and then to story again”. In my opinion, in order to achieve a more effective experience we have to use combination of music, story (plot), player-world interaction, visual elements and emotional influences.

Person and protagonist

Jeroen Linssen, in his work , writes that strong autonomy approach to story, freedom of action and choice enables more players’ interactions with the in-game environment, it also facilitates learning. Important note here is how to transition from fixed narration to completely freedom of choice, while preserving story and immersion levels. Developing this topic further, we can go from entertainment to education. Educational research shows that people learn better by practice and participation. This happens when person can reflect, be in same shoes as protagonist, going from “3rd person” perception level to “1st person”. Douglas Thomas states that players have deep engagement with game story and environment, suggesting analyzing this kind relationship. It can lead to new learning environments being much deeper and much richer than current learning theories. Modern forms of art, such as gaming and cinema, introduced a new storytelling approach. Examples of this are Avatar, Star Wars, and The Lord of the rings on the cinematic field, as well as Halo and Half-Life on the gaming side.

Just like with Avatar, future is about placing your digial copy in the story

What is next

In part 2 we look over how the game and cinema industries tie over history and how each apply techniques in their own way as well as how the immersion at a personal level is vital for an interactive storytelling system to be integrated and why it is important to base such foundations.  We will also discuss how the new tech brings new experiences and provides opportunities to this ever-growing field of telling stories.

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