One of the most novel aspects of the Netflix drama “House of Cards” was the way it integrated texting into the story and visualized it for the benefit of the viewer. It’s a subtle but profound thing that ensures a vital technology--one that is an integral part of nearly all our social lives--is represented in a contemporary story.
This matters because it allows that unique form of communication to add another dimension to the characters involved, finding a way to represent all the drama that can come with it.
The trick in a TV show is showing texts in a way that communicate character with the same immediacy they do in real life--a cinematographic challenge, certainly. Same with the Internet as a whole--detectives in crime shows worldwide are now routinely seen using Totally-Not-Google to search up their next clues in predictably awkward fashion.
But video games, which are much better positioned to simulate all this because of their interactive nature, aren’t very far ahead of TV and film in the matter, which is both a shame and a puzzle considering that videogames, texting, and the internet belong to the same family of technologies, operating on similar logics that do similarly interesting and novel things to human interaction. All are crying out for unique stories.
A few games have managed this, however, and they’re intriguing examples for how we might tell stories for a digital age.
Funcom’s The Secret World, a paranormal fantasy/conspiracy MMO set in the present day, continues to plod on despite its commercial failure--and that is all to the good. It floats in game-space like a colony of unique variations on game design themes. One such feature was the game’s integrated browser, a clunky but expressive little thing that was meant to make the conduct of “Investigation Missions”--adventure-game style puzzle quests that required often-extensive outside research to complete--that much easier.
The Secret World's browser was more or less a diegetic thing. Your character was constantly connected to the web on their travels through paranormally blighted parts of the world and always able to look something up if needed. On several quests, text messages and buzzes of your character’s mobile phone played key roles as well, providing breadcrumb clues. The phone was also the quest interface; text messages from your cabal’s handler were often quite fascinating bookends for the content.
Even in the absence of explicitly mechanical content, it was still flavorful and added much to the game’s magic-punk atmosphere, where demons post YouTube videos (yes, there is one on the actual website that plays a key role in the game) and the Illuminati buries the secrets of the world on page 5 of Google’s search results.
This was a game that also dabbled in augmented reality play--a subject for another day, surely--and used that to great effect by giving key characters Twitter accounts that were more than just temporary marketing ploys. They were content of the game itself, along with actual registered websites that one could look up to solve puzzles. By doing all this and turning the player’s computer into a diegetic interface, it blurred the line between fantasy and reality in beautiful ways that have only been echoed by a few other games (Device 6 springs to mind, partially because it too made the player’s iPad into a game-world artifact).
The end result was masterful, and all too easy to take for granted. It shouldn’t perish with The Secret World.
A more contemporary example is Prologue Games’ Knee Deep, part of a recent trend in story-laden games being parceled out into chapters. Though its mechanics can seem very sparing--reduced mostly to dialogue choices, with a unique twist I’ll get to in a moment--it tells its story rather inventively and presents it to the player with the accouterments of a stage play. Sets roll into place, an announcer narrates, an audience gasps at tense moments; it’s wholly, gloriously unnecessary. It is also entirely charming.
The story is told through the perspective of three different characters investigating the apparent suicide of a Hollywood star at squalid roadside motel in rural Florida--Romana, a delightfully strange TMZ-style celebrity blogger; Jack, an embittered local newspaper journo; and K.C., a depressed and cynical insurance investigator.
Throughout the story you interview various witnesses in and around the motel--and eventually further afield--engaging them in traditional, Telltale-style dialogue. There is something a bit wanting in it; each character has a uniquely characteristic response to offer and two or three generic replies. Our blogger can speak in weird poetry, the reporter makes aggressive whiskey-stained threats, and so on. Yet one wishes there were more than one way to use those uniquely characteristic expressions--I feel as if I’m missing out by not selecting the “flavorful” response, which renders the dialogue choices illusory.
What makes up for this is the intriguing way the game uses a tablet computer to express each character’s most impactful choices. Each of them has to file a periodic report of some kind based on the clues they’ve gathered from their interviews. The celebrity blogger, for instance, tosses off a gossipy scoop about the murder as she investigates. You have to choose which clues to write about and what kind of spin to give the resulting story; do you play it safe, do you write something edgy, or just go for the most inflammatory clickbait possible? This particular dance of choices is incredibly interesting and not only does it cause positively fractal pathing in the overall story, but it completes the sketch of each character, giving them just the right shadows and bold lines--and it makes certain choices nailbiting, to boot.
By opening the doors of Knee Deep’s stage to the tumbling trend lines of internet journalism, it gives a unique spice to the game. If you write an inflammatory story about, say, the dead actor’s last love affair with a few choice puns worthy of a tabloid front page, you’ll alienate certain key witnesses, making them less likely to trust you in the future. But if you keep playing it safe with bland nothingburger stories your editor will hound you.
In every event, Ramona enthusiastically plays with fire and you can almost see her smirk as she types; the stories also convey a beautiful desperation on her part, angling for one last chance to redeem herself to an editor that already detests her. For Jack, the “respectable” newspaper journalist, things are little different. His editor is cozy with the town elite and won’t even print stories critical of them, but you can push the envelope as much as you like, in the process establishing Jack as an angry newsroom rebel with nothing to lose, and an equal amount of desperation. K.C.’s reports are different; they’re not public fodder for internet flame warriors and political battles, but private reports and expense accounts delivered to his employer.
The Safe/Edgy/Inflammatory choice still matters here, however, as they affect how K.C. reports his findings and how antagonistic his relationship is with his employers. In a particularly cute touch, it even affects just how much he bills his employers for.
Using a tablet computer to do this is ingenious. It integrates the portable volatility of internet-based writing into the game with credibility and efficiency, using it to great effect to add needed depth to each of the three primary characters in the game.
By using the social dynamics of online writing as a game mechanic, Prologue manages to make a game whose storytelling competes with the best with them--and it’s good enough to make up for flaws in the game’s writing and voice acting as well, both of which can be disappointingly uneven. One side-character in particular is defined entirely by malapropisms and, well, let us just say he was not nearly as artfully realized as that word’s namesake. But with a few pecks at your character’s tablet you find yourself immediately swept into such a bewithing world of truths, half-truths, and varying centripetal thrusts of spin that you can forgive and forget it all.
We can laugh nowadays at how simple older mobile phones were. But the classic adventure game Syberia got quite a bit of mileage out of those old phones whose pixels weren’t quite yet mega. It was heroine Kate Walker’s tether to a mundane world she was increasingly disconnected from, her labyrinth twine that led out of a maze she didn’t want to leave. It was a tool to solve certain puzzles and a key stage on which her character evolved from a fusty New York lawyer to a rugged adventurer in unknown lands.
Had that phone not been in the game, so much would’ve been lost; a critical story that defined Walker’s character would’ve been absent and rendered Syberia a drearier, more lifeless game.
It can seem inconsequential to some, but taking a moment to critically assess what the internet and mobile telephony does for/to your life can provide a fertile seedbed of game ideas. It is central to how we now experience life, social interaction, and even politics. It’s worth making a game about.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.