I just read an article by David Braben on the Develop Magazine. Kudos to the Magazine to get an industry's veteran on board. I'm sure Braben has a lot to teach us all.
His first article is called " What's the Story?" which is a reference to pitch sessions when you present to your publisher what your game is going to be. In the article he approaches the current state of storytelling in games. I agree with most of what Braben said. But mainly the finishing sentence of the article. "Let's do our best to avoid having 'story' games or 'gameplay' games almost as different genres" .
Let me start by adding here a bit of evidence.
This picture was taken from one of the white walls in the meeting rooms of the Fable development floor, and pretty much sums up my feelings of what the current state of interactive narratives is in; A constant battle between Gameplay and Interactivity. Even in games like the Fable* series that rely heavily on story, as RPGs usually do, there is still this uncertainty about how to sew gameplay and storytelling together. Thus we end up with a patch work of voice overs, in-game "interactive" cutscenes, in-game "non-interactive cutscenes" and FMVs. It's an everyday effort to fit all of this together as seamlessly as possible.
Half-life, and specially Half-Life 2, made the whole "interactive cutscene" work very well, though they did have the first person paradigm on their side, which immediately places the player in the "head" of the main character, in this case Gordon Freeman who is undeniably a blank slate. It was a brilliant first stab at a truly interactive narrative albeit linear. But the industry as a whole has evolved very little since then. Fable II tried the "Gordon Freeman" approach with it's hero, with an added layer of flexibility so the player could "paint" the character the way they wanted, and it certainly added a layer of fun to the process, but the third person does not enjoy of the same immediate identification that first person does, creating a bigger challenge when it comes to trying to create drama; specially because the player has the control of not only the camera, but the protagonist as well.
On Fable II we tried very hard to steer away of non-interactive cutscenes, but there were points where we simply had to trap the player and take his control to be able to convey some important information or a more dramatic piece of the story. We did our best to justify all those moments, but we are still left with an overall feeling that we are trying to trick the player into believing on the interactivity. There is an excellent virtual shackles comic that illustrates somewhat I am talking about, If you haven't played Fable II and are planning to, you might want to avoid clicking the link below, as it contains a key moment of Fable II's story: The Power of Cutscenes
The main problem I witness every day is the fact that story design and gameplay design are two processes that are incredibly disconnected, yet intrinsically interdependent. The fact that the game playing and interaction paradigms are not taken into account when the story and dialogue are written leaves us with sometimes unwieldy large sessions of story exposition, where the player has just to sit there and watch. On Fable II the decision to eliminate cutscenes and allow the player to still have control of the character and camera at virtually all times backfired a bit, because although the player had the control, there was little or nothing to do other than sit and listen, which added an extra level of frustration, and a lot of negative reaction even from people from the team, who understandably begged for the return of normal cutscenes. It's like we waved the key to the ultimate release from cutscenes in front of the player, but never actually handed them.
Personally, the most successful interactive cutscene on Fable II, wasn't even classed as an important interactive cutscene and it wasn't even done by the interactive cutscene team. The scene I'm referring to, *SPOILER ALERT*, happens after the hero is shot down by Lucien and wakes up as a child. The whole section after waking up, and leaving that dream world, plays as a very well executed interactive cutscene, you can barely distinguish gameplay moments from the story. Your sister Rose is always with you, talking with you, hinting at what to do, and once you decide to leave the dream and she screams at you not to, that, to me, was the single most impactful dramatic sequence of Fable II. Everything connected seamlessly, there was no sitting and waiting for anything to happen in front of you, and all the narrative just happened in consequence of your actions. Genius, and yet, inexpensive.
If we want gameplay and story to go hand in hand, we need to start thinking about them not as separate pieces, but as one single entity. Much the way we accidentally did with that session of Fable II.
This post is also available in my personal blog: Path Constraint