Stories are something that is very important to us humans and also a crucial part of many video games. In some games the player is the author of the story, for example in Civilization where you are given some basic start resources and are then free to decide how your story will play out. In other games the designer has the most control of the story and the game mechanics do their best to guide the payer through the narrative (which may dynamic or linear).
While the player-as-author stories are interesting, what I will discuss here is the type of stories that have been designed. Some people have argued that games are inferior at telling these kind of stories, something I do not agree with. While the games out today certainly do not compete with stories found in books and movies, I believe that the problem is that the medium is simply not been used correctly.
Most games that are story heavy tells a narrative using a linear plot; in other words a string of events tied together by sections of gameplay. Most games that have been celebrated for their story such as Half-life 2 and God of War use this design. The concept is basically to force the player into doing certain actions by limiting the amount of interactivity.
Because this type of storytelling is based around forcing the player, it often comes with a very high amount of cut-scenes. Whenever a plot event requires an environment or situation where the player has too many choices, it is no longer possible to keep it within gameplay; all (or most) player control is taken away and a cut-scene is used. Some games (like Resident Evil 4) try and keep interactivity by using quick time events, but this has always felt like a cop-out and unneeded trial-and-error to me . In other games, like Half-life, these moments are handled by blocking the player in some way until the scene is over. In all cases, the normal gameplay is restricted and players cannot progress until the game lets them.
I believe that plot-based story telling has reached its limit*. A fusion of gameplay and story-telling the story can never occur unless it is some type of action scene or in other ways tightly connected to the gameplay. Whenever some emotional and story intense scenario is needed it is showed as a cut-scene. Interactive scenes only consists of very strict and standardized gameplay.
Plot-based story telling is not without its merits though. It fits very well with how it is done in movies and books and one can very easily use practices from these. This makes it possible to plot the different parts of the story early on and have things like characters arcs and tempo quite easily. It is probably because of this that plot-based storytelling is so widely used.
However, I personally find this way of doing it very problematic as it clashes directly with the unpredictability of games. For example, when we did the "meeting of Dr Swanson" event in Penumbra Black Plague, it was very hard to make it all playable and had to have doors mysteriously closing and the like (click here to see, spoilers ahead!!). When making Penumbra we had several other similar problems all due to events that had to happen at specific occasions in a very specific way. Every time we had to sacrifice some part of the gameplay in order to solve it story-wise.
This is troubling! When the most emotional and story-wise important scenes need to rely on taking away interactivity something is very wrong. I think the problem is simply that this type of storytelling is not the best way of doing story in games.
This type of storytelling is evident in games like Bioshock, System Shock and to some extent in many RPGs and normal adventure games. It is about having a certain background story (or similar) spread out over the world. The player must then find these fragments and piece them together. These fragments usually come as notes or character dialogs, each giving a piece of the "puzzle". It is this kind of storytelling that we have mostly used for Penumbra and are using for our upcoming game Amnesia. It is also where I think the future of interactive story telling lie.
Fragmented storytelling allows for much more freedom as it is possible for the player to pick up fragments in different order and even do miss certain fragments without ruining the story. Some kind of order is usually wanted to though, and normally it is solved by not having all fragments available from starts, each level/section of the game containing certain fragments. It is also possible to solve by procedural generation of fragments. This can simply mean that the order of the fragments are independent of the actual interactions (e.g. first note picked is always a specific fragment), something we are using in Amnesia. It can also mean more advanced ways such as generating documents to fit the player, for example censuring certain information in case the player has not found out about other things first. This kind of procedural generation seem very exciting to me, yet it is very unusual in games and I know of no other games that are using it
Fragments does not only need to be text-heavy information such as dialog or notes. It can be graphics in the environment, sounds, character banter, interactions, etc. In Amnesia we try to use as many different types as possible and do our best to create a game where playing and exploring brings forward the story without ever removing control. The great thing about the fragmented design is that it is never in the way of the game and helps the player immerse, instead of the opposite (which cut-scenes might do). When designing Amnesia we have also made sure that pretty much everything is optional and instead of forcing the player to take part of certain story elements (fragments) we have made sure to make the most important things are really obvious (and hard to miss) and the less important more hidden.
While the fragmented story design is used quite a bit (especially as notes and dialog), I think that its potential is severely underused. There is a lot more stuff that can be done in this way. For instance, by interacting with the world the player can find out things, not just about the environment, but about the character too. How will the protagonist react when you try to eat meat (vegetarian?), why does she gets scared when in confined spaces, etc. It can also be about the environment itself, for example how different things work (machines in a sci-fi story) or how the ecology behave. It does not need to be related directly to the background story either, but can be a way of showing character motivations, increase understanding of the game world or just simply to set a certain mood or convey a theme. In books and movies this usually take up large part, almost always using plot-based story telling, and I think that a large problem lies in designer trying to copy this design (something I have discussed before) instead of using techniques more suitable for games.
Plot-based story telling does not need to be thrown out though and can still be used effectivly. The problem with fragmented story telling is that it only is only about the past and never about the present. Here plot-based design can help to spice up the story telling. For example, Bioshock, an otherwise pretty free-roaming game using fragmented story-telling, has an important cut scene (check here, spoilers of course) that even use the lack of interactivity as part of the story. The same is true in Penumbra where the infection-with-voice, Clarence, sometimes take control over the protagonist in cut-scene-like sequences.
Situations instead of events
As stated above, the problem with fragmented storytelling is that it is just covers things that HAVE happening and not what IS happening. This does not mean that one has to resort to the plot-based design though and instead of forcing on certain events, one can create situations instead. Creating a situations is large part of our story telling design since Penumbra and way of thinking we have found very effective. It might seem a really fine line between an event and a situation, but I think it is a really important one and will explain why.
In an event (as in a plot-event) one wants something very specific to happen, often including a protagonist action. For example, if a monster enters a room the protagonist hides in a closet. In a situation, one creates a some sort of outside pressure and then it is up to the player on how the protagonist should act, never stopping the normal mode of gameplay. The line between the two can get pretty vague, since a situation can be about getting the player to hide in a closet when monster enters a room, although in a situation this is never forced. A situation is not just a cut-scene + the interaction though and it is more about exposing the player to something and letting them deal with it. Also, situations are more complex to setup as one does not want to lock down the player and let the normal gameplay remain intact.
If there is a certain section of the game where the player should be exposed to a new enemy, but never come too close, this will be done differently using events or situations. In an event, it can be that the player notices something in the shadows and then a cut-scene shows how the player hides. Using situation design, this creature can be roaming certain parts of the map, making sounds and always staying a certain distance. This means that the player may sometimes spot the creature but never face it directly, achieving the same goal. The map can also be set up in such a way, that when spotting the creature, there is always a room nearby where the player can hide, trying to indirectly "force" the player into behaving in a certain manner.
By using situations instead of events, control does not need to be taken away and it is possible to add story elements that happen in the present (and not just in the past). When designing Amnesia, adding interesting situation that connect with the story has been a large design goal. Usually entire maps have been used as the place for the situations and designed around it. We have only started scraping the surface of what is possible though. By focusing on situations instead of plot-events we have come up with many things that have a lot more freedom than events we did in Penumbra, but still communicate the same feelings and story content. We will continue to use this kind of design in the future as it has been extremely helpful so far and we feel that there is a lot more to explore.
Using situations is a bit of a gamble though and one can never be sure that all players will get the intended experience. That is just something one has to live with though. When it comes to interactivity, risk are always involved as it is impossible to plan for every possible outcome. One should of course make sure that the player cannot get stuck, but I think it is well worth sacrificing some security for greater interactivity and possibility of a deeper experience.
The more game designers start going away from creating stories that emulate books and movies, the more the medium can evolve. It is only by focusing on the strengths of the medium that we can make make stories only games can tell!
*It is probably worth mentioning that Heavy Rain is making some kind of progress in the plot-based design. However this is done at the expense of player interactivity.