Write environment, not story

April 24, 2012

Recently, I’ve come across a number of articles and talks around the concept of story (narrative) in games. This one from PAX East is lousy quality, but full of goodies (and creative directors putting their feet in their mouths). It’s definitely a topic where there are no clear-cut answers.  Some people argue that grafting traditional narratives onto the medium of video games is not an appropriate fit (favoring emergent narrative gameplay). However, other game developers and players see the inherent value in a (somewhat) linear narrative, which allows the writer to better craft a story.

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One of my favorite game series is Uncharted (Naughty Dog), and that is pretty much as narratively-linear a game as it gets. But it’s not specifically the story that really “gets” me about Uncharted (good as it is). It’s the character development, dialog and environment, as it is so well-formed and believable. Having natural and situational dialog can go a long way to fleshing out the world and making the game engaging. Could Uncharted games be as good if they were able to keep these features, while unhitching its narrative from the rails? Perhaps -it would be a great challenge, nonetheless!

 

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Another game worth mentioning in this is Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (Bethesda). More an open-ended game than Uncharted, I find its weakest aspects are the characters and the way they deliver the story. I’ve played Skyrim for 50 hours, and haven’t finished it (not sure I ever will). In fact, I avoided the main narrative so I could explore the world and develop my character further. While the environments aren’t as diverse and colorful as Oblivion, it does manage to tell some aspects of story… though I wish this was more taken advantage of.

 

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Lastly, the recently-released Journey (ThatGameCompany) is an example where story is completely told through the environment and player actions. At no point does the game try to tell you what things mean. It is up to you to interpret them yourself, which leads to some interesting discussions with other players. While still a linear play experience, the lack of traditional storytelling means the player has to explore and make their own discoveries. Because the game was not founded on action, I also found it made me appreciate the environment all the more for its beauty and style. It’s a classic example of, “You get out what you put in to it”.

So where do I stand in this debate? Well, I appreciate both approaches, as each has its own place and audience. Realistically, it’s a spectrum that depends on the game you are trying to deliver. However, I believe video games’ unique ability among other storytelling mediums is its ability to let a player explore the environment, and thus uncover a narrative from their observations and experiences. A game that can find a balance between its aim to tell a story, and allowing the player their own control over uncovering said-narrative, sounds like it would be the ideal combination.