Whether we like it or not, playing, discussing, and creating video games is an ever popular past time being enjoyed by an increasingly wide range of the people. This medium tends to be disregarded as without intellectual or cultural merit, unlike books and films that are highbrow, because of the negative image of those who game. It is important to appreciate just how significant video games are to our culture, as they are increasingly becoming the way in which many individuals consume stories. This essay will explore the current standard of video game narrative, the appeal of these games for those who consume them and the future of game writing and development. While there are only a few scholarly articles written on this subject, there is a high level of conversation on the subject among gamers and much of the information in this essay comes from those who engage in games the most.
Firstly, it is important to explore how story-driven games differ from shooting and massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, as well as the positive influence games have on those who play them. Public opinion tends to view video games as being detrimental to the development of social skills as shooting games are thought to promote violence and many games are played in isolation. Those who understand the nuances of games and attempt to defend them are players themselves that often makes personal opinions seem biased. However, psychological research reveals that video games have been found to provide educational benefits to children, from increasing communication to basic math and literature skills in early learners. (Griffiths 48-50) There are also numerous reports that show games to be beneficial to developing hand-eye coordination. (Granek, Gorbet et al) It is clear that shooters and MMO’s are not without their merits and can helpful to those who engage with them. What is most interesting to this research is the impressive rise in the attraction of narrative driven games that employ a number of techniques such as character development, cut scenes, and in game choices to draw players in to the game. Early video games were devoid of much narrative, as consoles simply could not accommodate the graphics and capacity to run them. As these consoles developed, cut scenes and deeper backstories were added to engage the player. Narrative is now so important that many MMO’s are attempting to create a deeper storyline within their gameplay to further develop the world they have created. (Wall) There is little doubt that narrative in video games adds to the immersive gaming experience. Players pay attention not only to the storyline but also to the characters they are playing, making story driven games beneficial for emotional recognition. (Bormann and Greitemeyer, 5) Gaming is not the detrimental form of entertainment that it is perceived to be and is beneficial to those who play. What is interesting about the current age of video games is that shooters and MMO’s are no longer the only formula that works. Gamers want variety, and strong narrative provides this.
The most prominent methods of video game storytelling are embedded and emergent narrative, finding a balance between these means building a story driven game that is engaging and entertaining. Embedded narrative is the traditional method of writing for older video games, as it requires only one path to be followed, but changes in technology have led to this style taking on a new and beautiful edge. Embedded narrative refers to “those scripted narrative elements that are embedded throughout a game to form the background story” that is the pre-generated narrative that is part of the game before the player interacts with the story. (Wei 247) The premise of Mario searching for the Peach, or Link time travelling in Hyrule are both examples of embedded narrative that either preceded the player entering the game or are revealed as they play. A number of games that are heavy in embedded narrative rely on cut scenes, short, unplayable, movie-like clips that develop the story in a cinematic style. Cut scenes enhance an embedded narrative but are difficult to animate and fund, therefore they cannot appear as often in emergent narratives, as there is only a chance that the player will engage with them if they make the right choices. The Final Fantasy franchise is a prime example of embedded narrative. From their origin the player has been tasked with leading characters through the world, and are rewarded with cut scenes and text that tell more of the story. In this type of narrative, stories are “held together by broadly defined goals and conflicts and pushed forward by the character’s movement across the map”. (Jenkins) This is true of Final Fantasy as story advancement only takes place when the player arrives at certain places on the map or engages with specific non-playable characters (NPC’s). For this reason, these games can often seem formulaic and dull. One of the most popular games in recent years, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us (2013) successfully mastered the embedded narrative while keeping the game entertaining.
What this zombie survival game offers, according to gamer Jeremy Conrady, is not action set pieces (referring to turning points in the story), but instead the “set pieces are entirely character and the insight into their being, which in turn makes us reflect on ourselves.” (Conrady). He is not alone in his opinion as fellow gamer Gary Alexander Stott praises the game’s character development, as “the tone, performances and writing are all steeped in maturity”. (Stott) The Last of Us provides players with characters who mature and develop along with the game. What both these players are highlighting is one of the most entertaining aspects of embedded narrative; the story is completely fleshed out because there is only one path the player can tread. This makes embedded narratives more like traditional media, such as books and movies as the author can have greater control over the journey the reader will take.
Emergent narrative differs from embedded narrative in that it arises from the interactions the player has within the game. Each decision the player makes influences the way the story develops. Research conducted on interactive storytelling defines emergent narrative as “the construction of systems in which users actively participate in the narrative process in a highly flexible realtime environment, where authorial activities are minimized”. (Louchart 1) Games like the recently released Fallout 4 allow the player to choose their own storyline, siding with various factions and allowing for a few different outcomes. This narrative is multi-dimensional as it encompasses “space, time, narrative surface, user role and the nature of narrative controls”, making the writing incredibly complex and rich. (Louchart 2) Multiple types of games exist that can be considered to have an emergent narrative. Gaming blogger Gerben Grave speaks from his experiences with the medium when he discusses the range of games that contain emergent narratives. Strategy games that require planning on the part of the player are considered emergent as the person who is creating the world decides their storyline. For example in the Civilization series by Sid Meier, players can build their own cities and set their own goals, “many players are known to create their own objectives, adhere to personal rules or limit their game progression in one way or another”. (Grave)
Additionally, survival games like Minecraft and open-ended games like The Sims give only rough goals and are mostly defined by the player. One gamer, Dan Whitehead, argues that embedded stories make the gamer an “observer”, whereas the choices that are made in an emergent narrative allow players to “care about the characters, not because the script tells [them] to or because they’re convincingly played” but because they share the same world in-game. (Whitehead) Whitehead specifically points out the way in which The Last of Us tells a story but does not allow the player to feel part of it. What emergent games provide is the ability to immerse a player in a virtual life that they are in complete control of. There are still a number of limitations to emergent narrative, both in terms of writing and the technological capacity of the console. Currently, no video game truly has the capacity to be fully emergent, or fully choice driven. In Fallout 4 the player can chose who to side with, who to kill, and who to save, but ultimately, there are only two outcomes to the game. This is difficult to achieve as it requires “human-like thought processes: reasoning, prioritizing, connecting and evaluating” that computers are currently unable to achieve (Turing: 1 Machines: 0). (Grave) However, emergent narrative is becoming one of the most exciting development strategies in the industry, with games such as Telltale Game’s Tales from the Borderlands or Square Enix’s Life is Strange allowing the player to make their own choices. When viewing the current state of the gaming industry, it seems clear that embedded narratives are becoming increasingly obsolete. Ultimately, the greatest way to create a game that is widely enjoyed is to find a balance between these two types of narrative. Embedded narratives allow for in depth storylines while emergent narratives give the player the ability to make the game their own.
A New Breed of Writers
With the narratives of these games being developed by professional writers, it seems logical that the publishing industry should pay more attention to the medium. With increasing numbers of institutions offering courses on video game writing, it is clear that the profession is gaining both support and interest. Video game narratives give the writers opportunities to explore “multiple story progressions and endings” and are not limited to a single outcome. (Lebowitz and Klug) The writing has to be engaging and intelligent enough to consider every path the player make take. (Conrady) Video game writer Darby McDevitt (Assassin’s Creed) explains:
Game writers simply want to help designers craft an immersive, interactive narrative experience…with or without dialog, with or without characters, [they] simply want the game to start somewhere interesting, climb its way over a few emotional peaks, and end somewhere even more interesting”. (McDevitt)
McDevitt suggests the best way to create an engaging game that players will truly enjoy would mean working as a team with designers and developers to ensure the overall experience is entertaining. (McDevitt)
Unlike any other style of writing, authors of video game narrative are aware that readers will actively engage with their storyline. Ultimately, writers have to strike a balance between what is engaging and real, with what is entertaining and playable. In video games we are able to engage in stories that are not always realistic. As author Scott Hughes points out, we suspend our disbelief “because it’s a video game”, but should we have to? (Hughes 155). In his research on The Last of Us, Hughes examines the strength of the games narrative versus the stupidity of video game logic. Writers are contending with a world in which a “character can haul around a dozen weapons, thousands of rounds of ammunition, pieces of armor or clothing he or she is not currently wearing, and a plethora of other useful or useless objects” (Hughes 150) and yet players still demand realism. Gamers will accept these unrealistic situations because having all their gear will help them complete the game. What Hughes suggests is similar to the gaming blogger Graves, that the next step for video games is hyperrealism. If a world was truly open, or “brutally real” it would leave a lasting impact on those who played it. While consoles may not be ready for this development, the recent maturation of video game writing shows that writers are up for the challenge.
Video games are, for many, an underappreciated art form. The narrative that is created by talented writers and lived by the players themselves makes video games a vessel to live another life, from the comfort of your own home. While emergent narrative is becoming more common, the marriage with embedded narrative makes contemporary games as important to our culture as any classical text.
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