Disclaimer: The following post contains potential spoilers for Mass Effect 2, Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us.
Games represent a unique method of storytelling because of the requirement of the player to do things to advance the plot. This is the case in all game mechanics, whether it is shooting through a wave of enemies to get to the next cutscene, exploring the environment, or running through moral challenges of varying degrees of complexity.
Whether the player has the ability to change the direction of the story through their choices, or if the narrative is fixed, the act of playing makes the story more personal, as it becomes our experience – and this is true whether they’re sharing the experience through another character, or receiving it through a surrogate. The narratives are now framed with the player being a participant, and rather than telling an interesting story, there is an urge to tell a moving one.
They continue to grow in ambition, presenting detailed worlds, complex characters, and interesting plots. The stories are not restricted to interactive movies, but also question the nature of games and gamers. They are no longer fixed to the realm of moral issues for fictional characters, but due to their interactive nature, are positioned such that they can push at the responsibility of the player, and challenge our impartiality. What happens is down to us, and we’re taken through the lives of so many tragic figures that these often provoke emotional responses. Future games will undoubtedly continue to use the player, whether it be in support of the narrative, or in transferring the authoring of an unstated, underlying narrative to the player’s imagination.
The stories within games will undoubtedly continue to push into new areas, and in some cases as has happened with many indie games, it’s conceivable that the emotional context will occupy a greater portion of the gameplay system in AAA games. They present the chance to experience life through the eyes of another person, and could become a means through which we can better understand other people, and not just explore theoretical worlds. We could see the larger development studios explore narratives that aren’t reliant on combat as indie games are more likely to, and a focus on how the player interacts with the characters within the worlds.
There have also been improvements in how the story is delivered to the player, both in allowing them to explore worlds and take in details at their own time, but also in delivering important information through the course of playing. There will always be players that skip cutscenes, ignore dialogue, and push their way through to the next combat sequence. It’s a perfectly legitimate way to play, however story will always be king to many. It’s no longer enough to move cardboard characters around a set, but there needs to be something real. It doesn’t need to be grounded in reality, but the characters that are the foundation need to behave realistically. The story needs to be focused on them and the world, the game needs to know its themes, its underlying questions, and at least one answers to whatever what-ifs it posits.
We may not want it as players, but we also need to be challenged and we need the ability to challenge the game’s foundations. If a game presents its assumptions, it could be within the player’s ability to challenge them. A game can put us in situations that would only be theoretical experiences without such a platform, and may do so to challenge our own assumptions. There are so many possibilities around what games could do, and there are waters there that they’re starting to test. Both Bioshock Infinite and Dishonored present sequences where we can choose to be peaceful instead of diving into combat, and while neither gives that as an option with which you could complete the game, the future may hold games for which it does. Deus Ex: Human Revolution offers the potential of a mostly non-lethal playthrough, however a non-lethal, non-stealth approach could work for a future game, even while it offers the same run-and-gun abilities too.
A game could put the player in a strict non-combative role of non-interference where they were tasked with being a journalist or other passive observer, yet push at their humanity until they felt the need to act. A game could put us in the midst of a natural disaster, where our progress and success was more about how compassionate and supportive we were to the other characters, than how many kills we could rack up. A game could put us in the shoes of someone less privileged than ourselves, and allow us to move about a fictional society, to better understand how people might react to us if things were different. A game could let us observe the habits of people with the intent of creating empathy, rather than the best way to assassinate them.
Storytelling in games is still in its relative infancy, and the real limits to what it might do in the future, are our collective imaginations.
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