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Monday Musings: Five things 2013 has taught me about the future of narrative in games

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Welcome to this week’s Monday Musings, a weekly meander through the random thoughts of members of El33tonline. It doesn’t always makes a lot of sense, but it does make us feel a little better sending whatever’s at the top of our minds out into the Internet ether.

This week, Oliver discusses thoughts on the future of story-telling in games, with a few ideas on what we’ll (still) be seeing and playing in ten years time.

TheWolfAmongUsSS2

It’s a weird obsession, but very often I find myself thinking about the future of videogames not one or two years from now, but further out – thinking about what we’ll be playing and seeing five, ten and even fifteen years from today can occupy my mind.

The future of narrative in games is one such topic so when playing titles like The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, The Last of Us, The Wolf Among Us and even Battlefield 4 and Crysis 3, I’ve been left thinking about how these and other games have the potential to shape how developers tell stories now and in the future.

Here is a run-down of five things I’ve learned from games in 2013 that may trend in videogame story-telling in the future, with a quick description of each:

1.) Cut-scenes are here to stay

There can be no doubt: Pre-rendered and in-engine cut-scenes aren’t going anywhere and we’ll be seeing these non-interactive sequences in videogames for at least a decade to come. When masters like Naughty Dog and promoters of innovation like Quantic Dream continue to use these techniques in 2013, it’s a strong signal that there’s still life left in a good cinematic.

The temptation to rely on these scenes to tell stories in the traditional film and TV style is too great, but when done well can act as refreshing pace-changers and rewards for players who have just fought through a particularly difficult encounter or made an emotionally draining decision for their in-game characters. Either used lazily or judiciously, cut-scenes are here to stay.

The Last of Us Screenshot 1

- The Last of Us

2.) Interactive dialogue is an easy trick for immersion

A few recent games, including Mass Effect, Alpha Protocol, Telltale’s The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us have all used an interactive dialogue technique to add pressure and intensity to your choices when speaking with non-playable characters. Telltale in particular has added weight to each dialogue choice by letting players know what other characters think about what you’ve said.

While this is a cheap trick to easily immerse players in the moment of dialogue (although not ‘cheap’ considering the background work), it’s highly effective and solidifies moments in a game due to their increased importance as it tries to weave its narrative. I would like to see the system refined in the future, but right now The Wolf Among Us still does a great job of making each decision important.

The Wolf Among Us Screenshot 5

- The Wolf Among Us

3.) Environment exploration is a powerful narrative tool

Games in the ‘Shock’ universe (like System Shock and Bioshock) have all used the environment to tell the half of the games’ stories that weren’t laid bare with exposition and dialogue – just glancing around a room and walking through an empty hall can tell a story that you can piece together in your brain, which can ultimately end up being more vivid and memorable than anything a character can tell you.

This technique was used to amazing effect in The Fullbright Company’s first title, Gone Home, an exploration-based game that tasks you with putting the story together simply by rummaging around an empty house. What set this game apart, however, is the attention to detail in every clue you pick up with everything from diaries and letters, to scribbled notes, books, labels and more all carefully thought out, each telling their own story.

If bigger games were able to lather their worlds in this kind of craft, it would be an immensely rich place to discover between puzzles, firefights and character dialogue.

GoneHome

- Gone Home

4.) The silent protagonist is falling out of favour

We’ve come a long way since the days of the silent protagonist, used in a bygone era simply because it was too expensive to imbue a protagonist with any personality of their own but popularised with games like Metroid with Samus Aran, and Half-Life with Gordon Freeman.

As with all things, when done well the silent protagonist is a great way to immerse players in the world as characters talk directly to you, with no room for your persona to be interrupted by disembodied dialogue emanating from somewhere within your own virtual existence. When done poorly (like in Battlefield 4 this year), the experience can be jarring as characters ask you questions you have no hope of answering in order to enter into a meaningful discussion, and issuing orders you have no chance of deciding on – you do them or you fail.

In a world where it makes more sense to provide a built-in personality for a character in order for that persona to be instantly recognisable (and in a cynical world, marketable) when contrasted with other similar characters, I believe the silent protagonist method of story delivery and absorption is on the way out.

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- Battlefield 4

5.) The linear blockbuster has a place in the industry

For all my railing against barely interactive games, I still believe that the linear blockbuster has a firm place in the future of videogames. The story may not amount to much and you may forget the plot points as soon as they’re delivered, but indulging in a bit of popcorn action in a game is the same as going to watch the year’s biggest action movie – it’s for pure enjoyment and a chance to switch your brain off for a few hours.

Although, while I don’t go into a Call of Duty campaign expecting the world’s best story, my standards aren’t so low that I won’t recognise the poorly written script and nonsensical progression of the game – I at least need a blockbuster to make a lick of sense so my brain doesn’t fight to be switched on again and poke holes in the presentation and narrative.

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- Call of Duty: Ghosts


Those are just a few things I’ve been thinking about lately, and I truly believe that videogames will get to a point where one title is differentiated from another not by the gameplay features and overwhelming graphics, but by the story told (again, similar to films).

Untapped innovation still awaits in both gameplay and visuals (along with better artificial intelligence, music compositions and the realistic rendering of sound), but stories and the way they’re presented will one day be the deciding factor between whether we pick up one game over the other.


Bonus – Future Experiments I Would Like to See

Here are a few bonus items that I hope game developers will continue to experiment with and innovate upon in the future:

Narration by a third-party

Three games this year stand out of the crowd with examples of story-telling techniques that act as an additional, non-intrusive layer above and around the gameplay: Narration.

Narration by a third-party (and a protagonist) in games like Puppeteer, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger and The Stanley Parable (as well as the excellent Bastion in 2011) is a great way to relay more story details and provide hidden motivations for different characters to clue the player into the narrative in ways they would otherwise never have discovered on their own. Again, when executed well this method is fantastic because it doesn’t get in the way of the game itself.

Note: I don’t consider audio log pick-ups to be narration, and I hope this method of story-telling is on the way out.

TheStanleyParable

- The Stanley Parable

Subverting player expectations

In a world where most everything that there is to know about a game is ready and waiting to be provided through screenshots, trailers, reviews and previews, I always find it fun when a game subverts my own expectations for it and transforms into something I would never have imagined.

Candy Box (and Candy Box 2) this year were great examples of very simple games that, within minutes, unfolded to become something so much more than what was presented at face value, while Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is another example of how a game can take your expectations and twist them in fun ways. Both incredibly impactful methods of relaying a story, and great ways to keep the experience fresh and exciting.

CandyBoxImage_001

- Candy Box


Interruptible cut-scenes

Beyond: Two Souls managed to let players change the course of a scene (and the story) with simple interaction and non-action, but in the same way that dialogue can be chosen and interrupted mid-sentence in Mass Effect, I would like to see similar opportunities when it comes to interactive objects scattered throughout the world.

As a violent option (using the bar scene from The Wolf Among Us: Episode One as an example), maybe instead of hearing the characters out you could instead walk over to the pool table, pick up a ball or pool cue, and start applied more aggressive pressure to get answers?

On the flip side, perhaps you might have come across tickets to a show or bought a present for a character who is feeling down or acting otherwise, and when talking to them you could choose to give them the gift or keep it for someone else (similar to The Walking Dead) – not great examples but I’m sure game designers could come up with something better!

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- Beyond: Two Souls


What do you think about the future of narrative in games? Is it as important as I happen to think it is or will videogames eventually devolve into all-action-all-the-time blockbusters with no real use for stories or well-written characters?

What other story innovations will we see in the future of games?



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