The Evolution of Narrative in Digital Media

9 Jul

Across the years, in narrative terms particularly, the videogame genre has progressed in leaps and bounds. Whereas 25 years ago there was a plumber with a princess to save (who was always in another castle) we now have the likes of Mass Effect, Dragon Age and Knights of the Old Republic. What is particularly notable about this change is that, particularly with the list provided, most of the games which have made a difference in terms of narrative come from one company: Bioware. Make no mistake, it is to Bioware that we owe the advancement of the plotlines of the medium towards something like compelling narratives and quality storytelling. Bioware are the most inquisitive and most explorative of all videogame companies when it comes to the story stakes; this essay shall both detail their successes and analyse their shortcomings, both of which are many. Along the way significant other games shall be analysed in terms of what their narrative brought to the medium. Then relevant conclusions shall be drawn and foresight given as to the future of the genre.

It all began with one game, one very important game: Baldur’s Gate. Baldur’s Gate was the first significant game that Bioware produced; in this game they sowed the seeds of their greatest successes and failures in narrative terms. Technically speaking, the game is one of the 1990’s and also one of a small budget. Voice actors were a luxury beyond the reach of the fledgling studio, but indeed this was no significant obstacle for the team in question. Baldur’s Gate was a game set in the same world as Dungeons and Dragons. Bioware’s writing team did not need to create a world, they only needed to create a compelling story within it, and indeed they did. What is notable in terms of narrative is that something which became a staple of the narrative of the videogame genre in later years was proliferated in this virgin effort: the player character is silent, seemingly mute, presumably communicating with the world through telepathy. It is said that the silent player character helps strengthen player involvement with the narrative unfolding as it allows the player to more easily inhabit their character’s shoes. Various other games have taken this path, Half Life 1&2, Portal, All of the Elder Scrolls games, all the Halo games and the first Dead Space immediately spring to mind. It is certainly debatable whether this is something positive, and indeed that is an issue which shall be addressed later in this essay. The silent PC (Player character) is a trope which Bioware would continue throughout their games. Otherwise they make no innovations from a narrative point of view, that is to say if their major innovation is excluded. The idea of a save continued between games was something that had been toyed with for many years, but many companies had simply thrown the idea out of the window. This was still a time when the videogame had no need for professional writers to pad out their works with attempts at genuine art. Mathematicians wrote flimsy stories in a short time, concerning nothing in particular. Story existed to validate and explain gameplay: this was how the marine got his laser gun, this is why he hates alien robot zombie ninjas from hell, this is the particular alien robot zombie ninja that he wants to kill, he wants to kill him because he kidnapped his cowgirl girlfriend (who happens to have DD breasts, and be blonde). What they NEVER explain is why that particular marine has the ability to heal gunshot wounds with cake and bacon he found on the floor; or for that matter why alien robot zombie ninjas from hell have cake and bacon scattered on the floor around their base. While this may be fine to laugh at now, this is due to the luxury of hindsight. In reality, these games did little to distinguish themselves from one another, defining themselves through gameplay and graphics alone.

Indeed, Bioware is now approaching this point. For years they have essentially made games with the same overall storyline and different gameplay techniques. Ever since KOTOR  they have featured plots which progress as such: 1) Start in chaos, caused by an unknown enemy who appear in great numbers, are faceless and who the player is powerless to stop. 2)  Learn that these faceless goons are the minions of some maniacal Sith Lord/Machiavellian Emperor/Dragon/Techno-Organic race of unstoppable genocidal spaceships. 3) Learn that the PC is the only person with the ability and drive to stop said threat and assemble a team of specialists. 4) Fight until the end boss, beat the end boss and save the world. This formula is certainly not unique to Bioware, Western RPGs in general are the same, from Fable to The Elder Scrolls. Bioware has attempted to innovate recently to uneven effect in Dragon Age II and Mass Effect, providing alternate endings based on player activity and decisions. It is unfortunate, but unless serious innovation takes place at least in the next decade, the RPG as a genre is going to be left stuck in a rut.

People like Peter Molyneux  suppose that they can change the face of storytelling in videogames, purporting to be able to break the mould provide innovative experiences, but in the end simply typifying the genre rather than reinventing it. Black and White, The Movies and Fable are all excellent fun and unique, but they aren’t transcendental, something which their hype would have you believe. The role of the voice actor in defining the player character is something which has defined Fable, for the first time in Fable 3 the PC was voiced, as was the case in the Mass Effect series and now in Dragon Age II. Having a voice actor removes individuality from the experience, no longer can the player simply imagine the voice in his/her head to go with the character, however the involvement of the voice actor provides immersion and far greater accessibility. The essential problem with having a mute telepath as a main character ties in with the essential problem that defines the first-person viewpoint. Being essentially a floating telepathic gun/axe removes the feeling that the character has some impact on the world. Your character is created to deal with a global threat, that is all they exist to do. Conversations do not range beyond exposition and the player cannot put down roots in the world. In The Elder Scrolls I could buy a house, but for what? My character has no need to eat or sleep and no desire in particular to go back to that house, so why bother spending the profits of three adventures on it? Instead a shiny new sword of death +1 is bought.

If the essential role of the RPG is to provide the player with a feeling of empowerment, then the most striking example of the genre is World of Warcraft. Everything within this game is designed to make the player that little bit more greedy. Mounts and loot by the bucket load, Player Vs Player combat, epic foes, it has it all. It does not do anything striking or defining, it is simply well made. Yet it is the most popular MMO game by far, with upwards of 11 million players and an in-game economy larger than that of several dozen small countries. This is essentially the problem with Bioware as of the moment. Right now, it is working on sequels, nothing new. Not even a new Jade Empire. We have Dragon Age, KOTOR and Mass Effect sequels to expect. They are retreading past glories and are profiting hugely, but now that the company is middle aged, it is resting on its laurels and failing to innovate, particularly in the field of storytelling.

There are several smaller companies who are trying to do something new however. CD Projekt have released The Witcher 2 which is a riot and possesses a very mature storyline, Team Bondi have produced LA Noire which allows player investigation among other things. They are trying something new, which is admirable, but they have failed to recognise a key problem which is coming to the fore more and more often now: the battle of gameplay vs narrative. Is the narrative simply a backdrop to explain the character’s powers, such as in Bionic Commando, or is the gameplay simply something to drive the narrative forwards, such as in Heavy Rain and American McGee’s Alice? This is something which has not been solved, however some very small companies are producing some very interesting workarounds.

The market for console games is very different to that of PC games. For one thing the PC game market is very Europe-focussed as opposed to Japan and USA focussed. There is a series of games, produced by Taleworlds and published by Paradox Interactive, based in Sweden, called Mount and Blade. These games are medieval simulations, they simply create the most realistic interpretations of medieval combat that their budget will allow and they release their product into the world. There is some hokum about five identical kingdoms fighting pointless wars yadda yadda yadda, but the important thing to note is the element of player interaction. The player can be anything they want, but they have to work to earn it. The world continues on fine without the player’s presence and the player can choose what to be, whether that be a trader, a bandit or a ruler. The predominance of player narrative means that the storylines that one can craft are limited only by the tools provided. As the team expand the world, so more options become available and the storylines become more varied. Moreover, they provide (as is common with PC games) the development tools used for the games to the community, to allow the community to produce modifications (mods) which enhance the gameplay or change the game entirely. This level of player interaction means that the story is completely fresh and unique each time, although quality cannot be guaranteed.

Games in this vein, that is to say those which are obsessed with player interaction, have existed for sometime and have proven very popular, whether they are The Sims, Dwarf Fortress or Minecraft. The problem is that their very nature prompts the question, is a game an experience or a journey? Is a game like a film, taking you on a voyage through someone else’s vision? Or is it a set of tools, a sandbox, in which you can create your own vision?

As for the future of the evolution of narrative in digital media, it is uncertain. No major players seem willing to innovate and certainly no one is taking notice of smaller teams. In this troubled financial climate where marketing men have overbearing influence as opposed to the developers, callous hackers willing to destroy for the sheer hell of it, who would dare to innovate? Conservatism abounds, but the medium is in dire threat of growing stale. Videogames are the most exciting and unique of all forms of entertainment, if they are to continue their ascendance, then changes need to be made.

Until then, we can be safe in the knowledge that at least there are some who have the courage to go forwards.

Sean Cameron


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