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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

Videogames and their evolution.

27 Mar

Videogames have existed for over a quarter of a century now, and boy have they grown from the days of bleepy-bloopy score attacks. Now instead of a pixelated plumber murdering mushrooms and trampling tortoises we have jarhead trigger happy gung-ho space marines, wizards, goblins, zombies by the bucketload and enough badly told, po-faced stories to make even the most patient person baulk with pressure. Despite this, the videogame industry is now bigger than either the music industry or the film industry, a staggering achievement especially when considering the mismanagement of the medium by greedy executives over the lifetime of the industry and the disasters which have occurred such as the crash of ’83.

The videogames industry is now at an impasse. It has reached a point where it is too large to ‘fail’ as such, there is now a market that is well established and who will continue to buy games irregardless of quality. However the question of quality is not relevant to this article and so will not be analysed. Needless to say videogames that range in quality from excellent to abysmal exist and always will do. These games are rated by the restrictions of the ratings system that the games media have imposed. Games are defined by graphics, sound, story, gameplay and so forth. But are these ratings restrictive?

Take for example the question of Grand Theft Auto. Grand theft Auto is no doubt a name that many of you know from the mainstream media, those Conservative nincompoops who cluck their tongues at the slightest hint of adult content in the medium. ‘The Murder Simulator’, it was dubbed. It heralded the downfall of decency and the ultimate destruction of the minds of our youths, just as rock music, horror films and oreos did. I don’t know about you, but this author has certainly not witnessed the murder by claw hammer of prostitutes constituted en masse by frenzied teenagers or anything of the like. Asides from being amusing this is irrelevant however, as Grand Theft Auto enters the discussion because of the message that it spreads to the industry. In 2001 Rockstar Games produced Grand Theft Auto 3 and the world was impressed. What they had seen was the birth of the sandbox game. However although the game was very innovative it suffered from the merciless rating system, for although it accrued impressive scores it did not achieve the critical acclaim several years later that its successor, Grand theft Auto 4 would. GTA 4 was an excellent game on its own merits. However it did not advance the open ended world in the slightest. Nor did Vice City or San Andreas. Every game that followed on from GTA 3 in the series failed to innovate to the same degree as the original.

In the same sphere we must also consider Bioware. Bioware are a company who have produced consistently excellent and well-crafted games, however, in their repertoire have they produced anything that is significantly innovative since the first Knights of the Old Republic? The only things that are changed inbetween Bioware games were the combat systems. Or consider Valve. They pioneered the interactive scipted set-piece instead of the cutscene, yet have their games changed since then. Epic Games churn out Unreals and Gears of War, Infinity Ward churn out Call of Duty, EA churn out sports franchises along with 2K and THQ etc. The industry is dominated by sequels, there are no new IPs on display and any true attempts at innovation are brushed aside.

Flower, Ico, Shadow of the Collosus, Okami, Psychonauts, Grim Fandango, Perimeter, System Shock 2, Mount and Blade and others are all well known names in the games industry. They are all innovative games that have failed commercially. They are both the formulas that the videogames industry attempts to mimic whilst also simultaneously being the reason that titles which differentiate from the status quo are shunned by publishers. They allowed the industry to advance whilst also being allowed to sink without trace of their achievements.

Thus we have seen that quality is separate of innovation and that the two do not necessarily coexist peacefully. Now I will attempt to answer as to how the industry might move forwards.

Quality is synonymous with fun. Fun is what holds the videogame industry back. Fun is both what defines the videogames industry whilst also being the factor that restricts its movement. Think of it in this way, think of silent movies. Silent movies were considered all well and good by the audiences that watched them. They watched every movies of every genre that exists today. They watched such auteurs as Chaplin, Keaton and the Marx brothers at the top of their games. Throughout the period technology was advancing and so picture quality improved, sound was eventually introduced as was colour, thus the experience changed entirely. Silent movies were no longer silent, they were movies. Now consider the games industry in the same light. At the moment we are advancing our technology to the point that we can achieve a similar evolution. What was key to the advancement of cinema was the abandoning of its roots. Silent cinema was considered by many at the time as an inferior substitute to the theatre, tickets were a similar price, films were shorter and more incoherent. It was like watching an strange silent play, this was the case however as the film industry at the time couldn’t do things that the play did or could only do the same. The industry truly came into its own with the movies such as King Kong. The play could do many things, but it could bring you to an ancient island in the pacific populated by giant gorillas and dinosaurs whilst making a detour at the Empire State Building.

This is where the games industry gains one over the film industry. As can be seen, the film industry mimicked the stage industry and eventually gained enough confidence in itself to move onwards. The games industry is nearing this point in its relationship with the film industry. It has emulated it consistently, but now it has found an advantage over it. Movie games pale in comparison to the movie, but truly special games such as Freedom Force are a blast. This game for example allows you to craft your own universe of comic book superheroes, something that a movie would never allow you to do. The key word: interactivity. In a movie you watch the journey of the character as filmed and imagined by someone else, in the game you craft a path of your own. Games are far more involving experiences than movies and it is interactivity that is the key to advancement in the industry. It is here that the notion of fun also comes to a head. What is fun is defined by tradition. We find fun in familiar activities: shooting nazis, jumping on mushrooms or playing a sports game which mimics a real life sport. What we desire is escapism within the limits set by the real world. Enemies must die, goals must be beaten. These are boundaries that are also encountered by the film medium, however the film medium has advanced to the point that it contains innovative experiences that are rewarded, well watched and copied, for example is the Michael Haneke film, the White Ribbon. This film is not fun but is engaging in other ways. If videogames are to evolve beyond their characterisation as toys by the majority of the adult public then they must learn to entertain in ways that are not restricted by the notions of fun. Children require constant fun to keep them going, adults do not, they need reassurance among other things. As soon as games can cater to other needs they will evolve from the rather simplistic position that they exist in at the moment.

If they do this then the previously mentioned media frenzy will dissipate. Conservative adults tut with disdain at the notion of being able to murder a protistute with a claw hammer. This is indeed possible in the Grand Theft Auto series, however not once is they player required to undertake such an action. To perform this action requires considerable input from the player, all that the main character does is what he is told to do by the player. This revelation would shock the media more, however they would not be interested. An act of violence in a movie has less significance than an act of violence in a videogame merely because violence has existed for longer in films than videogames. Videogames need to be able to portray violence, sex and the like in a less cartoonish and childish manner than is currently the case in order for videogames to be properly accepted as a proper medium for adult entertainment.

So, to come to a conclusion of some manner, the videogame industry needs to evolve before it can be accepted as a true entertainment medium. What we have seen is an industry driven by technology, now that technology will soon be at an equal level, soon it will be driven by true creatives. Innovation, combined with quality is needed to as a catalyst to drive the industry forwards.

Then those judgemental bastards in the media, Keith Vaz and Jack Thompson will get what’s coming to them!