Telling interactive stories

I’m sure many of you have played interactive story games such as Tell Tale’s The Wolf Among Us, or Life is Strange. These games are great (or at least the ones worth your time are). They have a well crafted narrative and a story that draws you in, shatters your dreams and leaves you curled up in the corner of your room making wounded animal noises. That’s good story telling; but is it inherent to games?

The short answer is no. While there are incredible examples of story-telling through linear narrative games, the same effect (to an extent) can be achieved through other mediums. Movies, series, books to name a fe, also deliver their stories and ideas in the same way. By this I don’t mean that the stories are the same, or that they are inferior, far from it. These are just traditional story telling techniques. Narrative driven games are not dissimilar due to the nature of interactive stories. They aren’t actually that interactive.

The reality of interactive story games is a bit disappointing. This realisation came to me after discussing The Wolf Among Us with a friend, where, even though we had made different choices, the overarching plot of the game didn’t change all that much. The decisions that you make about the life and death of a character feels like a powerful choice. This effect falls flat when you realise that that character is simply substituted for another character, or the dialog shifts slightly. Intensity of the experience vanishes.

To an extent, what the developers are doing is using a powerful tool, the illusion of choice, to facilitate the narrative. When used correctly, this can be just as powerful and effective a story-telling tool as actual choices.

In these games the developers have a specific story they want to tell, with minor deviation at best. On top of that, designing, creating and testing huge narrative systems with crisscrossing dialog paths is a tough job. The overall narrative tree needs to be set up, art assets need to be created, the actual content needs to be programmed in, and a lot (I mean a lot) of testing needs to take place.

On the flip side (and this is where it starts getting cool), games without the intention of telling distinct stories sometimes end up with incredible, emergent stories.

I’m sure you have at some point experienced incredible discoveries or feats in Minecraft, how much of a dick Ghandi is in Civilization, and that time you saw a tiger take out an entire enemy camp in Far Cry.

These stories aren’t designed by the developers. Having your dwarves in Dwarf Fortress systematically killed off by a ridiculously over-powered carp makes for unique experiences. Unique experiences are good. These are stories that are manufactured by complicated systems. Rules and characters are generated in-game and then let loose to fight it out with one-another, and under the right circumstances create unique situations that we interpret as one big, epic narrative.

It makes me happy seeing more and more games take advantage of systemic stories. When you see one faction taking out another faction in Stalker, or see a bear fighting a group of bandits in Skyrim. That’s systems, doing their thing for our entertainment.

More games are coming out with procedurally generated content to drive a complicated narrative. Shadow of Mordor is one that really sticks out to me. The scripted plot is not that impressive (and to be completely honest, eludes me right now). What does stick with me, though, are the ever shifting ranks of Sauron’s army; the way war chiefs remember and taunt you when you return to fight them after a terrible defeat; how you use the weaknesses of your enemies to create elaborate schemes to not only defeat them, but also gain more information on the rest of the war-chiefs.

After suffering defeat by a war chief and seeing them rise the ranks, becoming even more powerful (essentially a positive feedback loop), you want to take him outside and show him a thing or two, and will spend the rest of the night achieving that, because it feels good to stick it to him. So much better than the quick time events that constitute the end sequence of the game. This is the point of the nemesis system. Create unique experiences in which fun can be had, and stories can be made.

While I have not played them myself, Rust and DayZ have amazing and terrible emergent stories. Betrayal, loss, love, revenge. And this is all done through play!

So I guess the question is, is linear storytelling as good as dynamic storytelling?

It depends.

I am of the opinion that games are an amazing medium, and the only medium that has interactivity as a story telling mechanism. We should use it as best we can.

Originally posted on G3AR before the site went down.

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