Games and stories have become inexorably intertwined – but we should be cautious about stories in games, as videogames are an extremely inefficient narrative media. The question must be raised: when is it worth the cost of rendering a narrative in a game?
Much has been written about the relationship between games and narrative, here, there and everywhere else besides. In general, I think it can be agreed that while games do not need an explicit narrative (there will always be games such as Tetris which are entirely abstract, for instance), there is a class of games which depend upon their narrative element as a crucial part of the experience of play. These narrative games are quite unlike other narrative media.
But when you have a particular narrative, how do you judge if it is suited to games? And when you have a game, how do you judge what you can do with its narrative?
A problem which game writers, and others interested in game narrative, often choose to overlook is that it is tremendously inefficient to render a story in a game. For instance, suppose you have a short story to tell. You can write it in prose in a few hours. You can shoot and edit a short film of it within a day or so. But to make the same short story into a game takes hundreds of man hours.
Now it is true that by making a game of it you add something that you cannot get in other media – namely interactivity. But there is a flipside to this, which is that not all stories benefit from interactivity. If you want to tell the story of Job, for instance, there is very little point in making it interactive... In fact, by making it interactive you probably collapse the narrative, as it depends upon the protagonist reaching a state of despair from which they fall into inaction. This is essentially impossible to render in an interactive form, except as an absurd pastiche. Similar arguments can be made for Shakespeare’s Macbeth, say, or James Joyce’s Ulysses.
It is not that these stories could not be made into (or at least used to inspire) games – it is rather that what makes these narratives interesting is not necessarily compatible with an interactive form. Furthermore, it is such a tremendous investment of resources to render a narrative in game form that one had better be certain that the narrative is a good choice for a game before beginning.
Far too many people, especially students and amateurs, have an idea for a game, which is actually upon analysis an idea for a story. But they do not then try and write the story (as a novella, or screenplay), they set their sights on a game and have high hopes of bringing their story to life in game form. Most fail. Even those that succeed often do not produce a very satisfying narrative, as if one does not have the skills required to write a story as a novel or a screenplay, there is no reason to believe that one has the skills required to render the narrative in a game – a considerably more complicated task.
It cannot be overemphasised that it takes a tremendous volume of resources to make a game narrative, and the more interactive the narrative, the more laborious it becomes. Façade is an impressive piece of work, but it represents hundreds, perhaps thousands of man hours of work for only half an hour of play (ignoring replay). It was only worth doing because it was pioneering new techniques (which were absolutely worth exploring!), and even then, it is doubtful that any commercial game will follow in its footsteps.
Certain game stories are comparatively simple to implement. For example, if one is creating a linear, or fairly linear, shooting game, then one can render the story as a series of cut scenes between the action – this is in fact the de facto standard for game storytelling, whether for good or ill. In these cases, the story is simply a gloss upon the gameplay. These are cases where the game narrative serves its purpose; the game is already being made, and the narrative adds positively to the experience of the game.
But this is not the case for every narrative idea proposed in the context of games. Indeed, it is arguable that the game concept should precede the story concept, unless it happens that the story concept implies gameplay (which does happen – Ico is an example).
Thomas at Mile Zero asks as part of this month’s Round Table on games and narrative (albeit accidentally!) why there are no game stories with the richness and unique identity of art house movies such as Junebug, and why we are instead doomed to heroic (or anti-heroic) archetypes in videogames. I feel that the answer to this question is the inefficiency of rendering narrative in the medium of games.
The audience becomes used to the high production values they experience with upper market franchises such as Grand Theft Auto and Final Fantasy, and the budgets for such games require a sufficiently large audience to justify their creation. That audience is not generally courted by inventive narrative, alas – I wish that it were. Rather, the few interesting examples of game narrative occur despite resisting commercial factors. And even if one makes an interesting narrative on a smaller budget, it is still grossly inefficient to do so, compared to how much it would cost to make a short film with the same story content.
There is no way to avoid the fact that games are an inefficient medium for delivering narrative. But there is also no way to avoid the fact that interactive narrative can only be attempted in a game, or something very much like one. What is lacking is the commercial impetus to justify the costs required in making creative interactive narratives, and while the market for videogames remains focussed on games of harsh challenge and fleeting entertainments, this commercial impetus remains absent. It is not even clear that we will ever find such a market. Creative interactive narrative might always be a by-product of the games industry, and never a commercial goal.
But it will not stop those of us enchanted by the potential
of the medium trying to push its limits whenever we can.
The opening image is Two Infinities by Freydoon Rassouli, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is implied, and I will take the image down if asked.