This has been on my mind for the past few days, mostly due to Richard Garriott being Richard Garriott, and making wild, sweeping statements about games and gaming. Yes, you made Ultima. No, Tabula Rasa wasn’t all that great. No, I can’t really take you all that seriously now that you’ve tried to send DNA into space and make people immortal. Operation Immortality? Really?
Anyway, the seed that’s been sucking up vital brainspace over the past few days was him stating:
“I don’t think we’ve yet mastered the techniques of true interactive storytelling.”
And yeah, he’s kind of right. We haven’t, but that much is obvious. Our best efforts aren’t much better than the most middling film, and even that might be pushing it a little. It’s not so much that we don’t have good writers, or people who don’t know how to craft a story. We have all of those things. So what’s the problem? What’s holding these talented people back from creating a powerful narrative that we can all enjoy and find rewarding, satisfying, and bring about a powerful sense of katharsis?
Well, the problem is you. And me. And everyone else who plays games. The problem is the player, and the fact that we have player agency. The ability for the player to do something that the writer might not have anticipated, or something that doesn’t fit within the linear nature of their narrative. You write a story, have all the computer controlled players act it out, and the player is jumping up and down on a table and shooting circles in the wall. You can’t account for that, and even if the player does act like a normal human being, even if they ‘roleplay’ their character to the fullest extent, they’re still going to require the ability to choose, to make choices that have consequences and ramifications.
This is when you throw up your hand and point at something like Mass Effect 2, screaming and shouting and throwing around your faeces in a desperate attempt to make my eyes suddenly widen, realisation and recognition dawning in my pupils as suddenly yes, we have a story format that works! Something that both provides a compelling narrative and accounts for player agency! Except no, you flung around your poo for no reason. Mass Effect 2 isn’t playing to games strengths, it’s not a story made for a game. It’s a filmic story that’s forcing a game framework to bend towards it. The very fact that their compromise on the good/evil scale into paragon and renegade is a concession of plot and story in terms of player agency, not because having a good/evil scale was stupid. They have a very clear narrative; you save the world/universe. And the choices you make on the way are inconsequential in the shadow of that monolithic, destined truth. You can’t fight it any more than you can stop reading a book. If you play the game, that is going to happen. You just get to edit the variables a little.
In isolation, the most powerful narrative gaming moment in recent memory was in Far Cry 2, during a firefight when my buddy, Quarbani, went down. This was probably the fourth or fifth time he’d been hit during a gunfight, so I thought little of it. Over the course of the game I’d been building up a relationship with the man, doing side missions, having him save my life on multiple occasions, and me his. So I dispatch the remaining enemies and rush over to his side to administer some medical syringes. One goes in, his hand beckons for another. I shrug, and plunge a second needle into his chest. Another beckon, another syringe. I glance at the HUD, and realise I’m all out, and yet still he beckons. But still, I can’t give him another syringe; I don’t have one, and trying to find more will surely see him bleed out. And so I make the only choice I can, between leaving him to die and ending the suffering. Gun under his chin, I look away and pull the trigger.
Why I’m exalting this as a fundamentally game driven narrative moment is that it was the result of my actions, and it wasn’t some predestined scene dictated upon me by some omnipotent writer. I wasn’t good enough in that fight, and he got hit. Maybe, even if I had been good enough, he’d have been hit by a stray bullet. The fact was the game, somewhere deep in the bowels of the code, rolled a dice and his number came up. And a routine firefight turned into an unforgettable scene. It was scripted, sure, but in a fundamentally game-driven way, and that’s why it was interesting to me. It was a unique experience that could happen to anyone, and I’m sure it happened to many. And it happened because of me, rather than to me.
And I think that’s what games writing needs to be moving towards, instead of these emulations of film and novel. I’m not saying create a world and just let the player loose, but create a world of blanks that the player needs to fill in, that dictate what happens next. I often think that the technical limitations are what is really holding this sort of thing back, that it’s so much more easy to create a violent interaction than a social one, and so the predominant stories are violent ones. As the systems fall into place, as the worlds become more rich and powerful, the options presented to the player will become so much greater, but along with that the game itself will be able to adapt to those changes. Imagine having NPCs with distinct personalities that could be prodded by an AI director into being in the right place at the right time to give the player a unique moment, pushing them into a narrative while allowing them to react, and act, and forcing that same AI director to react and act in turn.
You see, games writing needs to be collaboration with the player just as much as the games themselves. You’ve got to give a little to get a lot, let go so you can have the player give it back.