Interactive Fiction: Video Game Storytelling

Interactive fiction and adventure gaming fans should be sure to check out the latest episode of Game Theory with Scott Steinberg. Our new documentary film “Interactive Fiction: The Art of Video Game Storytelling” (seen here) reveals what’s next for virtual narrative. The movie, featuring today’s top writers and game designers, provides an in-depth look at the past, present and future of video game storytelling.

In the film, the field’s biggest names chart virtual narrative and scriptwriting’s evolution from the days of point-and-click adventures to today’s sprawling online, downloadable and massively multiplayer online (MMO) games. Beginning with the early days of text adventures from Infocom and progressing from Sierra and LucasArts’ golden age heyday to the rise of CD-ROM, next-gen consoles and cutting-edge blockbusters like Heavy Rain, yesterday and today’s greatest designers share their thoughts on film.

The video, which features exclusive and never before seen footage, includes commentary by industry legends including Ultima creator Richard “Lord British” Garriott, Gabriel Knight scribe Jane Jensen, Revolution Software founder Charles Cecil and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy designer Steve Meretzky. Also featuring interviews with key talent behind hit franchises like BioShock, Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted, it offers an uparalleled look at the state of virtual storytelling.

About Scott Steinberg
Scott Steinberg is CEO of strategic consulting and product testing firm TechSavvy Global, and a noted keynote speaker and business expert. Hailed as a top tech expert and parenting guru by critics from USA Today to NPR, he’s also an on-air analyst for ABC, CBS and CNN.

13 Comments

  1. The first games that I recall resonating with me on a storytelling level was KOTOR and freelancer. I think some techniques from the recent trend of mini-series and hour long tv shows could apply to gaming in the sense that they are based around telling a much longer story than movies are. Short term, long term, and interactive storytelling are all very different skills and interactive storytelling has been the least explored, especially in terms of the budget it requires to create a compelling experience. Quentin Tarantino was able to master his art form from the days of highschool with a few friends, this isn’t so with videogames at least how it currently stands. It’s so hard to make a game that is alone, fun enough to keep the player interested, that being able to tell a compelling story at the same time just makes it that much more difficult of a task.

    I think Bethesda’s games have an effective storytelling method in that the world is filled with little details, so much so that almost every player creates their own adventure. Even though players might cross many of the same areas and quests, there’s so many ways you can interpret the same section. Giving the player the ability to kill anybody allows for people to really craft their own story in their head and have it feel real and not feel like they are being tugged around by the game developers, feeling like you’re exploring a post apocalyptic city, except every road just happens to be blocked with rubble leading you down a straight path.

  2. I’ve always seen the emergent, unspoken, unpredictable gameplay of immersive sims like System Shock 2, the Theif series, Morrowind, and Far Cry 2 as some of the best examples of video games’ storytelling potential. They move the traditional “story” stuff to the background. Instead of the context of your actions being explained to you, it is conveyed in the world; in audio logs, in books, in architecture, and other remnants of past events. The active story of the game is simply the player’s interactions with the simulation. The game avatar’s experiences become your experiences, and the meaning tying all of the events and challenges together is player-generated. It almost becomes a sort of existential exercise. My stories from playing Morrowind aren’t of Dagoth Ur or the Nerevarine Prophecy, they’re of the times when I set my own goals and went about achieving them. Times like when I spent hours making trade runs selling overpriced poisons I had concocted using the cheapest ingredients I could find, or when I unwittingly got behind the Ghostgate, cought the blight, and had to seek out healing amidst the disgusted jeers of NPCs. If the game world is convincingly populated, a well-designed immersive sim can communicate a kind of poetry that no other medium can touch, while still being a hell of a lot of fun.

    The main problem I see with the way storytelling is being handled by Bioware and the like is that they still rely heavily on imitating cinema. While they tell some memorable stories, the events are less driven by the player than by the developer. The player is, in essence, a glorified DVD remote. He can either progress, or not progress. The true linearity is thinly veiled by relatively meaningless choices after which the events inevitably return to the developer’s narrative. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s hardly making the interactive nature of the medium an integral part of the story itself.

  3. I have not experienced a sense of immersion in a narrative as the one provided in the Japanese 32-bit era gem “Roudra no Hihou.” It surpasses the often heralded masterpieces of Chrono Trigger & the like because even though the narrative is (multi) linearly structured it interweaves the decisions that you as a player make with the storyline in such ingenuity that you really experience some world shaking revelations along the way.

    The game features the player switching perspective between several parties at certain points in the narrative – you get to play a party whose actions seemed hostile to your original party and experience their motives that all of a sudden make their actions seem justified. Meeting your old party and now, with the knowledge of experience that you did not have before, all of a sudden you are forced to compromise the goals of your old party that seemed to be justified at the time as well. Slowly the history of the world of the game unravels before your eyes and you have to readjust your sense of right and wrong and your course of action to save it.

    This might sound trivial, but I have never found a game nor book nor movie that came close in achieving that much immersion in a narrative. The story itself lends itself to acting upon the newly acquired knowledge and the paradigm shift you experience several times is so shocking, yet convincing, because you know the pain you have to inflict on others, as you have felt it when you were in their position before.

    So creating interactive narratives that provide immersion on their own instead of relying on gameplay and audiovisuals to provide the immersion experience is something that games can improve upon as a medium specific way of storytelling. You could build upon this by introducing even more layers of modality and multilinearity, while keeping to the general linearity of acquiring new knowledge about the world that force your actions or limit your choices.

  4. Hi Scott,

    First of all, that’s a really nicely produced video. It’s not often that I see videos on the subject of game design that are that well constructed, and it conveys a great argument in only a few minutes. Top job.

    Unfortunately, the actual ideas that the various luminaries you’ve interviewed are coming out with are completely wrong :) . I’m writing some posts on What Games Are (my blog/book) on the subject of game writing and narrative this week, and if you don’t mind I plan to embed your video at the top of a post tomorrow.

    I currently have a post that opens up the issue of how player characters are not characters at all (but non-player characters are) as my top post, and the next post will follow tomorrow. (Link: http://whatgamesare.com/2011/02/cars-dolls-and-video-games-narrativism.html)

    I’d be very interested to get your take on it.

  5. Dawid van Straaten

    Hi Scott,

    Really interesting video you compiled. I enjoy games where you can have control over dialogue (Deus Ex, Advenure Games), but I also enjoy the story conveyed in cinematics sometimes. Ideally games wants to get to a point where emergent gameplay is the order of business. I want to make an adventure game one day where you know what you need to do, but you can do it how you want to do it. There will always be boundaries in what stories allows, but as a game designer your job is to make sure that the gamer is unaware of those boundaries.

    I play games for stories, the games I remember are the games whose stories totally intrigued me. Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, Deus Ex, GTA, KOTOR, Heavy Rain, etc. are all games that pulled you in. How many gamers finished all the tasks in GTA 3 and onwards? You play the game for the storyline, when the story is finished you lose interest. Don’t tell me Pizza or Vigilante missions are entertaining.

    We mustn’t be scared to learn from other media (Cinema, books, etc.) but we must also embrace the differences in our medium. Twitch games can draw you for a short while, but games with deep realistic stories can stick with you for a lifetime.

    What does irritate me is the F-movie quality type of scripts you get in games. Corney cliched characters with no depth. A perfect example of a game that will never interest me because of its stupid juvenile story is Bulletstorm.

    Game developers should try and push storytelling to a place where it has the same impact as a good book or movie. Storytelling is part of human nature, it was there from the first people and it remains with us today. It’s part of being human.

  6. Hey Scott,

    That was an interesting piece and it truly is an interesting time for storytelling in video games. However, I think what really needs to be embraced is the unique position video games have as an interactive medium and developers need to explore this aspect more rather than borrowing from passive media like cinema. I think one method that was done incredibly well in games like Deus Ex, Half-Life 2, Portal, the Elder scrolls games and Fallout 3 was the interactivity of the world and the conveying of the story through player interaction and exploration. Finding additional literature, watching in-game TV screens, exploration of the game world and conversations with non-essential NPCs all add to the enrichment of the storyline and greatly aid immersion.

    I think in the past too many games have relied on using passive cut-scenes and non-interactive text that many would rather skip. I think part of the reason the storytelling in Uncharted 2 works so well isn’t just because the writing during cut-scenes is of such a high quality, but the conversations and light humour during gameplay. It warms the player to the characters and actually makes the player more inclined to stop and watch the cut-scenes when they take place.

    I think the recent trend regarding storytelling in games is a promising one. I agree that Bioware has really managed to convey some interesting array of characters whilst still giving the player an interactive input into the details of his/her personal story within the game. However, I also feel that whilst technology has aided immersion, in some ways it has taken away from the depth and the range of possibilities in the stories told. I have my doubts as to whether a developer can maintain an interactive story with the depth and the thought-provoking ideas of Planescape Torment whilst maintaining the AAA quality and budget that is now expected in mainstream games. Having a fully voiced and animated game with a script of that size would be largely unfeasible in this day and age.

  7. First of: Fantastic documentary!

    I grew up with the point & click games and Indian Jones: Fate of Atlantis, Monkey Island II: Le Chuck’s revenge and Veil of Darkness had an big impact on me when it comes to Story telling. Because basically when it comes to Point & Click games, when you have solved the puzzle, story is all they have.

    Although Lucasarts played it safe with stories filled with humor, Sierra had the guts to grow up with titles like Police Quest, Phantasmagoria & Gabriel Knight II: The Beast Within.

    When I look at nowadays storytelling in videogames, they are preceded by interactivity. Uncharted II had the balance correct, even though the game is not in itself that original. Heavy Rain is not that all original, but it seems it can reawaken the whole interactive film genre, but probably works best if we can sit behind our TV, order Heavy Rain II as it it was a film and decide our own ending as we play along through our remote.

    I miss the old Point & clicks, but I’m certain that crappy storytelling will leave the scenery, as Uncharted II, Bioshock, Mass Effect II, Metal Gear Solid 4 & recently World of Warcraft II Cataclysm have proven that we want to be sucked into the game.

  8. Hey Scott,

    One of the best games I’ve ever played happened to use more traditional storytelling methods. That game was Tales of Destiny 2 (Originally Tales of Eternia, but came to North America as Tales of Destiny 2). The storyline was mostly linear, but the game hooked you with interesting characters and a quest that started out as “figure out who this character is and what she’s saying”. I think that what really made this game work was the fact that it DIDN’T start out as some epic quest to save the world. It started out small, and gradually used different circumstances to shift the importance of what you were doing. Eventually leading to the idea that you have to save the world.

    Actually, upon further consideration, a lot of games that have storytelling that many consider to be exceptional follow very similar patterns. Chrono Trigger begins with you entering a strange portal to save a girl you had just met, and gradually builds up to the point where you have to save the world. Start small, let your familiarity to the characters develop as they grow before telling you that you’re out to save the world. Even if you already know it.

    In response to your second question, I personally think that voiceovers do more harm to a story than good. They can significantly alter the view you have of the character. And honestly, a lot of voice acting I’ve heard in games REALLY doesn’t do credit to the characters, and can turn a likable character into a very annoying character if the voice doesn’t fit. The money spent on voice actors could definitely be spent better elsewhere in the game development process.

    I think that there’s definitely started to be too much focus on cutscenes and passive storytelling. Involve the player with the story and the game. No, this doesn’t have to be done by giving dialogue choices to the player. But what it means is, make it so that how the player actually PLAYS will evolve the story. Involve the character in the story by making scenes with small exposition that YOU would learn as the character learned it. Don’t make it an extremely long exposition, but shorten it. Make it seem more urgent. Elaborate over time, during different scenes later. This can include a camp scene in a game, where the more you talk during the scene, the more you learn. And the less you talk, the less you learn, but you get back to gameplay quicker. Different things that bring the player in, while giving choices. Dialogue choices aren’t the only way to involve the player, but they’re becoming very common… And the choices offered don’t feel fleshed out.

    Thanks for reading!

  9. I think you should make a part 2 – because MMO/MMORPG have some of the weakest storytelling. I think bioware might improve that by allowing the player to listen to dialog as opposed to listening to it but how many times are we forced to kill and fetch things in these games that we just look at what is required instead of reading..someone needs to pull a hail mary pass to make MMO stories interesting – perhaps Guildwars 2 or Kotor.

  10. Storytelling predominantly relies on pacing. The majority of games forgo this crucial element in place of seasoned actors and a industry scriptwriter. One of the reasons IP’s like Bioshock and Dead Space succeed lies with their uninterrupted narrative. Bioshock with its tape recordings, Dead Space with its vitual hud. Consistently, games slow the pacing to a crawl, removing players from the interactivity of the world they are showcasing. Atmosphere is everything!

  11. Hi,

    thanks for the video – that was by far the best video I ever saw about storytelling in video games!!

    I`m a teacher in germany and very interested in how to use games in school. I just published an article in a german magazine which can be read online at: http://www.medienistik.de/Erzaehlstrukturen.pdf

    I`d really like to know what you think about using video games at school. My approach is to compare the storytelling in books, movies and video games to show, that video games are a very complex medium.

    I used “Scratch”, an easy programming language for creating video games, to make students create their own video game based on the first page of their favorite book. They had a lot of fun doing it and I think video games should be used more often in school (because children spend much more time playing video games than reading books or watching movies).

  12. I have been playing games since the Zork era. I must say that story driven games are very important to my purchase decisions.

    The problems I am seeing with many story driven games is the game flow. Maintaining a game pace and adding story and characters into the mix seems like a very difficult thing to do well.

    An action game shouldn’t be bam, bam, bam, then drawn-out non-interactive cut-scene. Likewise a point-and-click adventure game shouldn’t fly thru the story telling.

    Players are as much to blame as the developers. The sand box games I feel are impossible to tell what pace a players are playing to tell a good story without annoying some players while appeasing others but many players feel that sand box games give a player freedom but when developers give players that freedom then people complain that missions are boring and there is not enough or too much story-telling.

    I admit there are some great stories out there in the games now-a-days but many fall to the wayside due to poor game-play balance or and in some cases poor marketing to make great games known to the players seeking them.

  13. Look, there is plenty of plaudits for the video. I am in that group too.

    Just so you know – I am hoping that your video will inspire the students in ‘our’ English class to think that writing is cool (which it is). We can’t manifest our writing as a blockbuster game, so we will go with IF. Thanks.

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