Played any good books lately? Thanks to increasingly literate scriptwriting and dialogue, today's top video games are beginning to rival novels and films. With epics like God of War III and Heavy Rain soon forthcoming, we polled developers about gaming's literary trend. Happily for street scholars, most insist that the future of high-tech storytelling looks bright.
"Game writers are getting better at understanding what works and what doesn't," explains Ken Levine, creator of haunting undersea adventure BioShock. "The challenge is to tell stories in ways that are compelling, but retain the most powerful component of what we do: interactivity, and giving the player some participation in the process." Set in a submarine art deco paradise populated by homicidal bioengineers obsessed with reshaping humankind's potential, the game explores more complex, nuanced topics than your standard shoot-em-up.
It's a startling change for an art form whose previous cliffhangers essentially amounted to "Oh no -- more zombies!" But as early as PSOne outings Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid, audiences could see the writing on the virtual wall. Exploring weighty themes such as love, loss and betrayal, these titles shined as much for cinematic grandeur as sweeping, multilayered action.
Witness PS2 milestones like Ico, which explores the symbiotic, handholding relationship between a helpless female captive and her young rescuer. Or Shadow of the Colossus, wherein a bereaved swordsman rides out on horseback to slay somber giants made of earth and stone in order to resurrect a sacrificed girl. Without these pioneering efforts, or equally erudite cult classics Beyond Good & Evil and Psychonauts, games' cultural impact might be confined to footnotes like "All Your Base are Belong to Us."
Yet while journalists and game designers continue to heap praise on such recent offerings as post-apocalyptic sci-fi epic Fallout 3 and the Blade Runner-esque Mirror's Edge, it's obvious that the virtual literary genre is still young. "More developers are coming to realize that a compelling narrative can support and enhance gameplay," says scriptwriter Rhianna Pratchett, who contributed to the latter. "As a creative field though, we know there's a hill we want to climb, but we're still at the bottom. There's a long way to go before that kind of dedication becomes industry-wide."
See Grand Theft Auto IV, a benchmark for complex character development and morally ambiguous plots, which continues to be plagued by a trademark sophomoric sense of humor. Don't forget horror adventure Resident Evil 5 either, wherein hammy dialogue and one-dimensional villains leave a brilliantly convoluted tale and its arresting backdrops smelling faintly of Velveeta. Still, pointing to well-received titles like Mass Effect and Portal, and the hugely anticipated BioShock 2, every developer we spoke with agrees that cerebral play is just coming into its own.
Or, as Mike Perry, creative director on The Godfather II, puts it, "We're evolving at a rapid rate, and finding more ways to connect with players than ever. The future of game writing and storytelling is limitless."
Get Rich Playing Games (getrichgaming.com) author and TV/radio host Scott Steinberg has covered technology for 400+ outlets from CNN to Rolling Stone. For more of his insights, visit www.gadgetexpert.net.
I don't get it, what's the point? Games tell better stories then they used to? Who would have thought that GTA4 has a more complicated story than tetris? As games get longer and more complicated its impossible for their storyline to not be more involved. The minute games started using characters moving through environments the literary aspects of story-writing had to shine through - its what separates Mario and Sonic the hedgehog - Mario has a story about a princess that people can connect to in a literary sense... Sonic just runs around collecting rings and killing the bad guy for no apparent reason.
Actually bdhoro87, Sonic did have a more complex story than that. He was trying to protect the animals from being turned into evil robot minions for Dr. Robotnik, while at the same time he was trying to find the Chaos Emeralds so the evil Doctor could not rule the world. Now, maybe Mario's story was more relatable, but Sonic's story wasn't exactly a pushover.
It's nice to see an intelligent article about the nature of narrative in games, with all the right games referenced. I do wish some more lip service had been given to what's remarkable about each of the games on the list, which would do some good towards eliminating (or at least discouraging) any smarmy tetris/GTA comparisons.
In other words, Psychonauts is a genre blending but otherwise fairly normal game with a unique look/design and exceptional dialogue. Metal Gear attempts to play with the player's relationship to the game, while Shadow of the Colossus focuses heavily on creating mood. Heavy Rain will attempt to blend the narrative of a film with the interactivity of a game, and so on.
If this is ever explored again I'd also be interested to hear more from guys like Ken Levine about what works and what doesn't in game narrative. His game Bioshock did two things really well: create a unique backstory for the game's setting, and then create a theme that is uniquely ludic. In other words, Bioshock is one of the only games out there with a 'theme' that wouldn't translate to traditional narrative because a key part of conveying the theme are the actions of the player in the game.
Clearly this is a new storytelling medium and there has been, IMO, a protracted struggle to pull compelling stories out of games, that do not clash with or stand apart from the gameplay experience. I'm just glad we're getting some really cool experiences mixed in with the rehashes and various genre cliches. It's an exciting time to be a gamer.
Yeah I guess there were a couple of tv shows based on sonic too. Anyway I do like the literary aspects of games lately especially God of War, and if I were to be making video games I'd try to push the limits even further. Video games can be considered another media outlet by expressing views on public issues. Many of the great works of literature are able to break through social boundaries - video games seem only to do this by becoming increasingly violent. The environments in games like Grand Theft Auto are an extremely descriptive commentary on society - and those who try to ban them are as closed minded as the people who try to bad books on subjects they don't find tasteful.
But I'm on a rant so I'll stop here.
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