“We are just now at The Jazz Singer in video games. We are starting to figure out that there are things we can do beyond the conventions of cinema and there are ways to tell stories that help the gameplay along and not just ape the experience of film or television.”
This is the big epigraph behind Andrew Reiner’s “The Writers’ Room,” which was published in the latest issue of Game Informer. It’s an interesting way to think about video games, which despite being technically advanced and often on similar (if not greater) budgets than rival forms of arts and entertainment, are relatively new, especially as an artistic medium. It’s also a great acknowledgment of the fact that video games are their own active thing, and shouldn’t be confused with the passive experiences offered by film or television; they don’t need to be broken down into episodes and don’t need epic set-pieces — though there’s room for those types of games — and can probably do a lot more than they’re currently coasting by on. Let’s also not confuse bigger with better: Pac-Man may not have an expansive story, but in many ways it was purer than testosterone-filled pap like Gears of War, which offers just as cartoon-y a story, only with a lot more blood and less-interactive gameplay sequences.
Which makes me think about that old saying about brevity being the soul of wit. This isn’t saying have less text, or do away with the world-building that decorates the various optional books and lore pick ups scattered throughout a massive RPG like Skyrim. But it is finding a balance between a truly engaging game (Half Life 2 and its in-game use of story is the example offered by Reiner) and a talk-fest like Metal Gear Solid 4 or one of those new-school RPGs, like Xenosaga, that throws out cut-scene after cut-scene in the hopes that you’ll forget how bad the gameplay can be. Ken Levine, quoted here in his double role as creative director and head writer for Bioshock Infinite, stresses the goal for “audience-facing” material that leaves control in the player’s hands, a task that appears to require shorter scenes. We don’t need a more cinematic Uncharted, we need a more interactive one, it’s thrilling to actually control the fate of your character as he clings to the side of a crashing train or the cargo netting on a falling plane, and that’s pretty much the only thing I’m skeptical about in what I’ve seen from the new Tomb Raider. (Far Cry 3‘s worst sequences were those in which characters simply talked at you; its best were when you were tripping on drugs or fleeing from crazed pirates.) The brevity, in this case, is the disconnect between playing a game and watching a film within that game; one of the nice things about Dishonored was that you could kill key characters. You’d fail the game immediately after doing so, but at least you had the agency to do that, whereas a game like Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed only purports to be open-world: in fact, the list of things you can actually do and get away with is surprisingly limited.
To that end, there’s also a reminder of the sheer commitment required to translating a scripted moment into a video game — something that’s perhaps closest in scope to a scene from an animated feature (which are ruthlessly storyboarded so as to avoid waste). While this means that you’re far less likely to find artistic accidents in a video game, as in that plastic bag moment from American Beauty, it also means that everything is constantly, actively working toward telling a story — which you’d hope would result in a more finely crafted work of art. Instead, story sometimes takes on the hack approach, shedding hard-to-code subtleties or variety for simple signifiers and easy-to-read cliches. So what if the aliens in Aliens: Colonial Marines jittery erratically across the screen as if they’re having a grand mal seizure; I’ll bet that was easier to code than the sinuous stealth which made them so terrifying in the first place. Dead Space 3 is a far better game, excellent with the atmospheric horror, but its necromorphs rarely surprise us: there’s a limit to what they’re able to do, and so the game has to fall back on writing to compensate for the thrills that cannot, at this point, be designed. On the other hand, such discrepancies, according to Mikey Neumann, a writer for Gearbox, can lead to a more collaborative process between the artists and writers and designers who work to script both the code and dialogue that goes into the finished product.
There’s a lot more going into the storytelling process of a game than a television episode, which might only have to deal with a collaborative room of writers, budgetary restrictions that cause rewrites, and network interference. So why, then, does Corey May of Ubisoft like compare the influences of Assassin’s Creed to a television episode, what with the division of storytelling into sequences (seasons) and the individual levels (episodes) that contribute to each arc. This is falling prey to a different medium, and locks up the design so that individual moments fail to influence others, which is why something like the recently announced Witcher 3 appears so appealing: you can bypass entire “sequences” if you don’t care for those stories . . . so long as you’re prepared for the ramifications of allowing a kingdom to crumble. Imagine playing a game based on Lost, but being given the option to never find the goddamn hatch: now you’re not being funneled through a specific viewing experience, similar to that of the show, but being able to forge your own story, which may result in you getting off the island in some other fashion. Again, almost impossible to code all of that right now — hell, a single episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead game, apparently had 600 pages of dialogue, and that’s using a glitchy engine based on the highly restrictive point-and-click genre — but you can see why the comparison to video games being at the level of The Jazz Singer is so apt, and why games that attempt the mundane (even gamified versions, like Heavy Rain) can be so appealing.
The greatest gaming experience I had in 2012 was, ironically, with a non-talkie: Journey, which compressed everything it wanted a game to be into a short and replayable package, and which invested the gamer in a story that they could either dig up or create at their own leisure. So there’s wit in literal brevity too, even in a game, and as a long-time reader, I’ll be thrilled to see how narrative changes (even if it’s as simple as having a second player involved in the experience) as design approaches our imagination.