October 10, 2011

Narratives in videogames

Filed under: Uncategorized — nascentnovelist @ 2:29 pm
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Last Saturday, TAG (the research center in Technoculture, Art and Games) brought together Canadian and French researchers and industry leaders in the field of digital game studies and game design for a conference in Montreal. This was part of the 24th edition of the Entretiens Jacques Cartier and the overall theme of the colloquium was the study of narratives in videogames. I was lucky enough to score a seat at this fully booked event and got to enjoy four panel discussions followed by a keynote speech by David Cage, writer of Heavy Rain.

The first panel focused on Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed 2. Darren Wershler (Research Chair in Media and Contemporary Literature from Concordia) spoke about the games’ use of architecture to guide player movement and influence gameplay, while Brian Greenspan (Associate Professor, Carlton University) spoke about about NPC’s as agents of politics and the depictions of utopia and dystopia in games. Both Wershler and Greenspan’s presentations show that it is possible to review computer games as more than toys. Since many games are of a quality both in narrative and theme that they merit serious academic attention, I’m glad to see the English departments of several prominent universities taking an interest.

I found the ideas put forth in the second panel, studying The Graveyard, fascinating. Both the academic reviewers of The Graveyard and the creators themselves focused on the belief that the most powerful narratives happen inside a player’s head, rather than on screen. Though I agree with the sentiment, I believe the discussion would have been better suited in a panel about a game with a less set storyline and with less railroading of the player. One example could be Minecraft. It seemed to me that the Graveyard was a game very much intending to tell one story and that it happened very much on screen. It’s hard to imagine what alternate storylines or sentiments a player could get out of The Graveyard. That being said, I look forward to seeing further studies on player generated narrative, hopefully with games that are more sandbox-oriented.

The third panel discussed the narratives of Mass Effect 2. Nick Montfort, Associate Professor of Digital Media at MIT, explored alternatives to the dialogue wheel as the main vehicle for storytelling. Rather than improving the narrative, Montfort argued that the clunkiness of the dialogue wheel limited player immersion in games and that alternatives, like the text interface in Facade could be utilized by game designers. Though I agree that dialogue wheels are limiting, and that there are other options, I don’t see how it is feasible, from a budget perspective, to implement freewriting in a AAA game. As the writer who worked on Mass Effect 2 said: one extra line of dialogue costs 2-3 days of work. Hopefully, we’ll see more indie games experimenting with this type of text/voice recognition, but I think the big games will be slow to follow.

In the fourth panel, it was great to hear Amnesia: The Dark Descent described as a terror rather than a horror game. I wholeheartedly agree with the distinction. Also interesting to see a game with little to no combat that still manages to tell a story and evoke strong emotions while sharing a compelling narrative (take that Graveyard). I can’t wait to see the next game from Frictional Games.

The last post on the program was a keynote by David Cage, writer of Heavy Rain. Although Cage set up and knocked down some straw men (like the big bad makers of most games that don’t care about stories), I really liked to hear about his process for making Heavy Rain and his thoughts on the future of games as an industry. Why not take a look?

What do you think about the future of storytelling in games? Are narratives important for your enjoyment? Which games have touched you the most?



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  3. Usually, narrative is very important for me in video games. I can play games without narrative and have just as much fun, I suppose… but a great narrative with awesome and interesting characters can really make something 10x better for me. I think if Uncharted didn’t have such interesting characters, I wouldn’t like it near as much as I do. I’d probably like it, but not to the level of fanboy squee that I do currently. Pure speculation, though, I suppose.

    I think also that narrative can bring you through boring bits in a game by making you want to advance the storyline. For example, in Battlefield Bad Company, the game can get very repetitive, as many FPS games tend to do. However, the interesting characters and storyline generally carried me through bits that otherwise would have made me put the game down for a while. Of course, the narrative is nowhere near as intricate as it is in the Assassin’s Creed series. That being said, the collecting aspects of that series I think would be nowhere near as interesting without the storyline. Each home improvement, each collected feather or viewpoint furthers a subplot of some kind. It has strong narrative with lots of potential for exploration and choice, which makes it very attractive to gamers.

    I’m glad it’s getting more academic attention as well. In fact, in my college they had a Video Game writing class just this last summer, but it didn’t make due to lack of interest (or lack of advertising by the department, more like).

    Comment by Allen M. Jenkins — October 11, 2011 @ 12:48 pm | Reply

    • I agree. Narratives are what draws me into games and what keeps me playing even if the gameplay is repetitive or simplistic. I find it particularly interesting that games are both a vehicle for telling a story, and a toy for the user to play with, do you know what I mean? It’s not pure storytelling (like film) but it’s not pure sport either (like football).

      I would have loved to take a class on writing for video games. Sadly, I’m no longer a student. 😦

      Comment by nascentnovelist — October 11, 2011 @ 1:28 pm | Reply

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