As game makers, we have a very powerful storytelling tool, completely unique to our medium, which we have barely exploited. Instead of exploring the strength of interactivity in games for story, we’ve been distracted for years trying to emulate the story-telling technique of books and movies.
When books came about, and we were all learning (as a civilization) to write fiction, we invented several powerful techniques to communicate what was happening in the story in an immersive way. We invented introspection, 1st person, 2nd and 3rd person perspective. We also learned that it was much more powerful to convey to the reader what was happening through senses. This is known in writing circles as “show don’t tell.” It means that rather than saying “John Carter of Mars punched the Martian” we say “The searing pain and audible crack of Carter’s punch decked the Martian by surprise.” By describing the action through our senses, we engage the reader and draw them into the written word.
When movies came about, storytelling had to change, especially dialog. In books, in order to convey what was happening, we sometimes resorted to verbose descriptions through character dialog. “Watson, take a look at this shoe, note the mud on the sole, the pattern of its cracks and the hue of the earth itself. It’s red clay from Brighton if I’m not mistaken!” This type of dialog in a movie would seem laborious and overwrought. Instead of using dialog, the scriptwriter indicates a filmed action [SHERLOCK turns over the shoe, CLOSEUP of red clay caked and cracked on the sole] SHERLOCK: “Watson, clay from Brighton, I’d stake my reputation on it.”
Notice how we no longer have our main character discussing (and thereby conveying) the information of the color and texture of the clay. We don’t need to be told the clay is red and cracked, we can see it for ourselves. Again, we use the visual medium to reduce the telling and increase the showing. It’s “show don’t tell” taken to the next level by exploiting the unique visual aspect of films.
In games, we’ve adopted these techniques to make storytelling in our own medium more effective. But sometimes we use them in a way not appropriate or necessary for games. I remember one MMO that would have a narrator actually tell you what you were supposed to be hearing in the game, rather than just having the sound effects convey the sound itself. In other cases, we have long and tedious quest dialog explaining magic systems or other lore of the world.
But what games can do, that no other medium can, is to have you directly experience the story through your own actions. The great tragedy of most game storytelling, is that we hardly ever use this unique power to convey story and lore. We rely on movie and book techniques. They are comfortable crutches, known quantities and surefire ways to get results. But we can do so much more.
Think about the introduction to Half-Life 2, which I believe to be one of the highest examples we have for this new storytelling medium. The entire introduction is not a cut-scene, it is a fully interactive experience where you have full control of the character. The volume of information Valve had to convey was enormous, yet you hardly notice it. There are no long monologues or cinematics to set the scene. Instead, we are allowed to experience the world and learn from our interactions with it.
We learn many things. We don’t have to be told this is a totalitarian society, we experience it firsthand. Drones take our pictures when we wander too close. Masked guards shove and push us if we interact with them. People cower when we try to talk to them. All of these action and reactions that teach us about the world we now find ourselves playing. And it’s powerful. We are creatures that learn best through experience. No amount of reading books about playing a guitar or watching movies about how to skydive will actually let you strum a song or safely open a parachute. We must experience it firsthand by picking up a guitar or jumping out of plane. Games can convey this same powerful experience. Movies and books can never do that.
Learning by experience, by observing how things react by our own actions, is the single most powerful way to learn, experience and remember. We should take a page from Valve’s book and begin to explore “lore through interactivity” much more than we have been. Let’s ditch the long monologues and expensive cut-scenes and focus more on interactive storytelling in games. I don’t want to be told about the game lore, I want to live it.
Mark Kern / Mark Kern is a long time game maker and designer, having worked on games like Starcraft, Diablo 2, World of Warcraft and Firefall. He writes articles on game design and business in his spare time, and makes mmorpg.com his writing home. You can find him on Twitter at Grummz.