Jan 1, 2013

2012 – A Turning Point for Interactive Storytelling

Vladimir Rakhmanin

Deputy Online Editor

We are on the brink of revolution. Video games, so often rejected by the public eye for being nothing more than a childish plaything, are finally beginning to gain acceptance by the mainstream – the Museum of Modern Art has acquired fourteen video games for display, and Austin Wintory’s gorgeous soundtrack for Journey has been nominated for a Grammy, alongside such titans as John Williams and Trent Reznor. But something even more important than this has happened – the video games industry, for the first time ever, has begun to unanimously award titles for their creativity and innovation. Two of the industry’s most popular review outlets, IGN and Gamespot, gave Journey, an experimental indie title, their Game of the Year award. The Video Game Awards, usually known for their crass, juvenile approach, gave The Walking Dead the same honour, a serialised title more focused on human relationships under stress than on the zombie apocalypse surrounding them.

What’s causing this sudden change of heart, then? Perhaps it’s the homogeneity of the ‘blockbuster’ releases this year, with their focus on elaborate set-pieces over traditional gameplay mechanics. Perhaps developers are putting all their effort into launch titles for the next generation – whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that this year has been the perfect breeding ground for experimentation in how we tell stories in this wonderful young medium, and while the results haven’t been perfect, I would have to say they’ve been pretty damn good.

I have always been a firm believer that when utilised correctly, the video game medium can achieve extraordinarily powerful results. After all, it includes elements of film, music and literature – and, most importantly, features an element of interactivity that allows the player to experience the story in a more real, more visceral way. For the purpose of this article, I will discuss solely the storytelling aspect of five of last year’s video games – Spec Ops: The Line, Dear Esther, Thirty Flights of Loving, The Walking Dead, and Journey – and the way they have used the medium to their advantage.

Let’s begin with Spec Ops: The Line. Spec Ops is a modern-day re-telling of Apocalypse Now, set in Dubai. While many read the horrific events that occur over the course of the game’s narrative to be a criticism of the effects of war on the human psyche, I personally like to interpret it to be a comment on the modern-day video games industry. Contemporary war games mostly just use war as a backdrop for the player to shoot things (with some notable exceptions, such as the No Russian level in Modern Warfare 2) – at the end of a Call of Duty campaign, you will have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of enemy soldiers, with little to no effect on the protagonist’s psyche.

Spec Ops subverts this idea. It starts out as a regular shooter, with the stereotypical trio of soldiers picking off enemies with simple headshots. But as the game goes on, and the protagonist is exposed to some truly horrific scenes, the developers begin to show you what would really happen to a person if they began to murder large amounts of people during a war. The soldiers become more vicious, their appearance more bloody. Dialogue becomes more abrupt, the characters swear more often. Instead of simply shooting a downed enemy, the protagonist smashes their face in repeatedly with the butt of a rifle. The idea of a character becoming more battle-torn as the game progresses has already been seen in Rocksteady’s excellent Arkham series, but it is even more apparent here – and the great thing is, this is something that could only be done via the interactive medium. As a player, you physically feel the rage and madness begin to descend upon your character with every button press. I have a feeling that this interactive approach to character development will be something that will be used more often in the next couple of years.

Also of note is the ‘white phosphorus’ scene that occurs in the middle of the game (this next paragraph is going to spoil a large surprise in the story, so if you’re sensitive, skip it). You know this kind of scene from pretty much every military game you’ve played – you get control of a computer, which in turn lets you bomb an enemy camp from above. Spec Ops takes this tired concept and flips it on its head. For a start, while you’re bombing the camp, you can see Walker’s reflection in the computer screen – this means that there’s no disconnect between the player and the action. You are clearly responsible for the mass murder you are currently committing. What happens next, however, is a stroke of genius – you are forced to walk through the camp that you have just bombed. You walk through with your squad, stepping over the charred corpses, listening to the moans of those unlucky few who have not died yet. Once again, this moment is greatly enriched by the fact that you caused it – in a film or a novel you not have felt the same guilt in a similar sequence. A masterstroke – a truly iconic video game moment.

Next up, we have something a little more light-hearted. Thirty Flights of Loving is a minimalist game in the first person that attempts to tell a full story in less than ten minutes. It has a lovable papercraft art style, but I feel that the most important thing about this game is the pacing. Modern video games often suffer from bloated, overly-long narratives – while this is probably inevitable, as developers have to make their game worth 50 euro, it really harms the quality of the story.

Loving completely obliterates the usual problems developers have with pacing by relying on a technique created by French New Wave cinema – jump cuts. It astonishes me how people did not think of using this earlier – it’s so simple, yet so brilliant. Not only does this completely fix pacing problems, it also allows for a creation of time passing without the obligatory “three hours later” subtitle. Consider one of the scenes in the game – you wake up in your hideout. Everything is peaceful, one of your partners in crime is eating oranges, throwing the peel out the window. You walk to a corridor in the apartment – the clock above states that it’s the afternoon. However, as you inch closer towards the door, the clock skips towards the evening, and your two partners appear in front of the door in formal wear. All of this happens in real-time, and yet it makes utter sense – you spent a long time waiting in your hideout, and now you are ready to go on a mission. Time has passed, and you are aware of it, you feel it, despite the fact that in real life the whole scene took 30 seconds. This is an elegant and brilliant solution, and I feel like it could be used a lot more in mainstream releases.

The jump-cuts also work in that each sequence is placed in a non-chronological order – at one point you may be making a getaway from an airport, the next, you’re attending a high-class rooftop party. They contrast with each other dramatically, making you wonder what the story actually is – in a lesser game, this may have been confusing, or disorienting. Loving, however, is constructed in such a way that every object makes you exactly sure of what you’re meant to be doing. This lends the whole experience an absurd, dream-like quality where you’re relying solely on intuition to make your way through the game. All of these techniques combine to create a really unique story – despite the fact that it takes ten minutes to play through.

Next on my list is Dear Esther, the most abstract of the lot. It involves someone (something?) walking slowly along an eerily beautiful Scottish island, while listening to a British man reading excerpts of what seem to be letters to a woman named Esther. There is literally no interaction that you have with the environment – you can simply walk, and look. As you can imagine, this is not a game for everyone, if it can even be called a game – despite this, I believe it to be an interesting alternative approach to storytelling in video games.

Instead of traditional game mechanics aiding the story, such as puzzle-solving or combat, the game uses the contradictory narrative and gorgeous visuals to simply evoke emotion. Because the narrative is randomised, you will hear different excerpts every time you walk through the island, occasionally highlighting different themes of the beautiful prose. The first time round, I desperately fought to find meaning in the ambiguous story – I clung to certain thematic elements, trying to make them fit, to somehow make sense of the deep unease, and even creepiness that I felt as I traversed the rocks and the tall grass. But as I neared the ending of the game, the narration began to merge – characters that I thought existed in the past actually existed in the present, things that I thought were literal turned out to be metaphors. Two characters that I thought were different people actually turned out to be one and the same. You might cry out at me at this point for spoiling the ending – however, when I played through a second time, I reached completely different conclusions.

And that’s when I realised the brilliance of Dear Esther. It dangles puzzle pieces in front of your nose that looks like they might fit together, but actually don’t. As you scour the island for answers, you realise that there is no answer to this mystery – but the sense of deep sadness and unease while you try to find it is entirely real. This is a brilliant move by the developers – it evokes pure emotion via mild interactivity and exploration. While I wouldn’t want all my games to take this format, this is certainly a brave and noteworthy example of how stories can be told.

And now, onto The Walking Dead. Many have praised the game’s five episodes to be one of the finest stories to grace videogames ever, with Lee and Clementine being extremely emotionally connectable. I would have to disagree – the storyline, if made into a film or a TV series, would hardly be considered ground-breaking. We’ve seen far more emotional narratives in film. I also thought that Clementine’s voice acting was terrible, like a twenty-year-old trying to sound like a nine-year-old. Despite these shortcomings, I still consider The Walking Dead to be one of the best games of the year.

The reason for this is that Telltale Games use the illusion of choice in the best way possible. So many games nowadays pretend to give us choice, or a morality system, that it has become common place – The Walking Dead, however, uses it not to give the player ultimate freedom in how the story plays out, or by rewarding attentive and skilled gamers with the best ending possible, but to give us their vision of the narrative.

If you’ve played The Walking Dead more than once, you will have seen that your choices don’t really matter. No matter which people live or die, key scenes will remain the same – perhaps, crucially, the ending remains the same. No, you do not get to shape the ending – however, you get to think about why you made the choices you made. The first time I had to choose between who gets to live and who gets to die, I agonised over my decision, and immediately felt terrible afterwards. Towards the end of Episode 4, I killed off a character without batting an eyelid. After the horrors I’ve been through, I had decided that I would do only that which would protect Clementine. This was a powerful moment for both myself and the protagonist – while the ultimate outcome of the narrative didn’t change, I realised where my values lie, and what my relationship is with the other characters.

Also, as the characters begin to die, whether by your hand or not, you begin to think of how you treated them during your time together. Were you friendly, offering to lend them a hand? Or did you shun them, not giving them the food that they so desperately needed? Once the characters are gone, you will remember those times, and through the interactions you had with them you will begin to think about who you are as a person.

This is why The Walking Dead is a great game – the developers have ultimate control over the story, but through small choices, you are able to understand the gravity of Lee’s situation, and how you would feel when faced with a difficult situation.

Finally, we have Journey. Journey is a masterpiece, a place where indie creativity meets the budget of a blockbuster game. It is perfect in that its execution is equal to its ambition. The visuals, the music, the atmosphere are all phenomenal – and the interactive multiplayer element that it introduces is so spectacular that it magnifies the aesthetics tenfold.

The thing is, Journey allows you to share your journey with another player – the catch is that you can’t talk to them or know what their PSN ID is. You can’t even compete with them in any way as you ascend the mountain – you can only share the glorious views together. And having someone else quietly take in the magnificent vistas with you makes the journey all the more memorable. When the going gets tough, you will want to stick closer together – you don’t have to, but you feel compelled to help your new friend out.

You will notice that I am being quite vague here, but to be honest, I can’t go into specifics without ruining this spectacular experience. And so I will finish with something I have already said when summing up my games of the year: ‘Journey is not only Game of the Year, it’s quite possibly Game of the Generation. The entire game is a borderline religious experience, where every piece of scenery feels ancient and profound. If that wasn’t enough, the game makes you feel empathy towards total strangers, showing off the good side of humanity in every step you take with your partner. The ending is such a moment of emotional catharsis, that long after the credits had finished I just sat there, controller in hand, jaw on the floor. This is a work of art completely devoid of cynicism and evil – it is pure and timeless. Journey is the reason I play videogames.’

So there you have it. There have been other games that have done interesting things with narrative this year, but to me, these are the ones that stood out the most. These are the influential landmarks that will be looked back on by future generations. With the industry going out of its way to honour these titles, I have a feeling that the future is very bright indeed for interactive storytelling, and video games as a whole.