Thursday, March 31, 2016

Experience vs. Showing and Telling, or The Magic of Interactive Narration

Playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim with my stealthy mage and my warrior character
are two completely different experiences and stories.

When I published my essay Art vs. Entertainment - Are Let's Plays an Art Form? back in November 2015 it quickly became one of my most-clicked essays on this blog and some people on Twitter added me to lists with names like "awesome gamers". My conclusion is that discussing games as an art form is something many people are interested in, so I decided it's about time to dedicate another blog post to this genre.

What personally I am most interested in games is the aspect of interactive storytelling or interactive narration. Yet by now the world of gaming is so diverse that it's really hard to talk about games in general, and I think this is what this post will be about.

So let's discuss what's so special about the narrative in games. The most important thing about it is undoubtedly the fact that games don't have mere recipients. You can argue, of course, that when reading a novel or watching a movie the recipient needs to be active as well, that it isn't just dull swallowing of content, but unlike with novels or movies in the world of gaming it's you who makes choices and the artwork - the game - responds to your actions. In this way playing a game is more personal than reading a novel or watching a movie. Every playthrough creates a slightly different story, depending on your individual decisions. Games are generally more about experience rather than telling or showing.

As mentioned above, however, games are very different. It's no secret to any gamer or game researcher that the variety of games ranges from giving the player only a virtual world, mechanics and tools and letting them do with it whatever they want (sandbox-style games like Minecraft a.k.a. "Digital Lego") to games filled with pre-rendered cutscenes because of which "interactive movies" would be a more appropriate term (maybe it's just me, but I felt that in The Order: 1886 there were more cutscenes than actual gameplay).

Both "digital Lego" and "interactive movies" and everything in between can be great in their own way. While sandbox games encourage the player to be creative "interactive movies" can make the player experience a story, discuss ideas and make the player think about philosophical, social and moral issues. The ending of The Last of Us, for example, triggered quite an argument among its players whether the decision the protagonist made was good or bad. And I believe it's important that The Last of Us is a game and not a movie. Even though it's the protagonist and not the player who makes the final decision - it's the player who went through all the hell in the shoes of the protagonist and physically experienced (and not only witnessed) the development of his father-daughter relationship with the girl he escorts. It's the player who fought his way through that post-apocalyptic world, who has experienced all the good and the bad in humans, and so he has every right to ask questions like: Is the life of this particular girl worth more than humanity? Is there any guarantee humanity can be saved? Is it even worth being saved?

While there can't be any doubt about "interactive movie" style games having a story it should be questioned whether sandbox games have one. Because they have none. A virtual world with mechanics isn't a story. - But it can serve to create one. After playing Minecraft for a few hours, for example, a player can tell how they cut down some trees, built a house, dug a mine, found some iron, made a weapon, fought off some zombies, tamed some animals ... This is actually a story. Every experience turns into a story when being told. Or recorded: When a player makes a Minecraft Let's Play he or she gets only experience - but the video series they make out of it, well, it's a story.

What personally I find especially interesting are RPGs (role-playing games) where you find yourself in a virtual world with its rules, laws, culture and history in order to experience your own story. While the player character in Minecraft doesn't really have a personality and the player characters in "interactive movies" usually have a background story and individual character treats the player character in an RPG is developed or at least influenced by the player. There are many different RPGs out there, of course ... There is the Elder Scrolls series where you choose your character's race, sex, appearance and combat style, where you can become anything from the greatest hero of his time to the most-wanted criminal of the century (or even both!) and where you are encouraged to make up a background story of your own (you don't have to, but it's more fun this way). There is the Fable series where you usually choose between good and evil which determines to some extent whether you look more angelic or demonic, where you can buy and live in any house, marry multiple NPCs, eat lots of unhealthy stuff and become fat, and in the main questline of Fable III you become king or queen and have to make important political decisions. There is the Witcher series which has a fixed protagonist but where different decisions lead to different stories and endings ... And these were only three examples.

One more thing that is important not only but especially in RPGs is the choice of combat style and skills. In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, for example, clearing one and the same dungeon with my stealthy mage and my warrior character are two completely different experiences and thus stories. While my stealthy mage would turn invisible, sneak upon his enemies and then cut their throats one by one or just simply ignore them and walk past without being noticed my warrior usually travels with a companion and when encountering enemies they both would draw their weapons and engage the undead, bandits, vampires or other creatures in a battle.

With all this variety of possibilities how stories can be experienced through games it's really hard to come up with general statements. The only thing that can be said about storytelling through games in general is that it's definitely something that should be discussed more often. Sadly, even though there is a discipline called game studies and the IT University of Copenhagen has a Center for Computer Games Research literary studies have barely opened up to movies, and it will probably take a few decades for narration in games to get broader attention in academic research. But it's a development certainly worth looking forward to!

Sincerely yours,
Feael Silmarien

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