Beyond Cinema (Part 1): Games as Storytelling

Walk into a the digital design section of an art school somewhere and you are bound to hear talk of something like, “transmedia” or “metamedia”, which is a concept that we can all relate to once it is boiled down to the point where it is unpretentious enough to drink. Our films are becoming more and more reliant on CGI and digital enhancement to tell the stories that directors want to tell and our computer games are becoming pretty enough to enjoy watching, which begs the question that if these two platforms have come so close, is there not a way of making the leap between them (or at least a double-jump by tapping A twice)?

Video games at their inception have generally been so focused on game play that the plot has been nothing more than a bushy faced plumber disciplining his pet monkey or a blue squirrel’s gymnastic obsession with the forward roll. The plot lines of games are often so repetitively bad that games like GTA or Saints’ Row actively mock and parody the genre, making their plot lines as nonsensical and silly as they possibly can without people dropping their controller in the bin. As the acceptable age of gamers rises and the quality and complexity of those games rolls on, could a game-style experience really break through into proper narrative ([achievement unlocked])? Even more than that, could an interactive digital platform actually compel an ordinary person who doesn’t spend time on games to sit down and get into that story that everyone’s talking about?

The potential is clear for a story not just to be something that you watch but something that you are immersed in, experience and affect.

The movement towards narrative games isn’t new but its scarcely been well done until the recent past. Myst was one of the first games I can recall to prioritise a kind of visual exploration that encouraged you to focus on figuring out what the story was but in fact, there really wasn’t much of a story so much as a vague premise that wouldn’t have filled five minutes of air time. Myst did was beloved RPGs like the fallout series do well, which was to create a wonderful world to explore but no strong narrative to fill that world with. Rarely in a game like this is anything that your character does actually worth recalling to others.

What games have traditionally done well is to include cutting edge pulp fiction. Both Max Payne and Max Payne 2 contained excellent writing, which sustained a gritty noir setting with really quite excellent self reflection, a flirtation with loss and madness and the haunting presence of a personal apocalypse. Payne was also one of the first games I can remember where the character plays through dream sequences and nightmares, exploring psychological elements of the plot without cutting to a video. However, as good as the writing for those games were, at the end of the day we are talking about a gunslinging widower who mows down bad guys on his way to revenge. Good writing it was but firmly stuck in the shallow end of genre and never even threatening to wake concepts such as pathos or drama. It’s telling that the stinker that was the Marky Mark Mark film adaptation of that game just couldn’t bring the feel of the game to the big screen and keep a consistent cinematic narrative going.

The next person to leave a mark on the genre was David Cage who gave us the excellent QTE-fests of Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain. These games identified some of the key problems behind a more cinematically themed game – namely that game play rubs up against story. It’s hard to enmesh the two without them splitting into oil and water and having plot explained through cut scenes separated by traditional non-plot based game play of running, jumping and shooting. Even worse than this slash-cut separation is the way that when this occurs the “story scenes” are not at all interactive and seem boring, whilst the game scenes struggle to control the arms race of making the game elements more and more exciting to the point where the game avatar seems like a superman completely unencumbered by the stuggles supposedly outlined in the plot. In short, when story and game play are separated into different scenes, each of them exposes the weakness of the other.


Cage’s solution to this was to bravely ditch most of the actual game-play in favour of showing a director-led cinematic plot, with the player only occasionally called upon to hit buttons at the right time (in a way that was reminiscent of Dance Dance Revolution) and to make a limited number of choices which would affect the way that these plots played out. These games were completely memorable and wonderful experiences in terms of rivalling the feel of movies but the level of interaction was so low that really the player wasn’t entirely required. Whilst the plots for these games were well executed, again they stayed well in the campy pulp territory that games are completely comfortable in without causing much in the way of pathos. Cage aimed for a cinematic experience and he succeeded, albeit at the B-movie level. Heavy Rain masqueraded as serious fiction by engaging a serious story in the form of child abduction (leaving the alien-shaman silliness of Fahrenheit behind) but the game purposefully did not flesh out any of the characters beyond a thin pencil sketch so that all of them could be unmasked as the possible villain. This worked in the context of the game but meant that when person A throws a punch at person B, it’s hard to really feel that it was any more meaningful than Kirby swallowing up some poor henchman whole (in fact the Kirby thing is much more disturbing when you really think about it).

Cage’s dilemma is something that story-driven games still face. How much immersion and control do you give to the player whilst retaining the control to show your story and the issues within exactly as you want it staged? Too much game play and you tend to get a miss-matched mess whereas a complete absence of player control is even more alienating than just watching a movie.

Recently a renewed interest in narrative driven games has brought new activity and excitement to the concept. One clear reason is the widening of game platforms to handheld devices and increased PC access through online downloads that have widened the audience of gaming beyond the young male base that owns consoles. As older and perhaps #gasp# less male people start to play games, the air is full of ideas of how to challenge once again the narrow construct that has limited what games can be. Casual online gaming has contributed too and whilst this is often quite different to the sort of games I have noted above, it still widens the concept and acceptability of games as medium in society at large. The second grand mover is the popularity of sprawling cinematic TV series that use hollywood stars and hollywood budgets to enthral people in their own homes. If HBO can achieve a high level and quality of pure storytelling, then why not these intricately planned, expensive and extensive games we are spending money on? Whatever you think of them, LOST, Dexter, Boardwalk, Sopranos and Thrones have raised the bar in terms of popular drama that are capable of exploring human philosophical themes and drawing real emotion into popular viewing.

In the next article, I will talk through three recent games that have prioritised incredible storytelling over anything else. See you on the other side of the pipe.

Or click here.


3 thoughts on “Beyond Cinema (Part 1): Games as Storytelling

  1. Pingback: Beyond Cinema (Part 2): Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons | havepunchlineneedjoke

  2. Pingback: Beyond Cinema (Part 3): The Last Of Us | havepunchlineneedjoke

  3. Pingback: Beyond Cinema (Part 4): Gone Home | havepunchlineneedjoke

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