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Games can tell stories as no other medium can
Posted on Saturday, February 20 2010 @ 18:56:37 Eastern

I previously defended Heavy Rain for being labeled an "interactive movie." But when it comes to video games in general, I prefer the metaphor of games as interactive books because users of both (players or readers) are microauthors.

Now what is a microauthor? Think of what you do when you read a book. As readers we create the little details (the micro story) of a book's overall (the macro) story. If a character runs, we imagine his stride. If he talks, we imagine how he sounds. We realize this process when a book becomes a movie and we think, "I did not picture Harry Potter looking like Daniel Radcliffe!"

We do the same microauthoring as gamers. Based on the game design we not only imagine but also control how to interact with a level, how our character treats others, or what actions to take when fighting. If when reading a book we imagine how a character runs, when playing a game we control how he runs. When we control these little details in a game, the combined story, the micro and macro, becomes more important to us. We care more about the game because we've helped create it.

But the metaphor of games as interactive books does not fully describe games as a medium. Games are not simply storytellers. They are story changers. They allow gamers to take a story they play, change it, and tell a new story. So in a book you might imagine how Character X talks to Character Y. But you can't do anything to change the dialogue. That story is set. Whereas in a game, in addition to choosing what Character X says to Character Y, and creating different outcomes, you have the choice of whether to even talk to Character Y. Character X's story is up to you to act out.

This type of little-details authoring is one reason why other media can't capture the spirit of games. When I first saw Silent Hill the movie, and the main actress stopped after running around, lost in the fog, I grinned when she breathed heavily, just as my character did in the game. It was a nice tribute, but my connection to the movie character was more "Yep. She's lost; been there," whereas my connection in the game was more "Where'n'theheck am I!? I've been running, can't find my way, out of breath, and I hope there isn't anything lurking in that fog!"

Sure, games still largely follow the same story model of beginning and end that books observe. But beginning to end in today's games (think Mass Effect) is a lot different than what it was in yesterday's games (think Pitfall). Today, gamers do not only control how the little details in a game's story occur, but they also affect the overarching story because of dynamic story branching. Heavy Rain is only the latest game to feature this dynamism. Its design is so microauthor friendly that no matter the choice a player makes in the game the game will continue on, so the player constantly changes the story.

Imagine revisting an old game presented with today's more developed ability to tell a story. Over a decade later, players of Final Fantasy VII still go on about the death of one of the game's beloved characters. How much more poignant would that character's story be if the game used the storytelling from Heavy Rain? As some reviewers of the new PS3 game have said, they would cringe when deciding what to do in the game because their actions had a direct effect on what happened to other characters they cared about in the game. Would you still let that beloved character die, and how much more would it emotionally impact you?

Some will say this change to FFVII would ruin that story. Perhaps. Not all stories need to be dynamic. Static stories do have their place and can still be as enjoyable as a dynamic story. But we have to ask, "What if?" To see this idea differently, imagine Heavy Rain as a movie and seeing decisions you made, decisions personal to you, stripped from the story in favor of a linear story to appeal to everyone. I imagine the response would be the same as when people criticize book-to-movie adaptations, but more critical.

No entertainment medium has really allowed its audience to answer, let alone ask, "What if?" But that is changing. In a recent interview IGN conducted with industry professionals about the next 10 years of games, associate producer of Bizarre Creations, Chris Pickford, expressed as much: "Many character based games are starting to allow the player to perform actions with multiple consequences, rather than the old style of heavily scripted events which need to be done in a specific order…. [Players] feel that they are really shaping the story, and it makes a much more emergent game – we've only scratched the surface of this technology in our current generation."

In the same interview, Jamie Jackson, creative director for FreeStyleGames, commented similarly: "For the hardcore, I see exceptional graphics, improved storylines and choice. By "choice" I mean your actions will define the way the game unfolds. Yes we have this in some games already, but we're just starting to scratch the surface. I think advancements in AI will allow developers to really push games and allow the user to really make their own choices."

Games are on the verge of incredible storytelling experiences as developers realize how to use dynamic storytelling to, rather than tell stories to players, let them change stories to tell their own. This is no guarantee that the stories will be any good. If a story is bad, simply changing the way in which the story is told will not change it to good. But just as games have changed in what players can do from Pitfall to Mass Effect, they've also changed in story quality from those two games. In the next 10 years of games, we will see games tell stories no other medium can, undoubtedly for the better.
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