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Stories we tell in quiet houses and alien invasions

Edward Smith
Edward Smith|@mostsincerelyed|September 26, 2014 4:00 PM
Video game experiences aren't wholly relegated to what designers have deliberately laid out for you; through gameplay, a unique narrative emerges. We all have our own stories: a car chase in Grand Theft Auto V, a battle within a hidden cave in Skyrim, an ore-rich chasm in Minecraft. These discoveries highlight the promise that, if we just keep looking and keep testing a game's boundaries, we might find something that's uniquely ours.

Thanks to franchises like BioShock, Fallout and Grand Theft Auto, the idea of player-driven narrative is being explored in different ways. From collectibles to character customization and sprawling open-worlds, video games today are littered with tools people can use to manufacture stories that belong only to them. But that doesn't mean the role of the developer has been in any way diminished. On the contrary, designers now have more work to do than ever, subtly and precisely tailoring their games so that players can get a full experience without feeling like they're being led by the nose.
Despite its seeming simplicity, Gone Home, says director Steve Gaynor, is the culmination of years of lessons about level design:

"The content in Gone Home – the art, writing, and so on – kind of stands on its own. All the meaning is communicated via how the level guides you to that content, which is done using techniques that are used throughout tons of different kinds of games.

"So, for example, in BioShock, we learned there's a hierarchy on how important information is. Some information is mandatory. That could be an audio diary that's placed somewhere that's almost impossible to miss, or someone talking directly into your ear over the radio. After that, everything else filters downwards. There are secondary characters, whose diary we can hide in a cabinet you might not open, and then tertiary stuff about the city and the politics, which can all be environmental – it's not critical except to people who want to understand all of the layers.

In designing Gone Home, Gaynor says, that was the approach his team at Fullbright decided to pursue.

"Sam's story is the story's spine, Mom and Dad are secondary characters and Oscar's story is tertiary. The game takes things that have been done before – techniques used throughout tons of different games – and applies them in ways that are unique."

Though ostensibly belonging to a new wave of video games, Gone Home, at its core, is a product of old school design. Its story of teenage love and domestic life is deeply involving, but nevertheless secondary to mechanics: Gaynor and the Fullbright team decided first on individual gameplay aspects, and let the story blossom from there.

"The game started from the question, 'What is the player going to be doing and what is compelling about that?' We decided players would be able to open and close things, turn lights off and on, read things and pick them up and examine them. That led to us asking, 'What kind of place is it? We're a small team so we need a kind of small place, so how about a house?'

"All of our aesthetic decisions came from a problem-solving standpoint. It's a dark and stormy night because we wanted the phones to be out. It's set in the mid-nineties because we didn't want for there to be computers, and for all the story information to be in emails and text messages. We started with mechanics first. And everything came from there."

Compared to a lot of video games, Gone Home is oriented heavily towards drama, and away from complex gameplay. When playing it, it would be reasonable to presume that the dialogue, the characters and the through-line of the narrative were all created first, and then strung together with ancillary mechanics.

But that's a mistake games have been making forever. Creating a story, without any mind for how it connects to gameplay, is what leads to bland, dissonant experiences. The best narrative games are the ones that pay the least attention, at least during the initial conception process, to script.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a great example of this. It was developed in a way that favored systems over story – the Firaxis team, for example, always decided what an enemy was going to be physically capable of before designing what it looked like.

That mechanics-based approach has cultivated a broad range of emotional responses from players, who dedicate online forums to swapping their personal war stories.

"I think that the human mind is naturally story-based. We're required to fill in gaps. If you leave enough gaps, players are going to be drawn to that," explains Jake Solomon, game director on XCOM; Enemy Unknown.

"Also, in games that are more systems driven, when you know there's no hand there guiding things, it feels authentic. It's authentic as anything else. It's set in motion by an uncaring universe, which is the experience we're all living for real: Things in real-life are set in motion without a tangible sense of someone controlling them. It's the same reason people like HBO shows, because they can never predict which characters are going to live or die. It makes it more authentic."

And like those HBO shows – The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones – Solomon believes that the increasing popularity of player-driven, systems-led games is the result of new technology, which allows people to swap stories and anecdotes more easily.

Twitter explodes when a Game of Thrones character is killed. Likewise, YouTube and Reddit are filled with people eagerly sharing videos of what happened to them – and only them – in video games. Twitch has emerged as a gameplay sharing platform for individual experiences. Though mechanically similar, the original XCOM could never have fostered such a massive response. Enemy Unknown, and the plethora of material about it online, proves that time and technology is now geared to player-driven games.

"In Minecraft," explains Solomon, "you come across a beautiful piece of scenery and it's more beautiful because you're the first person to have seen it. You couldn't predict it, so it has this huge emotional value to you.

"And now you have the platforms to share those stories. You'll see that a lot of the games people share are where the events that occur are player-driven. Skyrim gets shared a lot, and that's because in Skyrim, crazy shit can happen. People don't share the story twists because people have all seen that already. They share things like, 'look what I got the world to do' or 'this surprised me.' It's all player-driven stuff."

Solomon adds that game development technology available in the nineties was better suited to making linear content. "It's what we did best," he says. "But now we have technology that's pretty well distributed that's capable of making these systems driven, emergent games. The question now is how deeply do we want to dive into that. But I think people are seeing the value in it. I can't imagine how games like this won't be a massive deal going forward."

Game-players have become more demanding when it comes to video game stories. Similarly, developers, particularly on the independent scene, have grown frustrated with the old paradigm of story and gameplay separation. There are plenty of refugees from the collapsed AAA industry who now have access to cheap, powerful game-making tools. Faced with increasing expectations from players and critics, as well as games like Gone Home, which test the boundaries of how game narratives work, there's every reason that emergent storytelling will continue to spread, that it will, eventually, be the predominant way video games tell stories.

It's what games do best – it's what makes them different from films, books, theater and TV. Emergent narrative is borne from the one thing video games can claim as their own: interactivity. That unique quality, combined with the innate desire that people have to tell stories, is helping a new form of communication to develop. Build your mechanics. Then let the player, curious, hungry and armed with a laptop to share his stories with other people, do the rest. It's a tough thing to do. As Solomon concludes, "doing something emergent takes really good systems designers, and they can be hard to find."

[Images: 2K Games, Fullbright Company]

Edward Smith is a freelance writer based out of the UK with work appearing on New Statesman, Eurogamer, The Escapist and more. Follow him on Twitter.
Stories we tell in quiet houses and alien invasions