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Storytelling in video games doesn't have to be scary

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Benjamin Rivers believes in the dramatic, emotional appeal of the video game industry. He's the man behind Home, a surprisingly complex, pixelated horror game that found great success once it debuted in 2012. It's praised for impressive narrative arcs that branch in twisted, unique ways depending on the decisions of each player, and this is precisely the type of story-centric design that delights Rivers. He sees video games' potential to convey convoluted human experiences through strong narrative design, and he's bringing these sensibilities to Alone with You, a science-fiction adventure due to hit PlayStation 4 and PS Vita in the spring.

Alone with You stars a lonely survivor on a planet due for implosion in a few weeks; players have to escape with help from the colony's AI system, which eventually takes on the personalities of dead crew members. And, it's a romance. A futuristic, interstellar romance starring just one actual human -- because that's the kind of storyteller Rivers is.

Let's talk about everyone's favorite subject: narrative design. What's different about crafting a story for a video game, as opposed to a non-interactive medium like books or film?

The main issue is what can be perceived as a divide between authorial control and player agency -- which I think is a bit of a red herring. Pundits of classic linear narratives often cite (inherently non-linear) games as no way to tell a story and game designers often bemoan story elements as barriers to gameplay. I think both ideas are false; player choice is narrative, inherently and implicitly. And yes, it complicates things, the same way any gameplay system does.

There's a lot more choice with games; you can tell a three-act story in which the player gets to participate in some fashion ... or you can construct a means for a player to actively create and change that story, which often results in something a little askew of the traditional three-act play (as Home did). But storytelling is not something that can be stored in a table and quantified -- it's a conversation, one that requires participation by the player, either actively or in their mind as they play. I think we as developers often forget that and this is why a lot of us are scared of narrative. It's difficult to predict and test, and it's inherently emotional.

What draws you to create narrative-driven games?

For me, storytelling is the most satisfying reward in games. Feeling the gears in your brain turn as you begin to understand a mystery, learning to empathize with, or perhaps even to change a character's behavior -- those are the feedback loops that make my brain buzz the way someone might enjoy progressing up a level system.

My other personal goal is to prove that narrative-driven games don't have to be boring or non-interactive or clumsy autobiographies. I think a lot of story-focused games get a free pass because we get excited by new developments in delivery or technology or access, but we don't critique the games themselves.

How long has Alone with You been in development and what's the most time-consuming aspect of creating a game like this?

I started pre-production and conceptual design on Alone With You just under two years ago. The issue of development time is interesting because the most brute-force, time-gobbling task in the project has been (perhaps unexpectedly) creating the art. This is why I brought on illustrator Gavin McCarthy earlier this year to join the effort.

However, the biggest time-dump in terms of brain-space is, of course, the writing. Alone With You uses text, as Home does, and there is a lot of it -- and that means a lot of research, story notes, background details, etc. To find the right balance between delivering the multiple story arcs I want the player to experience, and to ensure that the player's affect on the world feels important and makes sense -- that requires a lot of planning. There hasn't been a day in the last two years that I haven't been thinking about the plot and universe of Alone With You.

What feeling do you want to instill in players of Alone with You?

Alone With You is meant to engender in the player a sense of camaraderie, affection and, yes, love, although there is also an overhanging layer of isolation as well, hence the title. Home was all about fear, dread, uncertainty; those are broader targets to hit and a bit more universal in some regards. Creating a game that encourages feelings of affection for a digital character is a lot more difficult. Based on internal testing so far, though, it's working.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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