“I think story is the final frontier for games. We’re kind of getting there tech-wise. Mechanics-wise it’s cool that we’re innovating but it’s still in the basic same themes. I think story is eventually where we’ll all end up going.” — Sheldon Carter, Project Director for The Darkness 2 at Digital Extremes
I ran across that quote as part of of an article on CVG with the headline “Story is ‘the final frontier for games,’ says Darkness 2 dev”, so I had to read it. Anything that was going to talk about both the future of video games and narrative was definitely something for me to pursue and consider. So, I did. There are two ways to approach this.
I’d like for video games to be able to tell complex, emotional stories. And I want to allow the player agency. That conjunction is the key.
We are already telling complex stories in games. Many people are coming away from participatory sessions with emotional responses to what they did. While we are not yet making people cry, we are eliciting emotions and making people uncomfortable.
The problem arises at the intersection of those two areas. Any highly designed work limits the interpretations of users. Any created narrative will want to limit the ability to a player to progress in certain ways. For example, what if you could jump to the end of a story-driven game like Dragon Age 2? Would the “game” matter at all if you could, via the game mechanics, jump to the narrative end? No.
A game’s story, it’s fictional dream, is what allows for the continued feedback of the player and the game. In order to tell an emotionally evocative story, you must take control away from the player. Would the ending of Half-Life 2: Episode 2 be as emotionally if you could react?
Consider the player. I am think that a player does not react rationally. I’ve even written about how I might be ‘crazy’ while acting within the realms of virtual worlds. The player is an agent of chaos and can always reject the premise, substitute their own rules and even, more fatally, stop playing completely. For a narrative experiences, that is catastrophic.
If a player can choose at any time to stop the narrative, then the story is not achieved. The only way to ‘give’ the player story is to either withhold it (as happens with ‘Train’ variants) or to remove the agency of the player completely (as happens with many Valve games).
Setting aside theory for a moment, I think there is more simple and personal approach: personal narrative. Sheldon Carter may have been talking about the experience of the game and what people will talk about after playing the game.
My own play time with The Darkness was maybe less than an hour and the only thing I remember from the experience was looking at character through a mirror. However, most of the talk I have heard about the game comes in the form of a watching the television in the game. Your character can flip through the channels and even watch the entirety of To Kill A Mockingbird with the protagonist’s girlfriend. More than fighting people or even the ending, that experience of watching a movie in a game is talked about most often.
Sheldon Carter could mean that ‘final frontier’ will be when players have an experience they want to relate to others immediately after playing. That time when the car flipped over or an attack was executed in just the right precision, these are the points when the player achieves serendipity. He might mean that story.