For a long time, the stories to be found within games were perfunctory offerings, if not entirely negligible in terms of the experience. We were saving princesses and girlfriends, defeating monsters and generally acting out the role of fantasy heroes on the occasions that context was given for our actions. Over time, these narratives have become more complex through the inclusion of subplots and a stronger focus on characterisation but changes have been slow to come to the overarching story formulas of those early days. Back then it was understandable, video games were games, aimed at a younger audience while the technology was simply not powerful enough to really explore the questions of sociology or human nature. That isn’t the case so much any more.
Bioshock, back in 2007, offered a look into a failed utopia where the desire for power had driven an entire society to madness and self-destruction. Deus Ex: Human Revolution showed a world split in two thanks to the proliferation of augmentation technology and how one man was forced to straddle the line between the two. Catherine provided a discourse on the nature of cheating. These are just some examples of how far games have come, but all of these still adhere to the age-old ideals of overcoming a very present threat, creating a dissonance between what we are playing and what we are experiencing. It’s a jarring realisation, but is it the fault of technological limitations?
Game Director and Co-CEO of Quantic Dream would insist that it is not. Speaking at a Q&A session at GamesCom this past week, he brought up the point that those old-school mechanics are holding developers back from the creation of truly meaningful experiences: ‘If we keep making things based on violence and platform jumping, you don’t need Ellen Page to do this, to be honest. It would be a waste of time and a waste of money. If the games we make continue to go in that direction, then no [we don’t need Hollywood actors]. Now, if there are more and more games trying to create something more meaningful with proper actors, proper story and a proper portrayal of emotions in games, then we will need talented actors.’ Of course, these statements were made in regards to Ellen Page’s involvement in the upcoming Beyond: Two Souls, but the meaning behind his words loses no relevance.
If there is any one developer out there that is justified in making such a statement as this, it is David Cage. He is the creative mind behind 2010’s Heavy Rain, easily one of the most progressive and forward thinking AAA games of recent times. Detractors continue to baldly state that it was nothing but a QTE-fest with plot holes that one could drive a B-Double through but the reality is that it merged the gameplay with the story, making them one. At the same time, it told the kind of story that has rarely been seen in the realm of gaming before: a man’s love for his son and the lengths to which he would go in order to save him. It wasn’t flawless by any means, but it was an antithesis to the typical “save the world” or “redeem yourself” storylines that still dominate this industry.
Effectively, the game birthed a new genre, creating a powerful emotional experience in the meantime, a fact that flies in the face of comments recently made by 2K Games’ Christoph Hartmann: ‘It will be very hard to create very deep emotions like sadness or love, things that drive the movies. Until games are photorealistic, it’ll be very hard to open up to new genres. We can really only focus on action and shooter titles; those are suitable for consoles now.’ Given the success of games built around those genres, it’s hard to argue, but the fault in Hartmann’s statement lie in the idea that photorealism is necessary to create subtler emotions.
Arguably the game that has affected the greatest emotional attachment is anything but photorealistic. I’m referring, of course, to Final Fantasy VII and the almost legendary scene portraying the death of Aerith. The cause of much sadness, it wasn’t the graphics alone that prompted this general response; it was the combination of them with the writing and audio cues, as well as the forced activation of that scene. A perfect storm, some might say. My history with gaming isn’t as grandly stated as that of some others, but that which has caused me the greatest emotional distress is another game in which realism is far from the developer’s goal: Valkyria Chronicles. This year’s Journey is another game that eschews the idea of realism in its goal to engage players, and did so in an emotionally powerful way.
Speaking of which, it seems that, these days, more meaningful and powerful stories are cropping up in downloadable titles such as Braid, Dear Esther, Bastion and The Binding of Isaac, in spite of their general focus on minimalism. Perhaps it is with these games that the headline question is best answered. They are created on lower budgets with simplified technology, yet they manage to generate a more thought-provoking experience than much of what you find on retail shelves. One must remember that a story is more than just plot and character, but involves the complete atmosphere and themes that are being presented. It is because of this that gaming may well be the best storytelling medium out there, but the truer shortcomings lie in the plotting.
David Jaffe of Twisted Metal and God of War fame has refuted this in the past with his own opinion, however: ‘A lot of these people will say “I have something to say, I have a story to tell.” If you’ve really got something inside of you that’s so powerful, like a story you’ve got to share or a philosophy about mans place in the universe, why in the f**k would you choose the medium that has historically, continually been the worst medium to express philosophy, story and narrative? Why wouldn’t you write a book, why wouldn’t you make a movie? It’s like being one of the world’s best chefs and working in the world’s best restaurants, you ply your trade in McDonalds.‘ He does bring up a very good point, but perhaps this is what draws some people to writing for games: the challenge of it. The desire to be one of those that is applauded for reversing the trend of poor offerings.
It is only by drawing truly great writers to the medium and attaching them to forward thinking developers like David Cage that we will see a reversal in the trend of poor stories. With the assistance of a talented writer, many games could rival the likes of The Lord of the Rings, but the more subtle, sensitive narratives of the likes of Sense and Sensibility, A Tale of Two Cities or Breakfast At Tiffany’s is impossible to achieve without a rethink of fundamental game mechanics. It is not technology that is limiting stories, but a dearth of creativity and a general unwillingness to take risks.