Video Game Narratives Might Soon Begin to Falter

As technology gets better, it seems to follow that stories get weaker...

Ask a veteran gamer the following question: “Do you think video game stories will get better or worse in the future?”

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Invariably, the answer will be “better.” After all, there’s plenty of evidence to support the idea. All one has to do is compare game narratives today to plots from several decades ago. It’s obvious that interactive storytelling has come a very long way. I applaud every step of that journey, which has delivered great stories on a relatively consistent basis. While the focus of the industry remains squarely on action, various development visionaries (Hideo Kojima, David Cage, Ken Levine and Neil Druckmann, just to name a few) have made gigantic strides in the world of virtual narratives.

Given the more powerful consoles, one might assume that designers can do even more. However, an increase in technology doesn’t necessarily equate to better artistic segments. In fact, as far as I can tell, it never does.

More power = bigger worlds, not better stories

Game makers will embrace the better technology. The result will be games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which is supposed to be 20 percent larger than The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Games will simply become bigger and more detailed, basically by default. Designers can make larger, more intricate, more vibrant worlds thanks to better technology. I’ve also heard that Wild Hunt will feature plenty of interesting stories and as many as 37 different endings.

However, let’s ask an important question: Has an open-world sandbox game ever been recognized as having the best stories available? Is that why people really play The Elder ScrollsGrand Theft AutoinFamousAssassin’s Creed? No, people aren’t buying those games for the narratives. They’re buying them to immerse themselves in a massive, robust world. Yes, it may contain a ton of little intriguing stories along with an overarching storyline, but we don’t care much about the latter, do we?

We don’t because we lose sight of it too often. We’re off doing our own thing, often only coming back to a campaign quest after many hours of exploring. On the flip side, in a completely linear narrative drama, such as Heavy Rain, the story takes center-stage and is allowed to shine.

That’s not what we’ll be getting in the new generation, though…we’ll get big, but not cohesive

From the dawn of time, human storytelling has always relied upon the same factors to be truly effective. One of the first necessities is cohesiveness. There are two increasingly popular traits in gaming today that work against that: First, the aforementioned “bigness,” which impacts a storyline for a variety of reasons. Second, choice. While player choice and freedom has become a mainstay of the industry, it’s a detriment to those who wish to tell their story.

Storytellers aren’t supposed to let listeners change things. You can’t – and shouldn’t – change a book’s story, a film’s story, or simply the story voiced by another person. Every time you give the person a choice, you need to create branching storylines that reflect that choice. The more complex the premise and plot is, the more difficult this becomes, until it’s virtually impossible.

Herein lies the limitation of open-world sandbox adventures jam-packed with “choice.” If we’ve got all this control, how can a writer, or even a team of writers, possibly produce enough compelling, rich story content that will react and bend to our every whim?

More and more people don’t want to follow a story; they want to do whatever they want

Fewer people are reading today. Kids spend more time with smartphones than with books. There’s a rampant attention deficit issue, which only gets worse as all our entertainment gets faster and dumber. A camera can’t stay in one place in a movie for more than four or five seconds. If we’re not being entertained with some sort of device, we’re in danger of losing our minds. This is not a society that is looking forward to deeper, more thoughtful stories in video games.

No, they want the freedom to do whatever they want to do. They don’t want to sit through cut-scenes. They don’t want to read dialogue. The bigger the world, the more there is to see and do, the less they’ll care about a cohesive, all-encompassing plot. Technology is allowing developers to give us precisely what we want, and I fear interactive storytelling may have peaked.

I’m sure the myriad of great writers in the industry will continue to write. I’m sure we’ll see several games this generation with fantastic storylines. But the current trend is heading the other direction.

We still have a VERY long ways to go, too…

Maybe video games were never meant to tell great stories. Maybe the very nature of the medium – i.e., the interactivity – makes it a poor venue for top-tier narratives. Even though we’ve seen some great stories in the past, few, if any, are on par with even average books and movies. However, speaking of movies, that industry is seeing a similar phenomenon: Flashier, faster and dumber. Everywhere. And where are the stories? In the indie scene, mostly, and if not, still never as popular as the mindless action blockbusters.

Anyway, I digress. The point is that gaming has a long way to go in the world of narrative and storytelling. The problem is that we may never see the potential of interactive stories because in short, “bigger” and “more choice” runs directly counter to the potential for quality narratives.


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Fathoms_4209
A gaming journalism veteran of 14 years, a confirmed gamer for over 30 years, and a lover of fine literature and ridiculously sweet desserts.