“Once upon a time… There were videogames that didn’t even have stories, but over the decades we’ve seen the gaming medium really mature, and so too have the stories it’s able to tell…”
So begins the feature story on ABCTV GoodGame from a couple of weeks back. The piece focused on the evolution of writing for games, the role of narrative in a player-driven experience and the challenges for writers integrating story with game mechanics. The guests on the segment are an impressive bunch including Christian Read, Warren Spector, David Cage and in addition to these eminent game designers and game writers the story also features Ross Grayson-Bell feature film producer of Fight Club. Amid this company is yours truly, seizing the opportunity to dribble on about one of my favourite topics.
(Alas, I didn’t get to meet Hex during the interview. My disappointment was profound as I confess to having a bit of a crush. Who doesnt love a Super-smart gamer-woman who’s played and loved even more games than you have..?)
One of the particular topics I get into (and which is brilliantly illustrated as a comic by the shows’ host) is the ways writers engage with narrative problem-solving around point-of-view, restricted narration, and the particulars of the medium they are working in. Moreover, that such problem-solving is not new to games and that indeed techniques used in game narrative may have a long history in unexpected places.
I use the example of half Life 2 and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
What does the Jane Austen novel have on common with a seminal first person shooter…?
The answer to this seemingly abstract question may provide an answer to how to infuse narrative gaming with a deeper comprehension of story-telling techniques. What makes stories distinct from one another is their topics, settings and characters. Hence a period romance in Georgian England about a headstrong woman, and a SciFi alien invasion adventure in the future 21st century about a reluctant hero scientist, are indeed very different.
But what unites stories on common ground irrespective of their ‘What’ is their ‘How’; the narrative techniques of perspective and context. Much like the same building material can be used to make a Mac-mansion monstrosity in the suburbs or an architectural marvel, the key element is How it is built not What it is made of?
Thus we might look to the underlying narrative building materials of Pride and Predjudice and Half Life 2 and see something remarkably similar. Moreover, along the way we might also gain some insight into the intrinsic problem-solving process of story telling common to novels, tv series, movies and games.