On a whim, I decided to buy a copy of E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial for the Atari 2600 yesterday. Now I didn’t buy this 32 year old, 8-bit “classic” for the story, but as a reminder of how far the video game industry has come. The technology at the time allowed no room for narratives to be truly expressed on screen, so games that wanted to have a “story” had to literally be packaged with their own little story booklets. Thus they were simply games, not far from the likes of Monopoly or Candy Land. Decades later, video games now bring us narrative pieces that rival the likes of movies or novels. So what lies ahead for the future of video game narratives?
Our Struggle So Far…
The general structure and idea of story telling in video games really began to form in the mid to late ’90s with the release of the PlayStation 1 and Nintendo 64. Titles like Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask were some of the first to start pushing the boundaries by focusing on building up the characters and bonding the players to their struggles. You never bonded with E.T. on his journey to stop falling into 8-bit holes, but you could easily bond with Cloud as he tries to save his world from an evil industrial corporation.
With the release of the Xbox 360 and PS3 in the mid 2000’s, alongside Steam’s distribution service shortly after, the industry had officially proven to gamers what it can do with a narrative. In 2011, we saw the critically acclaimed release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a cyberpunk epic that dealt with humanities dependency on technology and gave the player the responsibility to decide humanities evolution. Personally, I think that’s something even Ray Bradbury would appreciate if he was still alive.
2013 graced us with Irrational Games’ Bioshock Infinite and Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, both regarded by many as two of the greatest games of all time not only for their gameplay but most importantly their unbelievably deep and often breath taking stories. Though to many it’s gameplay first, story second (i.e Amazing shooter with a great story), because these are still video “games” of course. But what happens when you take away the traditional gameplay and craft more of an interactive story? That’s where many indie games are picking up the torch.
Indie Games Pave the Way
A glance through the pages of Game Jolt or Steam for new indie games can turn up some fairly depressing and unoriginal results more often than not. Although if you keep digging through the simulators and Minecraft rip-offs, you’re troubles can sometimes be rewarded with a hidden gem. A few months back I came across Train Song on Game Jolt and I will never forget playing it. It’s a seven minute game that relies on player driven text based story and marvelously abstract art to drive home a genuine point about life. I can’t put into words what it felt like to experience something so refreshing.
Indie developers are graced with the ability to take a risk and produce conceptual ideas that “triple A” developers like EA or Activision wouldn’t touch. In the last few years, many small indie games have been getting a great deal of recognition, in and outside of the gaming community. Games like Only If, Serena, and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter don’t hold your hand as their stories take you through an emotional roller coaster, all finishing with unforgettable climaxes. They’re not afraid to take away the guns, forget about the graphics, and replace them with something more personal.
Titles like these can help bring in non-gamers who are looking for an intellectual experience that breaks the mold of the usual video “game” stigma.
Passion Drives the Future
Our eighth generation of consoles is still fresh, ideas still booming, and a lot to be seen in the realm of new IPs. Shortly following the release of Bioshock Infinite, creative director Ken Levine left Irrational Games determined to destroy the concepts of linear narratives and piece together a more systemic experience, calling his endeavor “Narrative Legos”. While not actually a game yet, he hopes that the growth of his idea can eventually be put into action in a profound way.
Video games have proven time and time again that they can do things with narrative that neither books nor movies can come close to. Although some may still feel like the industry is only poised towards kids, I challenge you to find an eight year old who can understand string theory or the French Revolution. Those are just a couple of topics tackled by recent titles and they only get more complex from there.
While we are still bound to some extent with technical limitations, those are always being pushed. It would seem that if you can put your idea on paper, there’s a designer somewhere that can make it happen with enough time and passion. After all, passion is what drives this industry. A passion to deliver a piece of ones self into a digital world of characters, struggles, triumphs and adventures that may, for now, only be on our screens, but will always stay in our hearts.