The only disappointing Christmas that I can recall is the year everyone got an Atari 2600 and I didn't. I think my mother still gets guilt pangs. She shouldn't. In the nearly 30 years since then I've more than made up for any lost hours of my youth that weren't spent staring at a flashing screen.
I was there at the birth of video games and never stopped playing. They retain their allure and continue to consume embarrassing amounts of my free time. Over the years the games have grown. I remember when moving around white blocks was the height of sophistication. Today characters can leap from rooftop to rooftop and freely explore a simulation of 15th century Florence modeled in astonishing scope and detail.
As the technology has improved video games have started to come into their own as a storytelling medium. Their promise is that these are interactive stories. Rather than just observing the story unfold you can inhabit the character. You are the hero.
Interactivity is the secret to the magic of video game stories. It is also its bane. The author of a book or film has complete control over their protagonist. The hero follows the author's arc without fail. Video game designers walk a fine line between telling the story they wish to tell and giving the player freedom to steer their own path.
The task of the game designer is further complicated by the limitations of technology and the complexity of human relationships. Entire cities can be modeled and populated with all manner of objects and individuals. But actually establishing a non-trivial relationship between the inhabitants of this virtual world is more difficult. Worlds can be simulated. People are much harder.
The byproduct of this constraint is that designers typically choose points A and B and constrain players to deciding how dispatch the hordes of enemies found in between. The questions of whether and why they journey is taken is out of the players hands-- as is the relationship between the player and characters met along the way. The player controls the action but not the plot. Love, revenge, betrayal, hope, fear, loss and growth may be components of the story. Rarely can they be chosen or avoided. They are simply watched.
In most every game you are called upon to perform some heroics and save the day. A good game will work to set the stakes and ratchet up the tension. Inevitably, failure in not a option. And this is literally true. The story and scenes progress until all adversity has been overcome. When you fail, you go back and do it again until you succeed. Boredom, frustration, tedium, and abandoning the story to go do something else are all options. Failure is not an option. A good game will end with enough spectacle to create a sense of accomplishment. But since perseverance was the only criteria, victory feels hollow.
The idea of interactive stories holds immense promise. I spend so much time with computer games because even the limited interactions of games have a powerful allure that non-interactive media such as books, movies, and television can't match. But I recognize the older forms as vastly superior storytelling mediums. For now.
Some game designers are pushing against the medium's limitations for character and story development. They endeavor, within the structure of the game and hero's journey, to include options and questions of morality, romance, friendship, and loss. In my next post I'll look at what the best of them are doing and explore how to do it better.
Part of the Game Design Workshop series.