Computergame + Human = Story
Yesterday I attended a lecture by Jonas Carlquist called "Datorspel + Människa = Berättelse" (Computergame + Human = Story). The lecture was mostly directed towards people who didn't know that much about storytelling in games, but it was still very interesting to see everything from an academics point of view (also, he made a good impression on me by namedropping important games for storytelling like Deus Ex and Planescape Torment).
After thinking a bit about this lecture I though some of the views I and my fellow designers at Starbreeze has had on how to tell a story in games. In the last couple of games we've made, storytelling has been extremely important.
I distinguish two goals you have when trying to make a good story-driven game. Let's call the first "Immersion and emotional impact", which basically is a story that the player cares about and feels he is a part of. This goal is the one we've been striving for in Riddick and Darkness and borrows heavily from movies. A lot of progress has been made here the last couple of years. The quality of the stories has increased because good writers are writing them and the acting are substantially better than just a few years ago. Perhaps most importantly; stories in games are told much better today.
On of the key changes is that nowadays stories are mostly told from a player perspective. We decided to do this in Riddick, which in that game meant that we never showed the player anything that the Riddick couldn't see. This helps strengthen the relationship between the player and the hero. Another example of what's improved is that you seldom see the game violating the trust of the player by having the hero make a decision that the player would never do. A typical example if this is when you, after fighting off hoards of enemies in a game, enter a room and see a cut scene where your hero suddenly surrenders; something that the player would never have done in that situation. This can still be seen from time to time, but not so often anymore.
The second goal can be called "Interactivity and non-linearity", which in my opinion is more to the core of what games are about; meaningful choices. This means having a story where the player can make decisions that affect how the game-story plays out (or even create new ones). This is a much harder goal to reach, since the complexity of a story grows exponentially for every meaningful choice the player is allowed to make.
Obviously, combing these two goals is even harder. To compete with other games in terms of quality a games-developer must focus on the things he knows that the player will experience. With today's quality standard, doing a game where you have two different story-paths instead of one could be double the work for the developer, especially if the developer strives for the "Immersion and emotional impact" goal. This is because so much effort is needed to create any story-related situation in a game (you need a unique voice and animations and usually a lot of other specifically created content).
Doing predefined story-situations like that may be a stupid way to create stories in games, but it's basically the only way to do it today. Ideally, the game should be smart enough to be able to automatically create involving story situations inside the game-world, but we are nowhere near there yet, at least not with the kind of beautifully rendered worlds and characters we are used to.
Until then there are many ways where you cheat. One concept we made up about during the development of Riddick is "The illusion of non-linearity", which basically states that as long as the player believes he has a choice, even though he may not, the player will feel he made an important decision which makes the story more involving. There are many ways to implement this thinking, and I most recently saw it used in the excellent Mass Effect, where you often have three dialogue-choices that lead to the same result, even though they can look like opposites from the player perspective.
Hopefully, we will see more innovative ways to allow the player to have a bigger part in the creation of the game-story. There are a lot of designers out there thinking about it, and there are a couple of interesting games in production trying to do just that. The future will tell.