Developing Thoughts 5

A further installment of the original Developing Thoughts Column.

Let me tell you a story…

At school one year, when I was about eleven, we used to have one hour each week put aside for writing stories. It was always the final hour before lunch every Wednesday and I would look forward to that part of the week like no other. No thoughts of fame or money drove me, I simply loved to write stories and it’s been a passion that’s burned within me ever since.

We all love to be told stories; particularly ones that capture our attention and make us hang on the very words of the teller, whatever the medium. A good story, told well, will transport us to new worlds, to new situations that we could never experience for ourselves. It will allow us to see into the mind of an evil antagonist and empathise with the most downtrodden of heroes as the plot unfolds.

The principles behind the construction of stories has been with us for thousands of years, ranging from tales of Greek Gods to epic mediaeval poems; from heart-rending romance to futuristic high adventure. Many fundamentals have stayed with us through that time, yet many more subtleties and sophisticated variations have been developed to allow the act of story telling to remain fresh and relevant.

Though it is in the field of video games that story faces its biggest single upheaval, as challenges arise to tell stories in ways that adhere to the many established frameworks, but do so in an interactive manner also. Not only must the story be revealed by the actions of the player, it must respond to those same actions in some degree or other.

Games will develop stories that serve different purposes, depending on the requirements of the genre and the degree to which each particular game stresses the importance of the varying possibilities. Is the story, for instance, one with a linear plot that takes the player from the start to the end through a series of connected set-ups and scenarios? Or is it one that ends in the same place, but allows the player to choose the order based on parallel plot threads? Do the actions of the player lead to plot consequences that change the story ending, and so tell a different tale to the one that would have been revealed had the player taken a different course through the game? Or will it be a completely open-ended story; one that is, effectively written by the actions of the player?

Clearly, the next few years, decades even, will be an exciting time, as more variations and complexities arise from the need to tell stories in an increasingly interactive manner. But it will also be a time fraught with frustration and confusion, for we must define the new story-telling rules that will help us speak a common vocabulary.

Many books already exist which cover the telling of stories in other media – film, TV, novels, plays, etc. – but we’re only now beginning to scratch the surface of what constitutes telling interactive stories. There has already been some tendency to establish camps of what should be the way forward, as though one method of interactive story telling is somehow better than another.

I feel, though, that all are equally valid and that in the future we will see people choosing a game based upon how it tells a story as much as what the gameplay delivers.

© Steve Ince, 2004