In researching this piece for Talking Writing magazine (subsequently picked up today by Salon) I exchanged a series of emails with Janet Murray. Murray is a professor of literature and communications at Georgia Tech University, and an expert on interactive narratives. Her 1997 book Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace was crucial to my research, and prophetic about the future of video game narratives. Here is some of my email exchange with her:
Beyond just interactivity, how can video games tell a story to their audience in ways that other mediums, like novels and films, cannot?
Janet Murray: Interactivity cannot just be dismissed since it is the essence of the medium: the fitting of action by the player to processing by the machine. One of the most important features of video games is the ability to replay the same scenario with different choices or different parameters. This is a tremendous resource for storytelling.
In my Interactive Narrative class, for example, we look at narratives like Groundhog Day or the “Bowling”episode of Malcolm in the Middle (Season 2, ep 20) and consider how to make interactive stories that are similarly effective in offering different versions of the same scenario in ways that illuminate character and provide satisfying dramatic contrasts.
Do any titles stand out to you as taking full advantage of their interactivity to tell a story in way unique to video games? How so?
There are many recent examples of successful story games. I taught the first ever course in interactive narrative when I was at MIT in the early 1990s, and I am teaching it again at Georgia Tech this year. I recently told my students that this is the first time I have been able to make such extensive use of games and digital interactive stories.
BioShock was a turning point for my students because of the moral choice that led to the different endings. I am particularly fond of Hotel Dusk and disappointed there have been no sequels. In the past year, Gone Home and Walking Dead, two very different games, set new standards for immersing players in the story. And I was very moved by my students’ account of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons which is very inventive in its use of interaction mechanics to create strong character empathy and reinforce meaningful emotional states.
How close do you think the narrative potential for video games is to being fully realized?
There is a mature practice in many genres — but the potential is much larger than the practice. We’ve only just begun to explore the expressive potential of digital strategies for storytelling.
In the last 15 years, television has undergone a transformation from being widely viewed as something lesser than films and novels to a well-respected medium that attracts both ambitious storytellers and prestigious actors who once would have scorned working on TV. Can games undergo a similar transformation in the public’s eye, achieving the same recognition for storytelling as films and novels?
I do research in interactive TV and long-form TV narrative and I think the comparison is very apt because television has improved in seriousness of drama in part because of the move to digital transmission. Because viewers now watch in larger chunks — a full season, multiple seasons — the dramatic TV series is becoming more ambitious in its storytelling the same way that the Victorian novel did when a large public began following episodic stories over long periods of time and then re-reading them as 3 volume books.
Similarly, I believe that we will find that the expressive possibilities of interactivity will open up new forms and structures for more complex and more powerful storytelling.
Gone Home really interested me because it let most of its narrative play out through environmental interaction. That’s something I would love to see more frequently in gaming; I’m more invested in a story when my actions help it unfold than when I reach checkpoints with cutscenes.
Now, a common complaint about Gone Home is that it doesn’t feature much traditional gameplay. While this had no effect on my ability to enjoy it (I thought Gone Home was exactly what it was intended to be: a gripping and moving interactive story), it did make me wonder: does game classification need to change? After all, we lump Gone Home in the same field as Super Mario Bros. and Call of Duty when they all have little in common. Is there potential for a trend of games following in Gone Home’s footsteps, games where narrative takes precedence over traditional gameplay?
Game design is a very sophisticated practice now, with a much larger audience than interactive narrative. There are a lot of good reasons for that, but one of the consequences is that games offer us a wealth of conventions that are useful for other purposes, in this case for storytelling. So I agree that there are some confusions when we are moving around a space the way we are used to doing in a game but we are not being offered the same kinds of puzzles or contests, so it can seem like a deficient game.
It is also true that Gone Home has some technical deficiencies as story-telling. In particular, there is no reason why we should hear the voice of the narrating sister — it is not justified in the logic of the story world. It works because it is a compelling voice, and the revelations hold our interest and lure us onward. It would be less engaging to move around the house without the voice.
But I think that later versions of this kind of a game may come up with a tighter coupling between the telling of the story and the presentation of the fictional space. That is a natural kind of refinement that comes from having an established framework and an attentive audience — something game designers have taken for granted for decades now.
Telltale’s The Walking Dead was an elevation of a type of video game storytelling that we’ve seen before, but rarely executed so well. Multiple dialogue choices and branching stories based on character choices that invite replays aren’t new. The games of David Cage (Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls) and Bioware (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, Dragon Age) come to mind.
It’s hard for me to specify what The Walking Dead did well compared to, say, Mass Effect, but I think a lot of it had to do with lack of clutter. The Walking Dead was one set of story-decisions after another. There’s not much more to it than that. Why do you think The Walking Dead resonated so well with players? Was it the stripped-down gameplay and storytelling, or is there more to it?
I think you may be onto something. One of the problems with stories in videogames is that they lack dramatic compression, the refinement of storytelling into coherent, economical beats that we take for granted in more mature narrative forms, like TV dramas. The Walking Dead may be leveraging the dramatic compression of a TV script to make for a more focused storytelling. It also does a good job of leveraging the immersion that players bring over from their involvement in the TV series, by mimicking the atmosphere and the character-focused tone very well, while not competing with the show by trying to reproduce the actual characters.
Are there any new forms and structures in interactive storytelling that you see opening up presently?
Too many things to know where to start. In fact there is so much going on right now I should probably write a whole new book about it!