The Future of Narrative in Games

The subject of narrative and story in video games has been something that has evolved over a lifetime.  Games have become a medium of art that expresses a way of not only communicating, but allowing the player to live experiences that the artists want to share. I believe this, in many ways, makes the potential of story in games incredibly more powerful than movies. Don’t get me wrong, movies are great, and are amazing at sharing experiences in a creative way. However, movies can’t do what makes game so magical: viewers can’t interact with movies like they can with games.

In modern games, you commonly see story or narrative presented in one of two ways: to tell the player the story (Final Fantasy) or to have the player influence the story (Mass Effect). However, I believe there to be a third type, and perhaps more meaningful way to present story, which is almost entirely unique to the new generation of games and technology.

Before I go any further, I want to talk about . Now, I’m sure a majority of people are familiar with social networking sites and all of the unique experiences that those provide. After all, with the click of a button you can follow the life of friends, family, or acquaintances that you wouldn’t have access to otherwise without speaking to them face-to-face. With Facebook however, it goes a step further. You’re not the only one who gets to voyeur in on the life of a friend. Your friend’s friends and their friend’s friends can also see these experiences. They can “Like”, comment, or share the same experiences. This is the defining point of Facebook, and the glue that holds the whole system together. In essence, people sharing experiences with other people.

You actually start to notice the trend of people sharing stories with each other with online games. A lot of the time, player’s aren’t saying, “OMG DID YOU SEE THAT DEMON SHRED THAT GUY IN TWO?!?” As cool as that may have been, more often than not, players express their own individual experience that they had in the game. Let me give you a story of my own to illustrate this point:

Some friends of mine were playing World of Warcraft with me. We were in the same guild and part of the same raid group. In this particular case, we were on our conquest through Firelands, a place with vast area of volcanic activity, erupting fire, magma, millions of enemies, and epically giant bosses. We had been working for couple months trying to defeat this particular area, and eventually got to the final boss. We prepped ourselves, read the guides online, and discussed strategy for our own group composition. We felt completely ready and charged in, guns blazing, ready to annihilate this final boss.

We died. Over and over. Endlessly. Every fight was the same. We would walk up to this massive fire elemental with a giant hammer, he would give his speech about how the world was doomed and our lives would be destroyed, and then began wrecking havoc on our group. The boss would then cast a giant fire trap for our team to trigger, along with minions, fireballs, flame trails, and meteors. This scripted event never changed, and we would die all the time to these various mechanics. After countless attempts over the course of several months, we finally defeated the boss and got the epic loot that we had all worked so hard to achieve.

Afterwards, we spoke about our experience. Not once did I ever have someone say, “Yes! We beat Ragnaros! We saved the world! But what about Deathwing?! What happens now?? What does Thrall have to do with all of this?” Those scripted events, the drama leading up to the final boss, the pivotal point in the story: none of that mattered. You know what the players really told each other? In Trade Chat, for all other players to see, my guild members wrote out, “Yeah, we just smoked Firelands. One shot everything; piece of cake. I can see why people would think that’s a hard fight though. But our skills and reflexes were so good that Rag died in like 2 seconds. Now I have epic loots and am one of the most badass players in the world.” As you could imagine, this sparked huge drama over the server, and I had my own personal soap opera for the next hour and half.

This brings me to my point though: players make and share their own stories. It doesn’t matter how crazy or realistic it is, how long it took for something to be achieved, or even what the game story was about. All that mattered was that the player was able to live and experience, and thus creating their own personal experience, and sharing that new experience with others. This makes a lot of sense when you think about it, and people have been doing this long before modern technology existed. Technology simply made it far more accessible and exposed then it ever has in history. It’s the word of mouth phenomena in the 21st century.

So what is the third narrative type in games? I call it the Everliving Narrative. At its core, the Everliving Narrative is the telling and provided experience of a story to a player through other player’s experiences and stories. I’m not simply speaking to the idea that the game world changes based on collective player decisions. While part of the equation, the Everliving Narrative takes story to the next level. Rather, as part of the actual game system itself, allows for players to experience and absorb the stories of other players in a meaningful way, even if those players no longer play. Imagine a game where every person creates a web of intricate stories that collides with other webs, creating a road map for a narrative that never ends. Players continue to write their own stories while experiencing and influencing those of others along the way.

Given the right circumstances and execution, an Everliving Narrative driven game could easily become one of the most compelling and addicting games of all time. Therefore, I believe that this story type, above all else, is worth exploring and experimenting with as a designer, artist, and developer. This would be a game changer to games as we know it, and usher in a new level of games that would define future generations to come.

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~ by rhickman-design on April 27, 2012.