Interactive Narrative and WordPlay

This past weekend I had the honour of sitting on the jury for WordPlay 2014, an annual festival that celebrates writerly video games. Video games have incorporated text and prose almost since the beginning (“The princess is in another castle”), but the prevalence in games has waxed and waned.

This past weekend I had the honour of sitting on the jury for WordPlay 2014, an annual festival that celebrates writerly video games. Video games have incorporated text and prose almost since the beginning (“The princess is in another castle”), but the prevalence in games has waxed and waned.

I cut my teeth on text adventures like Zork and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, so the early 2000s resurgence of interactive fiction was very exciting to me. In 2000, Emily Short (a WordPlay co-juror) revitalized the form with Galatea, a tour de force art-game which brings the character into conversation with a living statue. At its core, Galatea is a study in how conversation trees in video games have traditionally failed the medium. The release of Galatea may not be the exact moment when modern interactive fiction rose from Usenet obscurity to become a real influence in mainstream gaming, but it’s close enough.

Emily Short was one of a handful of tireless authors to embrace interactive fiction as a consciously retro mode of expression for thoughts about gaming and narrative. Andrew Plotkin, Adam Cadre, Graham Nelson: These may not be household names among gamers, but you can bet they roll easily off the tongues of many of today’s game developers. It may be surprising to learn that, not only are games still being developed today that are played exclusively through a text interface where one types such commands as “USE SHOVEL TO REMOVE SQUIRREL FROM WHEELBARROW,” but that these games exert force on the greater trends of gaming.

It’s true that, for many games, narrative and story are largely incidental. For all that we love the mythology of the Mushroom Kingdom, it is not the story of Mario’s quest to rescue Princess Toadstool from Bowser that drives us to play. Super Mario Brothers, like many of today’s games, is essentially a reflex and puzzle toy and this toy no more needs a story than does a game of darts. But for many other mainstream games, like Mass Effect or Silent Hill, narrative takes on varying degrees of importance. And these games, often brilliantly written, have prompted some important questions about how narrative and gaming intersect.

In the 80s and 90s, a common refrain among gamers was that the ideal was for videogames to ascend to point of becoming interactive movies. The core of that dream was on the surface one of graphics or visual fidelity. But increasingly, as we have approached (and arguably surpassed) that watershed, the negative aspects of the interactive movie have made themselves apparent. Many of today’s videogames from top studios have essentially become non-interactive movies plus auxiliary puzzles required to unpause. In Uncharted, we watch a full motion video scene, are dropped into a beautiful environment where we must accomplish one specific task and then watch another scene. For all that these games are praised for their narratives, they are essentially Super Mario Brothers with a Hollywood production team.

Somewhat more interesting are games like Skyrim, where a massive open world plays host to hundreds of simultaneous stories that the players can encounter in an infinite variety of interweavings. But even so, each story, when looked at as a work of fiction, is almost strictly linear, with maybe one or two branch points and a series of tasks to be completed before the narrative advances.

The medium has so much more potential. Perhaps sometimes we want to play a movie overlaid on a puzzle or a reflex test, but what if we want to truly experience an interactive narrative? There are two big problems. The first is that each time you introduce a meaningful decision into a game, you radically increase the total amount of writing (and art assets) required. This is why it is so common for games to use false choices where you are allowed to choose Path A or Path B in a story but both lead to Node C. The second problem is that a good story follows a well-crafted arc, has careful pacing, and weaves every thread together. It can be nearly impossible to recruit the player to that task and empower them to pull it off.

For decades, interactive fiction and indie gaming have been the testing bed for solutions and workarounds to these problems and this was, to me, the most exciting thing about taking part in the WordPlay festival. Certainly, there were fantastic games like Three Fourths Home and Coming Out Simulator which told essentially linear stories beautifully. But there were also games like Nested and Begscape, which communicated at the margins of the text almost as much as within. And then there were heavily polished games like 80 Days, which succeeded in making you feel that there was far more beneath the hood than you could see.

Games are getting smarter; game worlds are getting richer; and entirely new ways of thinking about narrative are evolving before our eyes. The promise of Galatea is coming to fruition and new stories are being told that simply could not be told before.

I encourage everyone to check out the games in the 2014 WordPlay showcase.

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