The Zero Hour

Reviews, rants and oddities on video game and film culture.

Interactive Narrative In Games

I’ve been playing a little freeware game that’s a few years old now called Façade the past couple of days. Now, it’s pretty short and it’s not the most terribly exciting game on the planet, there’s no enemies, there’s no missions, not even very much gameplay and not an achievement in sight, hell it’s even debateable to refer to it as a “game”. So why have I just finished my 7th playthrough? Because, quite simply it’s fascinating. The site refers to it as the following; Façade is an artificial intelligence-based art/research experiment in electronic narrative – an attempt to move beyond traditional branching or hyper-linked narrative to create a fully-realized, one-act interactive drama.” And if you want it to, drama is probably the most appropriate word to describe this game. You  can move the story forward or not move it at all simply by typing in whatever you want and the situation of meeting some friends who are going through a rough patch can either simmer down to polite conversation or result in everyone having vile hatred for each other. It’s such a simple idea and it can lead to so many different outcomes that it makes you really consider just how interactive games can be with narrative.

It’s very common to see someone refer to a modern blockbuster game, especially, say… Call Of Duty as a cinematic experience, placing you in that lead role and living the film and whilst I like that it does offer the experience of being in a Michael Bay film and can immerse players within the story (Huh, I just used Michael Bay and story in the same sentence, somewhere my film lecturers are crying), it’s still got this fundamental aspect that cinema has, in that ultimately we’re still detached from it. If that didn’t make sense, I’ll try to explain it easier; When you watch a film, no matter what happens, you have no control over it. The narrative progresses in the way someone else has decided and you have no input in how it ends, that’s just how it works and in many ways, a lot of games are actually similar.

Now, you may think “But in a game, I take part in moving the narrative forward, if I didn’t play it, the story would stop” and yes, this is true, but long and short of it is, the story will be the same no matter how many times you play it, however long you wait to play it. Effectively most games still have a fairly linear structure where your actions will always lead towards a pre-determined event, when a game tells you to pull the lever to “Kill the space goblin” the story and the game won’t move forward unless you pull said lever, and this is my main point here; when you consider the interactive possibilities of games available, why do we have to follow this one story that’s put out for us? What if we decide to not “Kill the space goblin” and instead befriend it and take over the universe? Games should allow more player input into the narrative, According to *Woman from Smithsonian* [Quote=there are 3 major contributors to a gaming narrative. The writer, the designer and the player] and I think the former need to take into account the latter.

There’s a brilliant little flash game called One Chance that ponders this idea and I think some games should take note. In One Chance, you get the scenario in the end of the world within a certain amount of time and you’re given multiple choices and every single one leads to a different outcome at the end of the game, so there’s no way to play the same game twice…if you could play the game twice at all…and it just adds to the power of the game that if you get a bad ending, it’s YOUR fault.

A lot of games do incorporate this idea to an extent, where usually collecting certain items or doing certain things changes the ending, like in Bioshock for example (SPOILERS AHEAD) if you choose to harvest the Little Sisters to get more Adam, you end up with your character becoming corrupt and taking over the world with a splicer army and you sit watching the credits with an empty expression muttering “…Well, that sucks” but I’m talking bigger than one event. Changing the way you experience the entire game in each playthrough would only increase replayability and keep the game fresh every single time you play. A great mainstream example of this (and again, an old example) which I’m surprised more people haven’t taken a leaf from, is Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic where your actions can gain you light or dark side points, which will constantly effect your relationships with other characters, the big plot twists and obviously the ending. But it’s Façade that really pushes this to new levels (pun not intended), even if you come up to the same ending, it’s nigh on impossible to repeat yourself due to the amount of input you give on the game.

Of course, the downside is if this were to come into effect in more mainstream games, we’d get shorter games in the end because it would cost too much to develop a high graphic, voice acted 40 hour game where every decision changed everything. so maybe it belongs on the indie or flash market for those truly willing to see the interactivity games can offer, but the downside is obviously that they can’t reach the potential highs of a Triple A studio. So in a sense, as much as I wish for a game where little details change every aspect, it can’t exist, at least not while developers still think it’s wise to go down the cinematic route. I want at least one game where our actions have reactions on NPC’s and give us an experience that can’t be replicated by another medium. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go back and see what happens if I insult Grace’s painting on Façade.

Façade can be downloaded for free at http://www.interactivestory.net/

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One response to “Interactive Narrative In Games

  1. Willie 25/06/2011 at 09:21

    Ya learn something new evryeday. It’s true I guess!

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