Becoming the Storyteller
If there has been one thing that has become most notable in the times since videogames emerged into the hallowed third dimension, it has been the focus on story and storytelling. There once was a time when all the story you needed was simply to know that a certain princess was in another castle, or that you were charged with protecting Earth from the alien invaders which are conveniently falling from the sky. Not that the idea of telling a story through gaming is entirely a new convention, but with the advent of full motion video, cut-scenes and cinematic devices it has become an expected and prevalent part of all big budget high profile releases. With these developments have come advances in the way games play out; now tightly-scripted linear games are common, with an emphasis on telling a thrilling, singular story through your actions. Games such as Half Life and the early Call of Duty games are heavily cited as implementing a lot of these features successfully, using the environment, and immersive nature of the first-person viewpoint to pull you through a compelling and thrilling adventure.
Whilst gaming is a highly immersive and interactive medium, this can often work against it from a storytelling point of view, the autonomy you have over your character becomes the most difficult thing to guard against, and so restrictions have to be put in place to maintain the illusion; NPCs will be invulnerable, or your firing capacity will become restricted when not in combat, only specific doors at specific times will open, bosses and enemies often have to be killed in specific ways and you have no real say in the way events will play out. You are a pawn in a virtual movie, your actions often very limited and it can be very difficult to try and tell a dramatically interesting story, when the only real actions your character can perform are navigating an environment and firing weapons, perhaps with a little puzzle solving in the middle. Any actual character development has to be left for the cut-scenes over which you have little to no control and there is often a strange cognitive dissonance between the two.
Take Uncharted 2 as an example; in the opening sequence of the game Nathan Drake finds himself incapacitated thanks to a gunshot wound to the stomach. He stumbles along, dragging his feel clearly in a bad way and it limits your abilities as you play in this regard. However through the course of the game you suffer hundreds, if not thousands of gunshots to no ill-effect. The re-charging health system lets him shrug such injuries off, until the cut-scenes of course. Similarly whilst the game spins an entertaining tale with well rounded characters, there is no escaping the fact that in through the course of actually playing the game you, as Drake, are responsible for killing upwards of 1,000 enemies, a fact that is completely counter to the character and realism elsewhere forged through the story. It’s perhaps a natural limitation of gaming’s current desire to ape the cinematic form of storytelling, but ultimately games aren’t films and I sometimes feel that in trying to be they take away much of what makes gaming so unique and interesting an art form as it is in its own right. The very freedom you have as a player, that so many stories seek to limit, can itself be a source of interesting and unique stories, not in the grand sense of a novel or a film, but a much more personal experience, arising from the combinations of player choice and gaming systems.
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