When people talk about a game they usually mention things like graphics, gameplay and difficulty. But how often do you hear people talk about a game’s story?
There’s long been a debate about how effective games are at telling stories and whether, due to interactivity, they’ll ever match movies and literature. Some gamers don’t think it matters, as long as the game play rocks. But just imagine if you could play a really gripping story.
Well, now thanks to two developers you can. Sam Landstrom of Delight Games is the creator of hugely successful interactive novels for Windows Phone, including the smash hit Zombie High series. Matt Marshall and Christine Clark of Wayward are the makers of the immersive masterpiece, The Veil. Both developers have been honing their expertise at AppCampus, the accelerator program funded by Microsoft and Aalto University. Now, we’ve hooked up with them to find out more about the future of gaming and how narrative games might change how we play forever.
There are countless games available for Windows Phone, what makes your game special and why will I keep playing it?
Sam: People naturally love stories. Our games are about giving you an exciting story, except that you don’t play as “you”, you play as the character. When you play a book from Delight Games, you may play a self-conscious teenage girl with a crush on a boy in her biology class in one book and a wise-cracking male wizard who doesn’t exercise enough in another.
Our games are also dead simple. You read, you make choices, and there are consequences for those choices. For example, a zombie staggers toward you. Do you run? Push your friend in front of it? Use your hatchet to split its skull? You decide. The “right” choice depends on the situation and characters, and you really have to think to survive to the end, not to mention to get a high score and rank.
Matt: The Veil is quite unique as a mobile game, being story-driven and immersive. We’re trying to make a game that lets you plug in your headphones and be taken somewhere else, and we’re trying to do it in a short episode format so it’s perfect for the daily commute.
Arguably, it was only in the early 90’s with games such as Final Fantasy that a compelling narrative became an important part of game design. How have things changed since then?
Sam: In the early days of computer games, text adventures had a solid following and were commercially viable because graphics and action-based game play technology were so weak. A lot of big titles these days don’t require narrative at all (e.g. Minecraft, Candy Crush, etc.), while others like Call of Duty use it, although the narrative exists merely in cut-scenes between periods of intense action.
Others, like Skyrim, try to mesh narrative with action, but even then, your success is still more dependent on your combat skills than on an understanding of or interest in the story. Nevertheless, I’m seeing signs of a resurgence in story in video games. The Wolf Among Us is an example of a story-driven game that uses graphics and animation to bring the story to life.
Matt: The technology, in terms of graphics fidelity and flexibility, has advanced so much that the immersive power of video games has never been stronger. But I think there is a conflict in the medium right now where many games with massive, richly detailed, open worlds are bombarding the experience with very mechanical gameplay. It lessens the immersion on so many levels. I think the big change is that it’s becoming acceptable to let go of typical game mechanics. Dear Esther and Gone Home definitely represent a growing movement in games to just focus on creating a compelling world and allowing the player to explore and experience an interesting place, and I think these games are paving the way for all kinds of new audiences.
Most of us can name computer games characters, but ask someone to tell a computer game story, and you’ll likely draw a blank. How likely is it we’ll see a future where people will talk about the stories of games they’ve played, in the same way people talk about movie stories?
Sam: I am actually seeing a little of this now, but I don’t think we’re going to see game story conversations until game narratives become more integral to best-selling games. The question is, how do you make story-driven games bestsellers when it seems like only small game companies (like mine) make them? The trick is to reach that untapped pool of customers and show the game industry that there is potential to make money. When high production value interactive fiction is consistently made along with commensurate marketing and advertising, then people will talk game stories.
Christine: I think game plots need to grow up a bit. We see recycled war, spy and assassin stories over and over. This doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for new audiences or intricate plots. When we can successfully create comedies, interactive docu-dramas, and other less “used” tropes we will be challenged to tell stories a little differently. Developers often start with a mechanic and build the story later on. When you start with a theme and a story to tell, the rest falls into place.
Finally, if you had an unlimited amount of time and money and could adapt any story ever written into a game, what would it be and why?
Sam: Honestly, it would be an adaptation of my own novel, MetaGame; I’m actually working on that now. It’s not the greatest story ever told or anything, but it’s a story I understand deeply, love, and really want to “gamify”. The story is set in the future where everything you do—work, play, even love—is part of a massive overarching game (The Game). If you score high enough, you gain immortality, so The Game is pursued with a religious devotion by most. It’s a novel about games. What could be better for making into a game?
Christine: I like that you removed the time and budget constraints from this question! I would love to do an open world game that explored Jenji Kohan’s work, Orange is the New Black or Weeds. I could see an excellent transition from TV to interactive and think the themes are worth exploring further. Jenji likes to put a recognizable character into new shoes and invite the audience to experience a world they might have otherwise had no interest in by watching this character experiment in her new world. In a game, the player would get to experiment, their choices would determine the arch of the story and hopefully they could learn something in the process (and so could the developers)!
What a fascinating insight into the word of game development and narrative games. We’re totally sold on the concept, the question is are you? Of course, the only way to find out is to download Sam’s latest games Witch Saga Volume 1 and Matt and Christine’s The Veil and have a play. Once you’ve done that we’d love to hear your thoughts down below.