The fabled gameplay-narrative divide has been largely debunked. We increasingly understand that the best storytelling experiences in games come from a marriage between writing and design, and player-authored narratives don’t exclude professional writers to help shape them either.
Yet limitations on the breadth and depth of game narratives persist, since the games with the budget to render the most vivid places and plausible characters often have to focus less on purity of vision and more on appealing to what companies supposedly understand the consumer market to be.
It’s incredibly risky now to release a triple-A title that doesn’t come with familiar, even imitative, touchstones that we already know players like. The result, as we are increasingly aware, is a narrowing audience and a subsequent narrowing of the subject matter games can address. Everyone loses if we don’t find a way to open up, diversify and enrich.
The annual GDC Online Game Narrative Summit plays host to some of the industry’s leading writers and story designers over several days of panels and discussions. The writers talk design challenges, best practices and the goal of moving stories past traditional boundaries towards broader audiences and generally more sophisticated territory.
Included among these is a panel focused on game critics, with the idea that the writers can learn from the feedback of those whose stock in trade is the analysis of their work. I was asked to chair this year’s panel, and working together with the summit advisors, I decided to present a panel on diversity in games, and the need for more voices and representations both on the development side and in the games themselves – a good step toward dispelling some of the cultural sameness in games, I believe.
I was joined by two fellow women critics, Jenn Frank and Mattie Brice, but we aimed to go beyond a ‘women in games’ panel, focusing instead on the goal of representing experiences other than your own. We wanted to help lead the dialogue away from the well-intentioned but often problematic desire to just add more ‘strong female characters’, and saw our panel as a chance to talk to writers about the variety of themes and representations that we wish games would show more.
The writers appreciated the conversation – in fact, they endorsed it heartily. And although the audience that attended the panel included some of my favourite kinds of people in the game industry, I realised we had been speaking to people that already understood and agreed with us to an extent that surprised even me.
The private dialogues I had over the next several days were enlightening and sad. In my talk, I’d spoken about a lack of diversity on traditional dev teams contributing to the boy’s toy feel of popular shooters, and had several women who work on such titles share their frustrations at having trouble being visible.
One, a designer at a prominent studio, told me she’d once given an interview about her work that was inexplicably quashed by marketing. Another was a writer who told me that, in spite of her protestations, key moments in her work had been edited problematically for reasons that bore no relationship to gameplay. Still others told me of times they saw minority characters cut without clear purpose, or experimental concepts being harshly oversimplified.
Most of the time, the frustrations these writers and designers experienced fell under one nebulous umbrella: a marketing decision. In other words, it became increasingly clear to me that some of the story and design decisions that are most frustrating to the industry’s most creative minds are made by people who are neither designers nor writers.
Why shouldn’t games deserve a marketing contingency that believes in its medium the way the rest of the industry does? The intimate study of demographics, and of orienting elements of games in accordance with knowing what will sell, is necessary work. But if marketing can convince passionate fans that any old game is something they must have, then why can’t it convince a wider variety of players that any new game is something they must try?
Unfortunately, entire veins of the marketing business must still view their work as pandering to teenagers. The last relics of a simplified, dispassionate relationship between game companies and players exist in the marketing conduit, which frequently still seems beholden to the ultimate goal of pleasing reviewers, gaining high Metacritic scores and print impressions. It’s naïve to think such things will never be important, but marketing and public relations professionals should be better recruited into the service of the art of games.
When game critics evangelise passionately to writers and vice versa, that kind of choir-preaching completely evades the people who most need to be outspoken and audience-facing on the vibrant potential for storytelling in the commercial games space. There were no marketers in the audience of our narrative summit panel – but they were the ones we should have been talking to.