Writer’s roundtable: the state of storytelling and what’s next for videogame narrative

The Last Of Us is seen as the defining grand narrative blockbuster of the last year by our panel of game writers.

Last week, our panel of videogames writers discussed the demise of Irrational and why creating story-led blockbusters is so risky. Here, we extend out the conversation to take the pulse of videogame storytelling at large, before looking at what’s next.

Our panel consists of Rhianna Pratchett, an experienced game writer who after writing 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot is working on a new, unannounced game as well as a film adaptation; CEO and creative director at Red Thread Games Ragnar Tørnquist, writer of The Longest Journey, Anarchy Online, The Secret World and Dreamfall, whose current projects include Dreamfall Chapters and Draugen; and Climax game director and writer Sam Barlow, another industry veteran, most famous for his work on several Silent Hill games.

Read on for in-depth discussion of what the industry gets wrong about game narrative, storytelling’s growing significance and a look at the prevailing trends to come.

How would you characterise the current state of narrative in videogames?
Rhianna Pratchett:
Generally the narrative literacy in the industry is quite low, because it’s never had to be that high. Having moved over and done comics and film and TV, it’s a lot higher there because it’s had to be. There are a lot of people that just want to kind of play at being a writer or being creative with a big ‘C’ because they’ve seen a lot of movies and can get some words down. Everyone thinking they’re a writer is not a problem unique to games, but it certainly is a problem I’ve enountered quite often. Every game writer I talk to has their story about the producer or designer that has told them that they understood more about stories because they watch more movies than them…

Ragnar Tørnquist: I think there’s a growing respect for narrative now, although I do agree – everybody has an opinion on it and believes they know more about story than they actually do. The understanding that this is important seems to be there, but the skillset seems to be still in gestation.

Irrational’s closure aside, there are a rising number of studios creating strong narrative-led games. Pratchett cites Telltale and BioWare as good examples.

RP: We now have studios that we can point to and say they’re doing great work in narrative – it used to be Irrational, for example, and there’s Telltale and BioWare. That’s a big change from when I got into the industry. Narrative designers didn’t exist, really, and games writers certainly weren’t out there talking about what they were doing – games writing was being done, but it was in the backrooms by designers that just fancied a go or a producer that wrote short stories in their spare time.

When I first got into development the question was ‘should we hire a professional writer?’ Which is sort of a mad question because you hire professional artists and programmers – why on earth would you not hire a professional writer? Over the last decade the industry has started hiring professionals but it doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily being used in the right way – everyone’s trying things out and some things aren’t working and some are. It’s quite exciting for that reason but it’s also kind of terrifying. Every industry has to go through that period.

RT: It’s harder for games to just bring in a writer from outside – there’s this ongoing development process and an understanding of gameplay and technical insight required. Writing games is so much more than writing words, it’s intertwined with the design.

Sam Barlow: There’s a huge amount of enthusiasm for storytelling and an understanding that narrative is very important now. Even in a big shooter like Call Of Duty, the last few games have had unreliable narrators and all sorts of weird framing devices, and you’ve got the Crysis team bringing in novelists.

Even big-name shooters like Call Of Duty: Ghosts are experimenting with different narrative techniques, says Sam Barlow.

But there are still certain publishers that, when you’re pitching them a game, they’ll ask you for a three act breakdown because they know that movies are done in three acts. And when you try and say that the three act movie comes from their length, and that a game might have five acts – they look at you and go ‘no, three acts’. So you get this horrible thing where you have your second act stretched across a ten hour game – something happens at the start, there’s a lot of treading water, and then something happens at the end. Structurally, how games can tell a story is quite a different thing, so bringing in external writers is kind of scary in that it makes complete sense that we should be using professionals, but it’s a decision that’s often made at a much higher level, sometimes as a PR win.

When that’s the reasoning, then those writers have a lot of power over the process but might not necessarily have the understanding of how to structure something interactive. In the same way, if you look at the early days of cinema, a lot of playwrights and novelists were brought into work on movies and there was a learning process there.

RP: Certainly the industry has had a little bit of a love affair with Hollywood and Hollywood writers where they’d come in with their magic pixie dust and make everything okay…in a way that’s benefited games writers as often they’ve had to tidy up after the Hollywood writer has gone because they didn’t understand the structure of games. And likewise, the developer didn’t understand what they wanted to do with the story. We’re all trying to work out how it’s done.

Part of the problem is that it is a two way street. I’ve had people come up to me saying that they want to get into games writing but really, they don’t play many games. It seems to be something that people think you can just turn up and do. It really isn’t that simple. It helps if you understand game mechanics and design so that if there are battles being fought, you can understand what the other side is fighting for.

RT: Games writers have to be designers on some level. They don’t have to be really technical but they do need to know how a game flows and functions. Like Sam said earlier, trying to push a three act structure on a game is insane because you’ve got a narrative that’s the length of an HBO season.

Pratchett’s work on Tomb Raider involved balancing both storytelling and game design techniques – the role of the narrative designer, she says, is only a recent phenomenon.

Do you feel that the scale of triple-A games is fundamentally problematic for storytelling? Big console games are getting more and more open-world and the stories within those games are becoming emergent rather than prescribed…
SB: When people say ‘the player makes their own story’ I think it’s more along the lines of telling your friends about a football game you had; the word I’d use is escapade – it’s nice to tell people about the adventure you had, but for me it’s not a story. For me, what story means is that there is a self-contained narrative which, through the characters and the events that occur, contains a theme. The story guru Robert McKee loves to say that it’s only in stories that we simultaneously experience emotion and ideas. I think it’s important to keep that idea of what a story is sacred.

Do you think stories are a better fit for smaller scale games, then?
RT: It really depends on the story. The Last Of Us is a great example of a story that can only be told in triple-A. There’s always going to be room for that grand story, whereas in indie games we can explore smaller stories – like short stories or novellas. Games that are three or four hours long like Papers, Please and Gone Home can explore maybe a single character or a single theme. It’s a beautiful marriage in a way – I love to play the big stories but at the same time it’s fantastic that we can have games like Journey and Dear Esther that are so different and bound by different scope and budget and therefore have to be more focused. I think both will co-exist and do great things for narrative.

SB: There’s a weird thing that’s unique to videogames in that if you make a low-budget film all you need is a script, a camera, some good actors and you can go and make a low budget movie. In terms of exploring that emotional angle in games, there’s a barrier to entry in that to have realistic-looking characters emoting convincingly you need motion capture and that whole process. So you have indie guys exploring alternative ways of telling stories as a result of that.

RT: With games the most expensive thing to do is the least expensive thing in movies – just having people talking.

Pratchett hopes that more middle-tier developers, like The Walking Dead studio Telltale, can emerge in the coming years.

It feels like 2013 was a breakthrough year at each end of the spectrum with The Last Of Us and indie games like Gone Home – what do you think the next big trends will be in narrative games?

RP: There are some interesting things happening on the iPad. I liked The Room and The Walking Dead worked really well on iPad because I was sitting very close to it and there was something more intimate about it that I found really interesting. There’s also the middle ground between your big BioShock Infinites and GTAs and smaller indie games. I’d like to see that flourish more – I think it’s being under-used at the moment.

RT: I think the last year’s been great in that a lot of games that wouldn’t have got a lot of attention three, four or five years ago got attention. Papers, Please, Gone Home, Kentucky Route Zero are all games that are quirky and different but got recognised.

For me some of the games that didn’t get the recognition they deserved weren’t in the indie space – I loved Saints Row IV’s story because it was so out there and something only games could do. It’s the same with the latest Call Of Juarez game, where the story and world changes as you are playing to fit the narrative – I thought that was brilliant. It was a relatively simple shooter but the narrative made it completely unique, and games-specific – you can’t do something like that in any other medium. Like Rhianna said, it’s the middle space between indie and triple-A that the interesting stuff will be going on.

Saints Row IV’s story was a joy because “it was so out there and something only games could do,” says Tørnquist.

SB: My big hope for the coming years is that indies explore a lot of the stuff that’s not getting touched upon in games – unreliable narrators, making the protagonist unlikeable, exploring fragmented narratives, different structures…

It feels like we need to get those ideas out there so we can break down some doors. A frustration making games is that the types of main character you can use and the scenarios are so limited. The expectation of genre, which is so powerful and useful in writing and film, is actually really restrictive in games. The genres we have are very tightly defined and override a lot of interesting scenarios that could be explored. So what’s useful about these indie games experimenting is that they’re showing that this stuff is interesting and that gives us a base to start exploring some of these ideas in larger scale games.

For me, the dream is that the cost of motion capture continues to decrease and the timescales involved come down so we can start creating games that are full of characters and narrative that aren’t necessarily triple-A. We need to try to find a way for us to start making that commercially viable.