In the newest issue of Edge, #231 p. 144, Tadhg Kelly (game designer, blogger) has written an article with title “Games are not a storytelling medium, no matter what people say” and the title is enough to get my mind working. To claim that games can not tell stories is quite a bold statement, by a writer with insight in the game industry. As you have guessed, I will try to show that games can tell stories.
Storytelling per se is quite linear and the story is decided by the writer. The basic features of a story (referring to kelly’s article) is that there is a ”hero”, time (or flow) is controlled by the story teller, there is a sense of inevitability or of being powerless, and attention is given to the story. But, there are other kinds of storytelling, of which some is not as linear as you might think. For example there are the books with different paths, where you after reading a paragraph can make a choice for the main character, like “open the door to the left” or “remove the golden key from the key chain”. Video games also tell stories in many different ways; in most games the story is just a frame for the game, that gives the game world borders and decides how things should look and operate, while in other games the story IS the game, where you decide which path to take, but the story as a whole keeps the game together; without the story these games would be quite empty.
There are many great stories to be experienced in games, both in “open” games where the options are almost overwhelming and also in games that nudge the player in one direction at times. An example of the former is Ultima VII: The Black Gate (a large-scale role-playing game from 1992), where you are presented with a multitude of options. You can follow the main path if you want to fulfill the outlined story of the game, or you can roam freely and build your own stories; in this scenario the main story will be like a frame or border of the stories you “create” as a player. A good example of the one-way type of game, where the story more or less is the game, is Alan Wake. In this game there is mostly just one way to go and you are told (and involved in) the story by finding sheets from a book-in-writing and cut-scenes. Some people, probably including Tadhg Kelly, finds this one-way play style frustrating, but the style of Alan Wake and games like it, let the designers and story writers give the player a chance to really feel and be immersed in the story they intended. If the story is well written and presented in such a way so that the player is drawn into the game world, then that is not a bad thing, on the contrary; it is a very nice feeling to be immersed in a great story.
There should be a place for most kind of games, both very open ones, like Ultima VII and the Grand Theft Auto series; but also relatively linear ones like L.A. Noire and Alan Wake. All of these games have a place to fill since they give so different experiences and tell stories in different ways. In the more open games you mostly build your own story, while in the others you will live and experience the story of the writers and designers.
Storytelling, in games and in other forms, is an interesting topic and I will certainly return to this topic with further discussions and analysis. For now, let’s conclude by saying that multitude is good and the more types of games there is, the more likely it is that more people will find their way into games.