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Earlier this week, I addressed the potential for popular fiction to be compelling without being exclusively fun. Yesterday, I introduced the sandbox model of games, which offers opportunities for learning without direct instruction. Today, I will discuss instruction and persuasion through traditional storytelling and its translation into interactive environments.
The potential of traditional storytelling to offer insights or arguments doesn’t need to be explained. We are all familiar with the occasional power of novels and movies to make us consider, reflect, imagine, or feel. But it’s worth noting that not all linear fiction is focused on plot. Some stories are driven by events. Others are driven by characters. Even static settings can be major themes by themselves, which is why so many fans of The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, or the Aubrey-Maturin series dig into lore and history in addition to enjoying those narratives. Sometimes, we are challenged to unravel puzzles and to anticipate the next plot twist. Other times, we passively enjoy witnessing the interplay between a group of delightful companions, without any expectation of final resolution.
All of this is possible in game fiction. What distinguishes games from more passive entertainment is interactivity. In any game, one way or another, it is the player’s role to take action and to move the story forward.
Games can differ from films by varying degrees. The most film-like products challenge players to solve puzzles, to defeat or escape foes, or to navigate motion trials (a race, for example) without offering the player any control over character development or plot. In these games, the player does not direct contents much as unlock it. Cinematic sequences called “cutscenes” which temporarily remove player control punctuate periods of intense action and serve as rewards for overcoming challenges.
On the other hand, blockbuster games increasingly incorporate “divergent storytelling” into their story arcs. Mass Effect is a popular science fiction series by Canadian developer Bioware which provides serious and powerful Hollywood-quality plots while simultaneously empowering players to make significant choices within the greater narrative. This is accomplished through dialog trees that enable players to determine the courses of conversation and even the fates of central characters.
Here are two examples of branching, interactive storytelling.
In the first video, the consequences of the player’s choices do not directly relate to the main plotline, yet the scenario invites deep reflection and bears emotional weight. The player-character has been approached by a man whose wife was killed in a recent battle. The man requests that the protagonist help him to convince the military to release his wife’s body for burial. Though Bioware’s limited resources prevented them from providing every option a player might desire, and bias is certainly evident in the selections offered, the player is given more nuanced options than simply to help or not help the grieving husband.
In the second video — this one from Mass Effect 2 — the consequences of the player’s choices in the first Mass Effect game carry over into the sequel. In a dramatic moment in the first game, the player-character must choose which of two key characters to save. The woman in the scene above would not even exist in Mass Effect 2 had the player made a different choice in Mass Effect 1. Furthermore, this character is only a love interest of the protagonist in the sequel because the player chose to make it so in the original game.
These are examples of storytelling through dialog options. But players may also be empowered to affect plot elements through non-verbal actions, such as saving a hostage before he is killed, discovering useful resources, or gathering allies.
More importantly, these examples demonstrate an advantage that the video game medium has over traditional fiction like novels and movies. Whereas in older art forms, the audience can refine habits of moral appraisal by identifying with the scripted choices of this or that character and wondering what one’s own decisions might have been in similar situations, a narrative-game player can actually simulate those decisions and be presented with consequences. Game developers can guide the player through a variety of “What if…” scenarios and show where each decision or reaction might lead.
Next time, I’ll explore the near future of game persuasion in the forms of environmental feedback and post-script narration.