The lights are on
Whether we're following Mario as he leaps through pipes to rescue an abducted princess or sculpting the saga of Commander Shepard in the midst of a universe-spanning war, most video games have stories to tell. Even Ms. Pac-Man – a game about a hockey puck that eats pellets –
provides fiction for its characters, showing us how Ms. Pac-Man and
Pac-Man fall in love.
Some video game stories are expressed through simple pantomimed animations. Some are told entirely through text. Others unfold like motion pictures with voice actors, orchestrated scores, and dramatic cinematography. We’re even seeing games that invite players to create the narrative through the choices they make.
Although video games have been around for over 50 years, the medium is young when compared to other entertainment avenues. Writer Gary Whitta – who recently collaborated with Telltale Games for The Walking Dead’s first season, and is also credited for writing the film The Book of Eli – compares the current state of video game storytelling to the era when silent movies turned into talkies.
“We are just now at The Jazz Singer in video games,” he says. “We are starting to figure out that there are things we can do beyond the conventions of cinema and there are ways to tell stories that help the gameplay along and not just ape the experience of film or television.”
Telltale’s Walking Dead is the perfect example of a game that experiments with interactive storytelling. Although the threat of a zombie attack looms large, the game focuses on a group of survivors and the conflicts between them. A gun is rarely fired. Most of the player’s time is spent conversing with the characters, getting to know them, learning who to trust and who to keep an eye on. The undead threat serves as the backdrop for the human drama. Telltale sacrifices action sequences, effectively reimagining the adventure genre as an interactive drama. You don’t need to be holding the controller to appreciate this emotional story.
To better understand how game writers practice their craft and break down the boundaries of this nascent entertainment form, we spoke with some of the most prominent writers in the industry. In doing so, we found that the ways in which game writers approach their job are as diverse as the games themselves. There’s no one “right” way to craft a game story, and every studio finds it own methods for balancing the needs of story, technology, level design, and gameplay.
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