It’s time to stop fretting about storytelling in video games. Five years ago - around the time Bioshock appeared - designers and critics began to intensify our focus on things like player agency and emergent gameplay. We coined phrases like “ludonarrative dissonance” and “on-rails” storytelling to characterize how games often fall short of their potential or dim in comparison to more mature media. Games like Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2 became rallying points for us to gather and measure the progress of narrative games to that point. These were tremendously useful conversations, well worth the energy they consumed.
But times have changed and so have the games. If the crop of 2012 proves anything, it’s that games and their designers now claim storytelling space across a wider spectrum of design and discourse. Progressive designers have severed ties with film and other media, or they’ve repurposed the language of those media to serve their creative ends.
Abstraction is no longer a low-budget refuge, but a tool leveraged by artists who see opportunity in fracturing time and space, filling their storytelling worlds with punchy ideas that push us to assemble meaning. The narrative games of 2012 have the audacity to make us keep up. Have you played Thirty Flights of Loving, by the way?
The games of 2012 suggest that designers are discovering and exploiting more channels of communication with players. In the past, these efforts have mostly been about experimenting with genre. Limbo is a great example of a developer mixing familiar gameplay mechanics with macabre horror elements to make something that looks familiar, but feels different. Filmmakers have done this for years, mimicking or reframing genre (e.g. zombie movies, westerns, vampire tales), applying a canny modern sensibility to address contemporary themes. Quentin Tarantino has made a career of it.
But few filmmakers stray from conventional storytelling forms. They may play with linearity or occasionally rethink the screen space (television is actually more ambitious in this regard), but most thematically ambitious films conform to standard presentations of time, place, and character.
Not video games. In 2012, many of the best play-worthy games were built by designers who found their voices by re-thinking the essential structure and function of games. This year, the very definition of “game” was thrown into question more often and by more designers than ever before.
If the signature of a vibrant art is artists pushing conventional boundaries, questioning formal assumptions, and producing provocative, wildly divergent work, this was a very good year for the art of games.
For a taste of what I mean, consider this gallery of assorted goodness. (Note: some parts of these descriptions are drawn from developer blurbs or related sources, but most are my own):
Unmanned - Winner of the 2012 IndieCade Grand Jury Prize, molleindustria’s newest game is about a day in the life of a drone pilot. The game relies on a series of short, split-screen vignettes to combine simple mini-games with clickable conversation options, taking the player through the humdrum existence of a modern drone pilot. Shaving, driving to work, even playing video games with your son are all given equal weight to blowing up a suspected insurgent thousands of miles away. The game’s short length invites multiple playthroughs, with different options leading to significantly different outcomes.
Journey - Indie games’ definitive statement, Journey is probably the best and most fully realized game of 2012. Lots of people have had their say about this remarkable game, including chatty me here, here, and here. No game better demonstrates the power of experiential gameplay or the poetic quality of organic design.
Dear Esther - Dear Esther is a ghost story, told using first-person gaming technologies. Rather than traditional gameplay the here is on exploration, uncovering the mystery of the island, of who you are and why you are here. Fragments of story are randomly uncovered when exploring the island, making every each journey a unique experience. Is Dear Esther a game? I don’t know, but I agree with Edge Magazine’s contention that it is “something incredibly beautiful that could not exist without videogames.”
Thirty Flights of Loving - A first-person video game short story that wears its pulpy jump-cut influences on its sleeve without resorting to mimicry or parody. Thirty Flights of Loving can only be experienced as a game, and the story it tells begs to be played, replayed, and played again. Designer Brendon Chung’s message to players is simple: I will make something worth mining for meaning, and I will trust you to dig. This game would be unthinkable without Chris Remo's soundtrack, by the way. Playing Thirty Flights of Loving injected me with joyful bursts of hipness, a transformation akin to Lazarus' resurrection.
Simony - Ian Bogost makes games that explore the nature and function of games. And players. His latest, Simony, is a medieval church politics-themed game about earning your station among a community. Is glory and achievement something you earn, or something you buy? Is it more right (or more righteous) to ascend to a rank or office on the merits of your actions than on the influence of your connections, or the sway of your bank account? Simony was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville. Players who choose to buy their way to the top can ascend to form the "Jury of Ten," invited to enter the inner sanctum of the actual museum. There, they will choose how to spend the proceeds generated by the game on the museum's behalf. C'mon, how cool is that?! Ian Bogost is the rarest of critics who also functions as an artist, and his work on each side of that divide informs the other.
Analogue: A Hate Story - Christine Love’s dark visual novel extends the non-linear style of her previous Digital: A Love Story in a mystery featuring transhumanism, traditional marriage, loneliness, and cosplay. The player explores a long-derelict ship by perusing dead crew logs, engaging in terminal hacking, and maybe even discovering friendship or romance with an AI over the course of the investigation. Teachers like me are forever seeking material to promote close reading and thoughtful conversation among our students. Take it from me, AAHS works like gangbusters.
To the Moon - This game was released late in 2011, but many of us didn’t learn about it until this year. It’s a cliché to claim games can make us cry, but this unassuming adventure RPG (built with dev tools first released in 1992) had me weeping like a baby. It’s a disarmingly lyrical story about two doctors traversing through the memories of a dying man to fulfill his last wish. To the Moon doesn’t break formal molds like other games on this list, but it does suggest powerful storytelling can still emerge from worlds built with 16-bit sprites and pre-made tilesets...if the writing is good enough.
Papo & Yo - As I wrote in my previous post, Papo & Yo is a “puzzle-platformer” like Vertigo is a “suspense-thriller.” Its genre trappings frame far more important elements that convey the game’s nature and ambitions. Papo & Yo is about a boy who makes a magical playground out of a place many would consider a hellhole. He runs and climbs and uses his superpowers to transform the world around him, and the game situates these actions - all metaphorical - at its narrative core. What you do (reach, climb, bend, flee) and what this game means are intrinsically linked like few games before it. And, yeah, this one made my face rain too.
Bientôt l’été - You’ll have to trust me on this one, a game from Tale of Tales still in development (I've played the most recent beta build). Click on the link for more info. I’m a judge for the Independent Games Festival at GDC this March, and I can tell you the judges' online discussion of Bientôt l'été was among the most stimulating I’ve seen for any game. I can’t say more than that, but watch this space for more.
The Walking Dead - I’m including this game, not because it innovates per se (it’s essentially a traditional point-and-click adventure game with terrific production values), but because it exists as an example of something good artists have long known. Sometimes we overvalue new. Sometimes what we need is familiar done extraordinarily well. That’s what The Walking Dead is all about. Human relationships explored with nuance and insight, character-driven plotting, pithy dialogue delivered by exceptionally strong actors. Serial drama that's genuinely dramatic.
Games with lots of words; games with none. Games with lots of choices; games with few. Narratives linear, fractured, and in-reverse. Big beautiful worlds of photorealistic suns and blocky pixelated moons. Player as moral compass; player as explorer; player as archaeologist; player as sociologist; player as damaged child. Systems and mechanics all over the map. A panoply of interactive stories.
I hope this post won’t be misconstrued as arguing for complacency. I don’t believe we’ve reached some final destination we should celebrate. Not at all. I can’t think of a designer who isn’t trying to move the ball down the field. Every narrative game released in this environment is a thesis statement for how to improve storytelling, broadly defined, in games. We’re nowhere near maturity, and I’m not sure we should want to be. It’s good to be emerging. 2012 was a good year. The work continues.