I've written recently--some might say too often--about the growing convergence of film and video games - and why that's a bad thing. My belief is that while narrative games like Mass Effect can borrow useful tools from film (and novels and comic books, etc.), ultimately the medium must develop its own language to exploit its unique interactive properties.
We don't watch video games; we play them. Mass Effect is a terrific RPG with exceptional writing and high production values, but it falls down badly when it attempts to mimic a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster.
So if video games shouldn't be like movies, what should they be like? If we remove the cinematic framework from video games, what remains? How can video games tell stories without filmic devices?
Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn may have an answer. Creators of The Endless Forest, together they are designing a short horror game called The Path, a dark version of the Little Red Riding Hood tale that plunges the player into an immersive world in which "every interaction expresses an aspect of the narrative."
Since the release of Bioshock, much has been made of player choice in games. Whereas Bioshock offers a linear path with disguised predetermined outcomes (and does so brilliantly), Harvey and Samyn are determined to create a game where player choices construct the narrative. As they recently told Edge Magazine:
The process of playing becomes the process of not finding the story but creating one, with things that we offer in the world...Most things are very heavy with symbolism--there are sad girls and angry wolves and the scary forest--things that have meaning in themselves. But the way in which players combine them generates a story...The world is a living universe and a big part of the game is a freeform world that you can run around.
The Path refocuses the player's experience on being in an environment and responding to the stories contained within it. Harvey and Samyn call it 'inescapable narrative' and find an apt comparison not in film, but in architecture:
It's the perfect non-linear narrative environment. You walk through it and there are all these stories around you, and in general they're part of your culture. Our favorite games have strong emotion...where you're really there and you never stop being curious about the things around you...It's about being, rather than seeing, and that's why games are more closely related to architecture than film.
It's easy to talk ambitiously about your game when the release date is listed as 'tentative early 2009.' Lots of games sound good on paper, but fail to deliver on their promises (howdy Peter Molyneux). I hope The Path isn't one of them.
Will players feel bereft without their cutscenes, achievement rewards, and rules-based play? Will The Path really be different? Meet me back here in 2009.