In search of narrative, character, and empathy
December 13, 2007
I've focused much of my attention recently on storytelling and character development in video games. I attribute this to the impact of major releases over the last six months--Half-Life 2 Episode 2, Bioshock, Halo 3, Mass Effect, Persona 3, Call of Duty 4, and others--all of which have attempted to synthesize compelling gameplay with engaging narratives depicting complex characters.
Respondents to my posts on these games have debated their relative successes and failures as storytelling vehicles, and some have bluntly observed that games have no business telling stories at all (apologies to these folks as I plunge ahead with more "games as stories" posts. I promise this won't be Brainy Gamer quicksand).
One comment crops up more than any other, however, and it goes something like this: We keep celebrating games like Bioshock and Mass Effect as pioneering or breakthrough games, but they don't hold a candle to Game X made way back in Year Y. Cool graphics and Hollywood-style cinematics are nice, but if you want a really good interactive story with nuance and ambiguity, you can't get much better than Game X made way back in Year Y.
I've decided to put that theory to the test. I'm going to embark on a gamer's travelogue, of sorts, in search of narrative, character, and empathy. I'll revisit two landmark titles from two prior eras of gaming: A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985) and Planescape: Torment (1999) Focusing purely on storytelling, thematic resonance, and my empathetic attachment to the characters, I will attempt to compare these games to the experiences on offer in today's narrative games.
My plan is to create a gamer's diary tracking my progress through each title, recording thoughts and impressions along the way. This seems more useful to me than summarizing my impressions at the end, especially since what I'm interested in here is the ongoing way each game works on my thoughts and emotions as I make my way through them. I'll log these entries as posts here on the blog. I hope a few of you will make this trip with me, even through your memories of these games, and feel free to comment on my observations along the way and share your own.
In the end, I hope to revisit games like Bioshock and Mass Effect and consider in a richer context where we have come in 20 years of video game storytelling. Maybe I'll discover the old games don't hold up so well. Maybe I'll discover they have much to teach us. Perhaps it will be a mix of both. I honestly don't know, and that's a big part of the attraction for me in this project. I have powerfully positive impressions of both older titles, but it's been a *long* time since I've played either, so I'm anxious to reacquainting myself with them after all these years. I do have serious doubts about my text-adventure chops, which I'm sure have atrophied badly in 20 years of non-use.
I hope you will find this useful and interesting. I'm looking forward to it. Watch this space.