This is a topic that I have touched on in the past, but recently, I have been given the opportunity to talk about it. A couple of weeks back, David Jaffe, creator of Twisted Metal and God of War, said, regarding to storytelling in video games, “If you've really got something inside of you that's so powerful, like a story you've got to share or a philosophy about man's place in the universe, why in the fuck would you choose the medium that has historically, continually been the worst medium to express philosophy, story and narrative?” While that sentence is taken only slightly out of context, and the underlying point that developers should focus more on gameplay is sound, I would have to partially disagree with Mr. Jaffe. If a developer wants to have a tightly woven, complex, extremely linear narrative, then I would agree that said developer would be significantly better off by writing a book or making a movie instead. However, if the developer wishes to explore a particular philosophy or a “What if?” scenario, then a video game would be the perfect method of expression, and here is why.
The main reason that a linear narrative does not work so well is also one of the main reasons that games continue to flourish: Games are interactive by their very nature. People who play games always make decisions and affect the game world, even in linear games. What type of weapons will I use? What is the best way to defeat all of these enemies? Should I play it safe or go all out? These decisions are constant being made, consciously or not. Games thrive on ability to thrust players into situations they are not used to and force them into the actions. Linear stories are the antithesis of this. Linearity suggests that there is only one, proper way to go through a player's journey and every other possibility is incorrect. Some games even have sections where there is a trap in the room that is dead obvious, but the player is forced to trigger it in order to advance the story. In an environment where interactivity and decisions are everything, this is the kiss of death of any serious story. Movies and books can get away with this because the readers/viewers are not insert themselves into the situation: They are passive observers watching a story play out. In a video game, this is not the case. Players of video games are active participants, affecting the outcome of events through their inputs. It is easy for a video game player to project their own emotions onto the protagonist of the game because, in a way, they are. The character becomes a culmination of the decisions and actions a player has made to that point. When somebody asks a reader of book how far into the book they are, they respond with “I'm at the part where the protagonist does X.” However, a gamer would respond to the same question about a video game with “I just did X, and I'm about to do Y.” For an interactive narrative that takes player choice into account, this is a huge boon and be taken advantage of to great effect. For a linear story, this can spell doom if, at any time, the player is forced to do anything that runs directly contrary to their logic or beliefs. There is a term for this: Railroading. It can even get worse when a story directly contradicts what is happening in the gameplay. Either of these circumstances can break immersion with the game and bring the player back into the real world. While I cannot be sure, I would imagine this is why Mr. Jaffe suggests that writers with sprawling narratives in mind should visit another medium.
Does this mean that I think video games should never have stories? NO! However, a game's story does need to keep the nature of the medium in mind. The most important thing to consider is that players will want to have a sense of agency. That is, they want to be a part of the world, they want to have their actions affect the world, and they want the world to respond to the effects of these actions. Again, if at any point a player loses his/her sense of agency on the events of the game, they go from active participants to passive observers, losing the one advantage the writer has: The fact that the player will care about the protagonist because the protagonist is an extension of the player and the ability of the player to assert his/her own will. The key is to use this concept of player choice and player influence to encourage the player to explore. I will use Fallout: New Vegas as an example.
While I have a few criticisms of New Vegas (chief among them how Caesar's Legion a little too evil and hard to sympathize with), this is one thing it did very well. In the game's first half, the player travels to New Vegas. Along the way, the player is introduced to all the major factions of the game at one point or another. The New California Republic(NCR) is the stand in for old school American politics, with all it pros and cons. Its leaders are shown to want the best for the people, yet they are incompetent on many levels and often do not understand the plight of the common folk. The opposition of the NCR, Caesar's Legion, has opposing ideals. The Legion subjugates tribes under its rule. The tribes lose all their heritage, the men forced to become soldiers, the women and children forced to become slaves. (The boys are conscripted when the come of age.) Furthermore, they reject all kinds of advanced technology, in favor of old school “Roman” ideals. However, they are all united and a sense of order can be found in the Legion. Between these two factions is Mr. House, the enigmatic leader of New Vegas. After the player has been given a chance to meet and learn about all three major factions, they are given a choice. He/she can choose to side with any of the three major factions, or reject all three ideals in favor of a completely independent New Vegas, overseen by the player character. The game and the ending radically change depending on both which of the major factions the player works with/against and how he/she deals with the other sub-factions in the game.
While it is far from perfect, this is an excellent example of how video games can tell good stories. Inform players of different ideologies and let them learn about and explore them. Once they feel like they know enough, allow them the chance to pass judgment. Let them say “I believe that X is the best choice, and as such I will support them.” It does not even have to be the grand, arching narrative. Even on a small-scale, such as with a side quest, this ability to choose is what makes games unique as a medium for storytelling. This is why so many people still laud Deus Ex as an excellent accomplishment in gaming, even though it was made all the way back in 2000. The main crux of the game was that it encouraged the player to make choices, both in the way the story unfolded and in the way they play the game. The game explores transhumanism, both in gameplay and in story. It the story, it talks about the positives of transhumanism, like how augmentations could drastically improve people's lives. However, it also explores the negatives, such as the fact that it can essentially render certain people obsolete when newer, better augments get released. The game ends by having multiple factions give you their opinion on what to do and having the player decide which is best. This sense of exploration and choice extends to the gameplay, allowing the player to go through the game as an expert in combat, stealth, hacking, conversation, or some combination of the four, and beat the game his/her own way.
While I say that games can be used as storytelling devices, that is a little misleading. What I really mean is that games can be used to explore philosophies and concepts and give the player an environment in which he/she can discover the pros and cons of particular ideologies without causing any sort of real-world harm. If a game developer wished to do this, I would advise them to go for it, but to do his/her best to not insert their own biases into the game. The point is to let the players form their own opinions, not to feed them opinions. It is important to avoid veering into the unfortunate category of “propaganda”. For better or worse, games can be used as tools to learn and explore.