Friday, 19 March 2010

Opening the Box

As I said in my introduction to my interview with David J. Williams (game writer and novelist), I've become fascinated by storytelling through the medium of computer games. Unsurprisingly, being an MMO junkie, I want above all to look at the state of storytelling in MMOs, which present tremendous obstacles for writers, but also really exciting possibilities.

There are a lot of assumptions to examine along the way. What are we talking about when we talk about stories, and games, and narrative, and play? What are designers trying to achieve, and what are gamers looking for, and are they the same thing? It's a rich field in every sense, what with the games industry having been widely reported in 2009 as having overtaken Hollywood as the biggest sector of the entertainment market.

The recent feature on The Culture Show I linked to last week thrust forth the assertion that games are an art form about to blossom into maturity. Computer-mediated narrative has allegedly been on the cusp of this maturation for at least thirteen years: one of the major arguments made by Janet H. Murray in her book Hamlet on the Holodeck, a seminal book on the subject published in 1997, is that computers are simply awaiting their 'digital Homer'; a bard who, having been immersed in the possibilities of digital storytelling, can fully exploit the medium to tell compelling tales to the eager masses. However, there are still plenty of voices proclaiming that the games we have played to date are in a state of arrested development, with thin, cliché-driven storylines written and consumed by people more interested in boobs 'n' bombs than in casting light on the human condition.

I'll be arguing that point, starting from first principles. I'll be looking at the history of computer games, and attempting, in a very basic way, to connect actual games development with the theoretical literature on narrative, play and the interaction between the two. I want to try to make sense of the criticisms of game stories, both from the point of view of those clamouring for stories with more depth, and those dismissing the idea of games as art as inappropriate, wide of the point. Eventually I hope to come up with a useful assessment of progress to date, and an analysis of the specific hows and whys of satisfying story-like experiences in games, and, finally, how (and if!) all this can be brought to bear to make MMOs more emotionally engaging for players.

Along the way there'll be much talk of magic circles, make-believe and emergent narrative. I'll be including more thoughts from folks in the industry, and gamers of various stripes.

I have plenty of opinions about what's got to happen to make games better, but I'm expecting to have at least half of those turned on their little pointy heads as I solve the puzzles of this unfolding adventure.

No comments: