What makes video games different from all the art that has come before it? Paintings make better visual art and books can tell a story very well. Theater can act the story out with breathtaking clarity. A live music performance can be better than even the best game soundtrack, and movies beautifully combine all of these elements into one package. So what do video games do differently? It's simple, games are interactive. Video games can tell a story, but they tell your story.
So why is it that the only art on the planet that can interact with you increasingly decides not to?
Now when I say "your" story, I don't mean the story of how an average guy or gal sits on their couch playing video games for several hours. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure it's a riveting tale and I can't wait to find out what happens after your spouse tells you to take out the garbage, but it's just not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about that little bundle of pixels on your screen that acts out your story. Frequently though, that story has very little to do with you. Instead, you get to sit back and watch while the developer's story unfolds.
Knights of the Old Republic is a perfect example. You can affect the story, but you're limited to two choices, light side or dark side. It's a binary choice, and a very confined one at that. Why can't I choose something with some more shades of gray? What if I don't want to be evil, or good? Then I guess I'm out of luck. Choosing between extremes is boring. I don't want games to just ask me to go "left" or "right", I want them to ask me "where you do want to go"?
Why can't we get that kind of experience with single player games? With most games, I'm still playing as a character in someone else's story. Why can't I make my own story? The main problem is that most games are designed around static content. An artist sits down and lays out the content for the game. That content, once it's burned to disc, rarely changes. The artists simply can't keep changing the world, it costs too much because each pixel is laid out by hand. And since everything is laid out statically by hand you can't play your story, you can only play their story.
Gaming, growing up in the shadow of Hollywood, has developed an inferiority complex when it comes to storytelling. People who don't play games try to understand games the way they understand movies, they try to find a plot. They ask questions like, "So tell me, what's this game about, anyway?" When the story is affected by the player, how can you answer that question? The spy doesn't slip the lipstick into his date's purse every time. Sometimes, he steals the purse. Occasionally, he kills everyone in a 30 block radius then jacks a Ferrari to drive it off a cliff.
Game developers though, have to answer that question day in and day out for the majority of their career. Not only do the publishers ask this question constantly, but the customers who buy the games ask too. And those are the people who write the developer's paychecks. So from a combination of market pressures and publisher prodding, games start getting stories just like movies. They start getting screenplays and cutscenes. In other words, they get very linear. All that leaves us with is a really poor imitation of movies, and books, and every other form of art that tries to tell us a story. And that's precisely my problem. Games are about my story!
In contrast, when I'm playing a multi player game, it's my story because my character is uniquely mine. I create how my character looks, I name my character, and I'm connected with several other people who have done the same. There is usually no character in a multi player game that is static. Every time I play, each character in the world is different, and what's more important is that every time I play I'm different too. All the characters are different and therefore the game world itself changes with each play. The game world reacts to me realistically because it's real people reacting to my decisions and with each reaction it's telling a story. A story that is uniquely about me. I can really call the story of my multi player game mine, it's written about my actions while I'm playing.
Anyone who has played Dwarf Fortress should now be nodding their head, maybe letting a heartfelt "Amen" out once in a while. Dwarf Fortress is a single player game in which the world is generated for each person uniquely, with it's own monsters, perils and history. Then, as the player progresses through the game, they write their own history using their Dwarves, which react to their actions in a rather sophisticated manner. Generated content allows Dwarf Fortress to not only present a unique world to every player, but it lets the game world react meaningfully to the player's actions. Dwarf Fortress is an example of a game that truly tells my story while I play.
The Hollywood mentality isn't present in Dwarf Fortress. In fact it's the exact opposite. The game is built around dynamic content. It's more of a simulation than a set of static objects to run through, more sandbox than roller coaster. More importantly, the game design isn't centered around a story written by someone trying to be a screenwriter. It's designed to let the player write their own history, not to force them down a path where they relive the game designer's history.
When a developer forces a game to tell their story, they're short-changing the art. It may be a popular game, but it's popular despite it's linearity, not because of it. Linear storylines take away everything that makes gaming unique. If you have artists lay out every pixel by hand, they might as well frame it and put it on a wall for all the good it does me. At that point, I'm just looking, I'm not playing.
For all my complaining, if you look about the most popular games in the last few years you'll see a fairly optimistic trend. Oblivion, World of Warcraft and even the ancient Grand Theft Auto III were all monstrous commercial successes. And the clear trend I see among all of them is that they let the player decide their own story. None of them had a long linear storyline with tons of cutscenes. They all had a fresh, vibrant world that was always changing, because you could jump right in and start changing it yourself. In the end, games like this are the reason I come back to gaming again and again. Not because of the graphics or the cutscenes, but because games are the only form of art that let me tell my story.