Video-game developers continue to search for the golden ratio of game play to storytelling.
My first video-gaming memories are clouded by Amnesia. That game, which comprised nothing more than white text on a black background, haunted me for years. My father bought it for the PC because he saw it on sale at Sears, brought it home, installed it via the command prompt, and then abandoned it. My brother had no use for it, either. They both played Microsoft’s Flight Simulator 3.0, for which we had purchased a joystick, and Tetris, which appeared on the home computer long before its popularity exploded on Nintendo’s handheld Game Boy.
Tetris and Flight Simulator were “real” games, you see. Push the buttons in a skillful way and you would win. You could trump your high score or perfect your landing at Meigs Field. But Amnesia was just a story, a playable story, and from a game-play standpoint it wasn’t even a particularly good one. Like most text-based games, it relied on commands like “eat pizza” (always a favorite of mine) to advance the plot, and like most poor text-based games, it didn’t recognize many of the commands that the player typed.
But it was atmospheric and moody—at points unforgettable, even if it was all about forgetting. You start by describing your facial features—then your character looks in the mirror only to discover that he looks nothing like that. Decades later, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain did the same thing after the character awoke in a hospital bed. Now, as then, it seems like a masterstroke of narrative control.
Then there was the “environment.” The game is set in New York, vast amounts of it. Some 4,000 Manhattan locations and 650 streets were modeled, with stores opening and closing, night coming and going, and so forth. It’s unclear why the designers at Electronic Arts went to such lengths—at any rate, the game play is so clunky that you’re forced to proceed along a more or less linear path anyway.
“It seems familiar,” wrote the developer Thomas Disch—who was, I’d discover years later, a poet, the author of The Brave Little Toaster, and the genius behind the sci-fi masterworks Camp Concentration and 334. “But only in the general way that a famous postcard is familiar. You don’t feel as though you BELONG in this city, as though you are a New Yorker.”
This was a story to play, an hours-long story at that—and at six years old stories were all I wanted.
In a 2011 piece for Grantland, Tom Bissell took umbrage with video games that, owing to nearly infinite Blu-Ray storage space for written and spoken dialogue, had become bloated with “expository narrative.” “The next Elder Scrolls game … would benefit from radical distillation,” he wrote, contrasting the vast Skyrim world with the streamlined and challenging Dark Souls, a notoriously difficult role-playing game that was sparse on story but heavy on atmospherics.
Bissell’s point came during a larger shift in game design. Big-budget games like Skyrim and Fallout would always be overstuffed with written content, the result of too many cooks scribbling their recipes into the voices of characters and in-game reading materials. Many in the industry, including the designer Jonathan Blow, viewed these AAA offerings as something entirely separate from games qua games.
Bissell attempted to offer a solution to the “Skyrim problem,” rooted in this understanding of game design. “Why,” he asked, “make every character a walking lore dump when lore can be more effectively embodied in the world and environments?” The world itself, in his opinion, was “gushing all manner of wonderfully implied lore.”
If one assumes Skyrim is first and foremost a game qua game—an experience like Street Fighter that demands certain finely tuned skills to win—then this makes sense. But Skyrim, like Fallout 4 and the recent Mass Effect: Andromeda, is a pretty boneheaded game—it’s not especially demanding to navigate its world. The chief function of its lore, for the child I was and the person I am now, is as a cure for loneliness. Because I never played games with my brother—eight years older than I am and thus always better at everything—I spent my formative years in the company of these interactive stories. Fantasy novels and comics seemed empty enough even then, though I read my share of them, but those same risible, clichéd plots, when chained to something that forced me to sit in front of the PC and click around with the mouse, took on an epic scope.
Roberta Williams, the developer of the software company Sierra On-Line, loomed large in my imagination. Given the push to remedy male overrepresentation in computer science, it’s a strange quirk of history that the best point-and-click adventure games—as interactive stories were known—came from Williams, a high fantasy bricoleur whose King’s Quest series combined lighthearted rearrangements of sword-and-sorcery tropes with puzzles and other challenges. “King’s Quest was a compendium of many of the most common fairy tales,” she explained in a 2006 interview. “It was really was nothing but a big fairy tale that someone could directly experience in a very interactive way instead of in the old passive way of books, movies, or oral tales.”
The game play was simple enough: you’d move the cursor around the screen and one of the heirs to the Kingdom of Daventry would follow your clicks, performing tasks and talking to people. Given their linearity, these games lacked replay value, but I revisited them anyway, because I attended what my oddball parents euphemistically called “home school” and thus possessed seemingly infinite time. I finished King’s Quest V a dozen times, and King’s Quest VI, arguably the best in the series, at least twice that many. King’s Quest VI raised the bar when it appeared in 1992: it had production values and, like many CD-ROM and even some 3.5″ floppy-disk games, boasted impressive casts of voice actors. Robby Benson, the voice of the Beast from Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast, lent his singular, troubled-good-guy sound to that game’s protagonist, while the character actor Tony Jay gave gravitas to a host of distinguished personages.
Games like King’s Quest VI marked the start of the narrative bloat that Bissell would complain about years later, but at the time I couldn’t get enough of it. The early 1990s were a boom time for point-and-click storytelling experiences. LucasArts, the software arm of George Lucas’s production company, churned out quality offerings such as Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max Hit the Road. Everything was in flux, with companies doubling down on oblique games like Myst, which had become an improbable best seller. Teams of programmers hurried to accomplish as much as they could with casts of eccentric characters and bizarre scripts limited only by the storage capacity of floppies, cartridges, and CD-ROMs. Developers were afforded the space to hammer out their stories Tin Pan Alley–style, without being crushed under the weight of four decades of game design orthodoxy and the expectations of a multibillion dollar industry. This was hackwork, to be sure, but like much of Irving Berlin’s hack songwriting, some of these games have stood the test of time.
In a recent interview about Day of the Tentacle—a charmingly comical game in which a trio of nerdy teens uses time-traveling Porta-Potties to vanquish a fascistic purple tentacle—the developer Dave Grossman recalled, “Nothing was in argument with the central aesthetic,” which had the vibrant, gonzo look of an indie cartoon. “It felt like all the parts were working together to create this thing. As a result, it’s stronger and better than it would’ve been if, say, it looked like a cartoon but was written like an Umberto Eco novel. The cohesiveness is a big part of it.”
For Williams and Grossman, that era favored creators over corporate profits, if only because no one knew how much computer games could earn and thus the financial stakes were significantly lower. “There is now too much of the same thing,” Williams complained, “and not much creativity put into today’s computer games because the publishers and marketers are afraid to go there.”
Once developers discovered how profitable games could be, their narrative strictures began to tighten. The King’s Quest series changed forever after King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride, a whimsical animated adventure in the style of LucasArts’ successful point-and-clicks. King’s Quest VIII, released four years later in 1998, was beset by controversy and control issues, with Roberta Williams’s vision curtailed by executives who pushed for the inclusion of sword-fighting mechanics that felt out of place in the King’s Quest series. Those games themselves were increasingly at odds with a new universe of adventure games, such as Metal Gear Solid and Tomb Raider, in which pointing and clicking had given way to button-mashed chokes and kicks. There were stories in these games, too, sometimes good or at least ridiculously overwrought, but the way players experienced these high-octane narratives was different: the storytelling filled in gaps between the action, instead of being the action.
As a historian, I’m obsessed with identifying slightly discernible shifts and fleeting moments of maybe. For me, the shift in interactive storytelling came between two installments of the popular Final Fantasy series: III (1994) and VII (1997). The former was a melancholic steampunk experience with a spare script translated from the Japanese; in it, the main character is a half-human girl who happens to be sad, confused, and the most powerful person in the world, only that world gets blown to bits halfway through. It was perfect from a storytelling standpoint, a game with brightly colored pixel art and beautiful Yoshitaka Amano concept illustrations, and I lived in it for thousands of hours—maybe longer. The script, as it turned out, was so spare because of space restrictions on the cartridge, and it contained a bunch of mistranslations, but that changed nothing: it was maybe the last story I loved in a naïve way, the last story where I could hide out and be myself, which in gaming terms meant being someone totally different.
Then came Final Fantasy VII, a game that’s much more renowned and yet much uglier, with bad 3D graphics, interminable load times, computer-generated cut scenes that have aged poorly, and a very bad English translation. Playstation’s success had normalized the role-playing game, in both its Japanese and American variants, and Final Fantasy VII benefited from this expanding audience. Lots of tweens and teens were now killing time this way, and this was the big, stupid interactive story that awaited them. I played it, played it until I could kill its ultimate bosses, but I don’t suppose I was ever the same again.
I still play the bulky interactive stories that developers put out today—still await their arrival as both a time-killing blessing and a time-killing curse. Mostly they’re terrible in conception and tolerable in execution: the pressures to create AAA-budgeted hits has meant that the protagonist is almost always an amoral hard-ass, gunning down his or her (usually his) fellow humanzees in the lawless, libertarian paradises that obtain in, say, Grand Theft Auto and Fallout. Or the hero’s an amoral imperialist, slaughtering aliens and fantasy creatures in the lands of Mass Effect and Skyrim. There are also precious indie trifles, like the point-and-click throwback Kentucky Route Zero, where the clicks accomplish nothing in terms of game play but the dialogue is smart and, my, how its designers can work a mood!
These are the games that claim my time. I’m reminded of the words of the children’s author Norton Juster: “time is a gift, given to give you the time you need, the time you need to have the time of your life.” I spend mine in the time-killing fields with, say, the boring bro-tastic imbecile heroes of Final Fantasy XV, a part of my mind always wandering from the flashing screen, wondering why there won’t be another The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask or Secret of Mana—something on a cartridge and thus not burdened with lengthy load times, something rendered in splashes of vivid primary colors, something that was almost but not quite the perfect fusion of gameplay and story. That golden ratio eludes us, but we may still find it. Maybe it’ll become some other little kid’s Final Fantasy III, the ne plus ultra of moving stories that also possess the power to move us, too.
“These things go in phases, but a good adventure story has timeless appeal,” Roberta Williams told Adventure Classic Gaming. “It just takes a good adventure-game designer working with a game company willing to go out on a ledge and support that designer and give them the desired tools to create such a game.”
Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist who lives in Pittsburgh.