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For our first SCAN Screen column, I thought it apt to break the ice on a form of entertainment that, despite nearly doubling the annual revenue of the film industry at £60 billion, very rarely gets major attention from the ‘artistic audience’: videogames.
One of the medium’s biggest drawbacks is how derivative it tends to be of other art-forms, particularly film – though literature was a heavier influence in its earlier days, with text-based games like Zork (1977), and has retained a subtle but momentous prominence with series like The Elder Scrolls (1994-2017).
The reason for this reliance on storytelling techniques common to film or literature is twofold: on one hand, games are a narrative medium so young that many designers naturally imitate movies and novels (i.e. the entertainment forms they grew up with) when telling a story. On the other hand, partly influenced by the massive growth of the industry from the 1990s onwards, film or literary storytelling conventions are adopted to appeal to a broader audience who may not have been interested in games themselves up until that point.
This trend has, however, recently seen a gradual reversal often lauded as a great improvement on videogame narratives, and which I personally believe to be the truest form of storytelling in videogames. What no other medium can match is the interactivity that videogames offer: storytelling in games should not, therefore, rely on the visual as films do or on writing as literature does, but on the immersion they can provide. The image that comes to mind is of Walt Disney animatedly introducing his ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ ride in 1967: R. Louis Stevenson may put the dream in your mind with Treasure Island and the Pirates film-franchise may offer you a window into it, but nothing compares to seeing that world come alive as a full-sized diorama for you to explore.
Videogames, at their finest, share this perk with theme-park rides. They needn’t narrate or show you the story when they can simply place you in it. This is often done through what has been commonly called ‘environmental storytelling’, but which I prefer to call seminal storytelling. A separation occurs between the storyline (the events that you experience as the player) and the actual plot (what the game is indeed about) of the game, the latter of which is exposed to the player in minute pieces of information found within the game’s world.
In full post-modernist fashion, these narratives are loosely structured and open to interpretation. Often, multiple readings of the plot give vastly deeper and varying perspectives of events (Michael Kirkbride’s writing for The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is a brilliant example of this), essentially fulfilling Roland Barthes’ promise when he wrote Death of the Author: with seminal storytelling, there are as many stories as there are readers.
At their best, videogames present an understated and so-far untapped potential for a revolution in the art of narration. But when did this come to be, and in what ways could this shape the way we tell stories? Join us in the next issue of SCAN with ‘The Infant Art: The First Fifty Days of Modern Gaming’ to find out!