In honor of spending the next few days at PAX Dev and PAX Prime, I thought I’d go on a little rant on that which shapes everything I think about and everything I do: narrative.

The transcript of my presentation, “The Future of Video Game Narrative: Player, Agency, And Negative Space Storytelling,” can be read on Academia.edu

Story and the Future of Video Game Narrative

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Video games are the next step in the evolution of storytelling. But like the first fifty years of cinema, we have yet to crack the perfect form of game narrative. Each time we discover a new medium to tell stories we have to experiment with the best ways to use that medium. I have read articles that argue that we have reached peak evolution for video game narrative and that there will never be any quality game stories. I disagree; we just haven’t experimented enough because we are too hung up on trying to tell the story like we would in films. The birth of cinema saw the same problem: they were too stuck in trying to tell the story like they would on stage. But there is big difference between the most effective ways to present narrative in those mediums. So why are we still trying to tell a game story like a movie story?

One incredibly useful tool is negative space storytelling. Think of Hemmingway’s (alleged) famous six-word story: “for sale: baby shoes, never worn.” It tells an entire story, yes, but all the details are left to the reader’s imagination. And because it’s left to the imagination, it is all the more powerful. Each reader will rush to fill in that void with his or her deepest fears, complexes, and triggers. As a result the story is far more personal and far more influential.

My favorite example of this technique in video games is found in Titanfall. Several fans complained loudly about the lack of a story-driven campaign, but the game itself does not lack narrative. That can be found in the richly developed world where the players would do battle. In addition to the backstory about the tension between the IMC and Militia, the loading screen for each map has one little sentence about the area, explaining that it is an abandoned training facility, fuel station, wildlife repulsor testing facility, etc. My partner and I have spent hours exploring the details of the world around us, comparing maps, and coming up with complex world-and-culture-building theories that greatly improved our gameplay.

What most video game writers overlook is the inherent interactivity in the medium. So many games only give the illusion of control, but the choices the player makes rarely has any real impact on the direction of the story––or even have major consequences. Here we run into two problems that keep video game writing stymied: 1) We are limited by the development engines that serve to structure game storytelling. 2) We are trapped by semantics in the word “storytelling.” It keeps us thinking of story as something that the writer creates and the audience consumes. I have been using it thus far in the treatment of this subject, but it is one that makes me wince every time I use it. The phrase “interactive storytelling” is particularly painful because it is an oxymoron. A video game should be a part of “story making.” Fortunately there is already a word for that: mythopoesis. The making of a myth.

Interesting in hearing more? I presented on this topic at the 2016 conference for the Pop Culture Association / American Culture Association, held in Seattle on March 21-25. My panel, Understanding Game Narrative, will took place on Wednesday, March 23, at 11:30am. The link to download the paper is at the top of this post.