I was in London last week for NMK's Writing for Games Event and while the event was interesting in and of itself, it's also got me thinking about the relationship between narrative and game play. The panel was pretty cool, consisting of Katie Ellwood, (who worked on Getaway franchise), Steve Ince (who worked on the BAFTA nominated Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon), Adrian Hon and Naomi Alderman (who were both involved in Perplex City, an ARG, with Adrian as designer and producer and Naomi as a writer) and it was fascinating to hear about their different experiences. It did seem like the event was aimed more at people who were looking to break into the games industry as writers, such as Justin who I sat next too and had quite an interesting chat with afterwards. While becoming a games writer is not something I've ever really considered, I do feel I came away with a better idea about the part writing plays in the game design process.
There were a couple of things that struck me. One, was that most of the panel seemed to fall into the roles they had as a result of meeting the right person at the right time. It seems there is no direct or obvious career path, which is possibly why many writers have a background in fiction writing or TV and film. Two, was that the design process seems to very much depend on the team you find yourself in and that there can be a fair bit of tension between game designers and game writers. It was suggested that if you can get the design team and writing team to agree you're probably on to a very good thing but it also sounded like this could be quite hard to do in practice... Especially when the writing is usually seen as secondary to the game.
This seems kind of similar to the idea that narrative can get in the way of the game play. I've been playing GTA4 a bit recently, which I think I enjoy less than I should because I get bored at all the driving around you have to do (and I guess because I'm just not very good good at all that driving). But as usual, I tended to skip over the bits of the story. Maybe I'm just impatient, but I wanted to do something, not have to listen to Roman complain about his debts or go on about his girlfriend Mallorie. What's good is that you can skip these bits, and still know what you're supposed to be doing. However, it just might be possible that I'm just not taking them seriously enough. I mean I wanted to see what the game was like, but it's huge and I don't want to get sucked into playing it so maybe I avoid the story to avoid any further involvement? There are still plenty of games though were you feel like the story is getting in the way of your game play e.g. Trauma Centre: Second Opinion's endless storyboarding and the rather long intro scenes of Prince of Persia: Rival Swords for instance.
Ideally, there should be no conflict between the game story and the game play. One should inform the other, and any cut scenes you have to watch should be integral to the game itself, and to be fair, I think most games do aim for this. Arguably, the writing gives the game a context that makes playing it a richer experience. But games aren't movies intended for a passive audience - they are supposed to be interactive and maybe that's why gamers seem to resent extended cut scenes. There have been rumours that the latest Metal Gear Solid has 90 minute cut scenes in it, and while this is an exaggeration, without the passion for and knowledge of the series that some players have, I find it hard to imagine I could interpret this sort of thing as anything other than an incredibly lengthy intrusion into my game playing.
Maybe it's because writers in the games industry are using ideas from areas such as film and theatre and these just don't work as well when the goal is an interactive experience. I would think that this could be where a lot of educational games fail - I mean it would seem that the most likely place to introduce learning content would be the include it in the narrative, but if gamers skip over these bits, it's unlikely to be a very effective strategy. I doubt games will ever be able to deliver much content but they have other strengths. After reading books by people like James Paul Gee and Ian Bogost, I'm starting to think that what games do well is to provide you with a set of experiences, and if these are meaningful experiences, then maybe that's where the potential for learning through games lies. I guess the next thing to ask is what exactly is a meaningful experience and how can (or do) digital games provide them?