I just spent the weekend immersed in one of the best videogame stories I’ve ever watched: Dreamfall, the continuation of a three-part epic that began with 2000’s The Longest Journey. It had romance and tension, dumb jokes and mature drama, and quiet, tragic deaths—plus not one but several knuckle-chewing cliffhangers. And I was in awe of how well it told its story: Alongside the main plot, you learn about protagonist Zoë Castillo by clicking around her bedroom and talking to her friends; and peripheral storylines pass by without waiting for you to catch their significance.
At the same time, Dreamfall has a flaw: It isn’t much of a game. Unlike its predecessor, which was fiendishly complicated and took me weeks to beat (OK, cheat my way through), Dreamfall aims to keep players moving from scene to scene, and this means stripping away almost every puzzle until you’re left with a few tricky sequences surrounded by hours of dialogue and cut-scenes. By the end, I might as well have put down my Xbox controller and grabbed the popcorn and beer as I sat riveted through the story’s last scenes. But is that how an “interactive” game should work?
There’s a debate raging right now over how games should incorporate stories—and, specifically, how to balance the linear needs of plot and character with the changing, limitless worlds games promise. It crops up in the fight over Roger Ebert’s recent statement that games will never be art. (If a game can tell a story or “make you cry,” one argument goes, that’ll bring it closer to art; though Ebert, dude, didn’t you give a thumb-up to The Da Vinci Code?) The argument rages in academia, where opposing camps with wacky names like “ludologists” and “narratologists” battle over whether games are primarily a set of rules for the player to explore, or a story shaped by your actions. And the debate is going on in every game-design shop in the world, because even the people who make the games don’t know the answer.
Consider the difference between, say, movies and sports. In movies, we sit back and watch what the screenwriter and director do to the characters. But in sports, nobody dictates the story: Somebody sets up the rules, and you watch what the players do with them. Nothing in the rules of baseball says that the Red Sox would go 86 years between World Series, while their fans died a hundred deaths of hope and despair; that “story” just emerged from the way the players played the game. In the same way, we may enjoy the plot of a video game or grow attached to the characters, or dig the final cutscene where the villain’s secret jungle lair goes up in flames—but, more often, we remember the times we won a match in Soul Calibur III even though we were one punch from getting knocked out.
The best games guide the action without restricting it. For example, The Godfather and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion tell intricate stories, yet you can walk away from them anytime to do your own thing—rob banks, pick flowers, whatever suits the character you’re creating. Massively multiplayer online games constantly experiment with how much structure to give their players: should they write monthly storylines, the way The Matrix Online planned, or just dump everyone in a static, Disney-style theme park like World of Warcraft and leave them to make their own fun with it?
But confining players to a story isn’t always bad either, if you can make them believe in it. Even a game that’s “on rails”—i.e., that drags you in a straight line from start to the finish—engages by making us participate in the action and solve problems for the hero. The Longest Journey, like most adventure games, gives you no leeway in what happens or how the game ends. But after you’ve spent weeks making the game’s hero, April Ryan, check and recheck every inch of a room as you search for a clue to a puzzle, you really start to bond with her.
Even with the influx of Hollywood screenwriters, stifling plots, expensive cinematics and more-linear, movie-inspired content, games have found ingenious ways to balance plot with action, and to present what Sid Meier called “a series of meaningful choices” without letting “meaning” get in the way of “choice.” Of course they often blow it, especially with big-budget games where the script and cutscenes stifle the action. But the classics understand that we want to feel like we’re completely in charge. We expect an advancing plot, a satisfying ending and other characters in the game that affirm what we’re doing or fight to the death to stop us. We play games for the possibilities, but we enjoy them because they make us the hero. And in the end, we want the credit to go to us—not the screenwriter.