Narrative has become more and more important to the video game industry as technology has allowed developers to create bigger worlds or more accessible stories. So what does the future hold?
Amy Hennig stated plainly the narrative prerogative of video games. “How do we take the forms of narrative and media that we’re so familiar with, and deconstruct them and reconstruct them in an interactive context? That’s a game, right?”
It’s been a tough few years for pioneering game director Hennig, who left her position as creative director of Naughty Dog to work on Visceral Games’s planned Star Wars game. The game’s development appeared slow and a bit floundering before Visceral’s parent EA Games announced that it was shutting down the entire Visceral studio and Hennig’s game along with it.
Aborted Star Wars Project
Panel moderator Harold Goldberg phrased it even more drastically: “As game lovers, we’re all deprived of an awesome Star Wars story. Pundits began to talk about the death of first-person games. What would that work, playing that game, have shown us in terms of a new kind of narrative that you wanted to bring to it?”
Goldberg’s not wrong. After EA’s announcement in 2017, major gaming outlets buzzed with thinkpieces about what the end of first-person gaming could mean, perhaps as much out of wanting to capture the zeitgeist as out of genuine, founded concern. But Goldberg’s question posited something that Hennig seemed to refute.
“Well, look. I have a wheelhouse, right?” Hennig said, referring to her storytelling approach at the helm of Naughty Dog’s innovative Uncharted series. “If somebody hires me to make a Star Wars game, you can probably connect the dots. Like I said, I like to deconstruct narrative and genre, and [intellectual properties], as a matter of fact. Star Wars is a fascinating thing to deconstruct.”
“I don’t think it’s any secret, because I’ve said this on stage before: one of the things I want to push on is the sense of camaraderie with your nonplayer characters,” Hennig added. Her comments sounded even louder and more pointed after Bethesda’s Todd Howard announced that Fallout 76 won’t just be all online: there will be no NPCs. “Even though Indiana Jones has other characters around him, they’re side characters,” Hennig said. “In Star Wars, they are co-protagonists in an ensemble, therefore it allows you to push on the bounds of companion AI and cooperation with other characters within the game. The uncanny valley isn’t in rendering, it’s in AI. We can keep pushing the visual boundaries, but if we don’t conquer the AI boundaries, then it’s all smoke and mirrors.”
Goldberg underlined Hennig’s point: “Seeing pockmarks on people’s faces is nice, but it’s not narrative.”
The panel included Hennig, Giant Sparrow’s Ian Dallas (What Remains of Edith Finch), and former Silent Hill designer Sam Barlow (Her Story), each uniquely positioned to talk about where games are today and where they will go tomorrow. Dallas is almost a one-person show, reflecting on ideas and choosing to let a game’s mechanics propel his stories. Barlow’s Her Story gave even atypical “gamers” a way to explore a postmodern narrative on the portable device of their choosing. All three came back to themes of accessibility, early pulp fiction, and how genre convention and storytelling tropes heavily inform their narratives.
Inventing the Finches
Goldberg asked Dallas about his first game, Unfinished Swan, which told an elegant, figurative almost-fable in a minimal fantasy setting. “You made this great leap from fairytale-oriented Unfinished Swan to What Remains of Edith Finch, which is about deeper things and how we, as humans, feel about death,” Goldberg said. “Narratively, what did you want to do with story as you were working through Edith Finch?”
Dallas said his approach to stories at Giant Sparrow is not driven by questions of narrative: “They start from a kernel of experience. With Edith Finch, the experience was what I remembered, growing up scuba diving in Washington State; and seeing the ocean slope away into infinite darkness; and what it’s like to be in a place that’s simultaneously beautiful but also overwhelming. Ultimately, that became a game about the sublime. So all of our stories were ways of creating context for players to experience the sublime.”
Edith Finch follows a family over many, many years, and Dallas said his research included “a lot of stories from the 1920s, that predate what we think of as genre. They were narratives but they were very interesting, less formal versions of that. There were no vampires or werewolves. It’s more about this sense of the unknown.”
The early 1900s were the birth of many genre conventions, a time when most of “genre” was still called weird fiction or other euphemistic names for “none of the above.” It’s easy for modern readers to get sidetracked by the superstardom of someone like H.P. Lovecraft, who dominates our hindsight of this period but whose work is made stale and brackish by Lovecraft’s overt racism and xenophobia in general. Speculative-fiction monument China Mieville also loves to point to this time period in his research and his writing, and to other very early genre-bending stories like Herman Melville’s pre-postmodern masterpiece Moby-Dick. There is huge freedom in a time before the fences of genre were even erected.
Goldberg asked Dallas how he makes something emotionally moving as he writes. Dallas explained that writing is almost the last step in his team’s process. “I think about it like in the sport of curling: there’s the sweeper, who just moves ahead of [the stone]. That’s what the writing and explicit narrative does. It moves and edges along the feelings. A lot of that work is done for you by genre. It’s like setting the table, and what you actually put on top of it can come at the last minute. In some ways, it’s easier.”
Barlow used genre convention as a way to frame his hybrid interactive movie-game Her Story. “In every other medium, the police procedural or murder mystery is this evergreen genre. How do you do that in the video game space? I knew it was very easy to give you control of a character [and] drop you in an atmospheric 3D space. Sometimes it’s a crutch that we use, so I wanted to see what a game looked like if we removed that.”
When Goldberg asked the panel as a whole what inspires them now that will change their storytelling going forward, Barlow tapped into his background working on major studio games compared to his fresh independence going into development on Her Story. It used to be, Barlow said, that all games “have to be made, and gold-mastered, and put in a box, and put on a truck, and then driven across the United States to a store,” where a picky buyer might say no and void the entire development process and cost.
“With Her Story,” Barlow said, “it was amazing to find this whole other audience that existed. People will write to me and say, ‘I haven’t played a game in twenty years, and I played Her Story,’ or, ‘My daughter installed it on my iPhone for me.’ That was very exciting for me. One of my heroes is [film director Alfred] Hitchcock, and as much as he was a very strange, weird man who made very personal movies, these were movies that touched millions and millions of people.”
After the success of Her Story helped Barlow feel more secure as an indie developer, he said, he wanted to “continue to expand this audience who are not playing traditional games but really get the appeal of these interactive narratives.” For Her Story’s planned sequel, Barlow partnered with Annapurna Interactive, who also published Edith Finch, along with other nontraditional games like Flower and Florence. Annapurna is the games subsidiary of a film company of the same name. “Working with Annapurna gives me some of the experience that they bring from their movie side, it gives access to talent, really it’s a like-minded partner,” Barlow said. “Coming off of Her Story, I didn’t necessarily need to work with someone, but talking with Annapurna, everyone was very much on the same page.”
Dallas added, “Like-minded and absentminded,” and laughed. “They kinda stay out of the way a lot of the time.” He meant it as a compliment.
Goldberg talked about Barlow’s point that game audiences are growing far outside of what core gamers represent, especially as smartphones change how people interact with games, in a similar way to how the Nintendo Wii revolutionized the idea of casual or “family” gaming in 2006. Inevitably, a person who watches their partner or child play a game that catches their interest “is gonna wanna take the controller and try it out,” Goldberg said.
Widening the Circle
Hennig expanded on this point. “That’s my hope for the future of narrative,” she said. “We’re still kind of niche-y. And we find anecdotally that people who don’t consider themselves ‘gamers’ are attracted to what we’re making, but they have to discover it by accident or [from] the children or someone in their family who is a gamer.” So the problem, stated succinctly, is to take this happenstance and codify it. “What’s changing, that we can actually reach those people and have them want to participate in these interactive experiences, and make it accessible for them?”
She returned to Barlow’s comments about the supply chain as well. “We’re getting past the tyranny of brick and mortar and what that enforced on the games. One of our shared concerns” (she glanced at Dallas and Barlow for confirmation) “is that we’re still chasing this difficult goal of more and more content, and more length, and all the things that come with that. But once we have other means of getting content, like Netflix and Apple and Amazon, I think it changes the game. There’s gonna be a desire for interactive content that is not far removed from what people see on Netflix, but now they get to experience it.” Hennig also pointed out how not needing a controller removes a barrier for people who may find the idea of gaming intimidating but not when they can use a familiar device.
Barlow took the theme of the physical controller as an obstacle. “The thing with Her Story is that it snuck on people. They’re down with the device, and if you present them with something that doesn’t look terrifying, then there’s a genre [underneath that] you recognize. Genre is so important. If you’re asking me to put in a little bit of extra effort to interact, I need to know: what are the rules? What am I gonna get out of this? If I know that kind of swashbuckling, action-adventure genre, I’m like, ‘Oh, I get to do x, y, z!’ Then it’s [our job as creators] to make sure I can do x, y, z.”
Charting the Uncharted
Hennig’s career goes back thirty years, after she completed an English degree and dropped out of graduate film school to work in games. She has drawn, designed, and directed games for most of that time, and in envisioning the Uncharted series, she understood the logistical obstacles her concept faced at the time. Goldberg asked what the stumbling blocks were with Uncharted. “How long do we have?” Hennig said, laughing. “We were trying to invent something that really didn’t exist.” Her team had to design and build their game engine, and they needed the technical muscle to animate a hero who “seemed flawed and charming, and needed to just be in jeans and a t-shirt and have tousled hair, all things that were very hard to do at the time.”
And it was Hennig who spoke the most about penny dreadful stories from the early 20th century, the same fertile ground where newspaper comics, superhero comic books, and other comics like Mad Magazine began to sprout decades later. “They were cheap forms of entertainment that were about adventure, and pirates, and ghosts, and mysteries, and detectives, and criminals . . . so basically, Uncharted. I just ate all that stuff up and tried to figure out what the tropes were. Tropes are a good thing, by the way. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.”
Hennig said later that her career began in a very different climate: “When I joined the industry, it was all five-figure SGI workstations, and software that you had to have a license for that also cost tens of thousands of dollars.” Silicon Graphics manufactured high-powered specialty computer workstations, meaning dummy terminals that linked in huge and powerful networks, in Silicon Valley and for Silicon Valley. Founder Jim Clark later founded Netscape, which means he inadvertently appears in the final season of AMC’s ‘80s-tech-boom show Halt and Catch Fire.
Dallas weighed in about diverse representation in gaming with a similar point. “It’s a tough thing because, historically, to make a game required so many mathy and very logical-minded skills,” he said, using logical in the sense of circuitry and programming. “A lot of the reason we have [so many] games that are about systems interacting is because they’re made by nerdy white guys like me. Tools that are more expressive will make it a lot easier for people to get into the industry and create their own games.”
Hennig stated this more plainly: “The tools are at your fingertips now. That isn’t to dismiss economic barriers and things like that, but I’m looking forward to seeing more voices and more diversity because these things are more democratized.”
Barlow described sitting in boardrooms during meetings where executives criticized any character they felt didn’t look “right,” meaning majority representation of white, male viewpoints as the unified voice of gaming. “Things like the #MeToo movement hopefully mean it’s a lot more awkward to express those positions in boardrooms these days,” Barlow said. “The characters you can tell stories about in games has been so limited. The genres, the types of stories you can tell.”
“The hairstyles!” Dallas added, laughing, but with a serious meaning: It has been a low bar.
Dallas was the only panelist who shared names of games he has played and found memorable recently: Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and Last Guardian. “The most interesting NPC reaction I can recall in games [is] from Ico,” he said, “where an awkward, tall, prepubescent girl holds hands with a feisty kid. Even getting the basics for characters to run or climb ladders, you can spend your whole game development time getting ladder foot placement to be right! We’re at a point where we should be thinking about more interesting problems now.”
This comment feels prescient during an E3 conference where publishers and platforms have announced progressive character and story choices. I was reminded of a 2016 interview with YA novelist Rainbow Rowell about her same-sex wizard romance Carry On. “No, this is not some cheesy, will-they-won’t-they, subtext-y thing. That’s not a game I’m interested in playing. Don’t watch it for the subtext,” she said. “As a culture, we are ready for text.” As barriers fall in many mediums, perhaps we all grow more ready for text.