Storytelling in Gaming vs Storytelling in Literature Part 2
Perhaps the most surprising genre that isn’t largely represented in gaming is crime. Yes, criminal actions are frequently seen in games like GTA, but it may surprise you to know that there aren’t many games that are regarded as being crime fiction per se. In 2010, there was Heavy Rain, and then LA Noire the following year. Since then, however, Her Story is the only title that comes to mind.
It’s a strange omission when you think that crime has a lot to offer the war, science fiction, and fantasy-based stories in terms of action-based storytelling. The issue might well be found in finding ways to make the user feel like a detective: how can that user feel like he or she solved a crime when the games have largely been written. That was what made Her Story special: the fact that it was entirely based around clues and leaving the user to form an analysis and make a conclusion.
Literary fiction is tricky in that it’s famously hard to define at all. For years, there was no gaming equivalent, until in 2012 we welcomed Dear Esther. The game simply refused to assign any specific goals or tasks to the user, aside from making their way through a vague narrative. Some conventional players said that Dear Esther wasn’t an actual game. It even started a new genre called the ‘walking simulator’ genre, with is basically the equivalent to literary fiction: difficult to classify, exquisitely composed, often fascinating, frequently obtuse, and not keen on explaining itself.
It’s unusual for games to be a storytelling medium as they have a further genre definition, which relates to their mechanical design. The act of reading is always the same, no matter the content: the reader’s eyes scan the words on the page from beginning to end. The ability to read one book lends itself to reading any book- certainly with regards to the raw mechanics. A willingness or capacity to understand it, however, varies widely.
Mechanical approaches require various skillsets from the user, in terms of both interaction and navigation. This creates a conundrum for game designers: if a user is unable to use the viewpoint camera in a 1st-person game, it isn’t even relevant how much they enjoy the story because they won’t be able to access it. Therefore, selecting a mechanical genre in which to tell a narrative is vital. The core audience for Dear Esther may have lacked the patience required to negotiate advanced platforming. There have been narrative games that have tried to squeeze themselves into mechanical genres that weren’t appropriate, which force users to interact with systems they had no experience in or simply didn’t want.
Examples of this include Dreamfall’s failed bid to work combat into its puzzle stories, Grim Fandango’s ill-fated changing of the point-and-click adventure genre into a primitive 3D and 3rd-person viewpoint that only managed to place barriers between the content and core user audience.