The New Storytellers: How great writers are creating compelling games

the-day-the-laughter-stopped

In an industry where collaboration has long been seen as a necessity, what does it mean when anybody who can write can make games?

Videogame writing has come a long way in the last couple of decades. The ability to fit more content into games has meant that video game stories are not limited to simple “save the princess” tales, but instead are now able to tell complex, multifaceted epics, with multiple outcomes based on the decisions of the player-protagonist.

Today, you would be hard-pressed to find many AAA games that didn’t at least try to include some form of engaging storyline beneath the layers of action and gameplay. However, what would it mean for a game to be stripped of almost everything except story? There are games now, mostly free to play online or download, which consist of little more than written word and just enough programming to allow the player to choose between a few decisions. These aren’t browser-based RPGs meant to be played over a period of time, but rather brief, contained stories, reminiscent of those old choose-your-own-adventure paperbacks, albeit often with much more serious themes. There is even software, such as the hypertext game creation tool Twine, which allows writers with little to no programming skill to create these games, free of charge. Though most of these games are currently created and shared among a relatively small community, they could potentially have some very interesting implications for how we use and view games.

First of all, there is the obvious factor that these games that have been stripped down to the barest components of writing and basic programming. They do not require huge studios and development teams and can be created by anyone with a computer, without the baggage and restraints of publishers. This allows an incredible amount of freedom on the part of the game’s writer(s). The content and message of the game is only limited by the creator’s skill as a writer and designer.

This opens up a huge variety of potential plotlines and themes that would normally be deemed too risky, personal, or unmarketable by big name studios, and probably some indie developers too. For example, take the game The Day The Laughter Stopped. The game is two-man Hypnotic Owl’s simple, very brief response to the Ludum Dare (a competition to see who can make the best game in 48 hours) prompt “You only get one.” The “gameplay” is simple. You get text segments which form a story and you are presented with two options to move the story forward from one segment to the next. The game only takes 15 minutes at the very most to complete and I will be discussing spoilers, so I would recommend that you give it a go, with the stipulation that the game does come with a trigger warning and if this gives you pause, you might want to sit this one out. The game does get into some pretty heavy stuff.

By this paragraph, I will be assuming that if you wanted to play the game, you would have done so by now, so spoiler warning is now in effect. If you’ve played the game, you can see that it tackles a very sensitive and personal topic. I would argue that this is possible not despite the simplicity of the presentation and gameplay but because of it.

A game like The Day The Laughter Stopped, just white text on a black background, written and programmed in just 48 hours, carries almost no risk in terms of resources to create. It doesn’t matter if the message is appealing or alienating – if the game isn’t popular, the creators have not wasted a significant amount of money or time. However, if the game was a large group effort that required money for employees, art assets, and expensive software, then it would become an imperative that the game is successful enough for the creators to at least break even. However paradoxical it may seem, the bigger a game becomes in terms of complexity, the more restricted it can become in terms of the subject matter with which it can grapple. And because many game developers and publishers are accustomed to marketing to what is seen as the “safe” market of young, heterosexual, often white men, AAA games can sometimes seem rather homogenous in their characters and storylines. But get rid of the risk involved in big AAA projects, and it no longer matters what market is “safe” – games can be made to appeal to whoever the creator chooses.

Meritt Kopas, a Twine developer whose games deal with themes like gender and sexuality, explained in a 2013 interview with The Guardian, “For most of my adult life I had assumed that first of all there were no games being made by individual people, and specifically that there were no games being made by queer people for queer people. So finding out that that was something people could do and were doing was incredibly exciting… Someone can just make a game like they would make a poem or a sketch… A game that’s a sketch. That’s really powerful.”

Not only does the lack of risk allow for more potential points of view and a wider variety of subject matter, but also new ways of presenting both. For example, critically-acclaimed Twine game Howling Dogs by developer Porpentine tells its story through a description of several rooms, which change day to day. There is very little emphasis on the character of the player-protagonist and much more on the atmosphere of the game. The game is subtle and unsettling and the bleakness of the presentation is part of that. Fancy graphics and more complex gameplay would likely distract from the writing and the tone it imparts.

Another example can once again be seen in The Day The Laughter Stopped (spoiler warning once again in effect). I know I can’t be the only player who felt a creeping sense of horror when “decisions” became unclickable, but it did demonstrate an interesting point; when a game is so restricted in terms of presentation, developers can come up with some pretty clever methods in order to communicate things like the sensation of being overpowered. As game mechanics, these examples may not seem all that exciting, but as new ways of telling written stories, I do think they’re intriguing, particularly in this age where so much literature is consumed electronically, through devices like Kindles and iPads. Imagine if software like Twine caught on in literary circles – any writer could make their story seamlessly interactive and immersive.

Recent years have seen gamers become more and more interested in video games as a storytelling medium. We have immensely popular games like The Walking Dead where the primary appeal is making decisions and influencing the plot. We have games getting Oscar-bait trailers on TV (I’m talking about you, Beyond Two Souls), and franchises like Borderlands, a series known mainly for its FPS gameplay is getting the story-based treatment with Telltale’s upcoming Tales From The Borderlands.

Does this mean that games such as the ones created on Twine will soon be marketable to gamers? In my opinion, probably not. For one, most of these stripped down games are short and meant to be experienced in a single-sitting; even if the games had replay value, it would still be difficult to stretch the time enough to where it would be reasonable to put a price tag on it. And of course, there is the obvious barrier of it being difficult to market games with such simple presentation to an audience accustomed to games being a very visual medium. However, I don’t feel the marketability of these games is necessarily the point of their existence. What is more interesting about these games is that they challenge the idea that video games have to be big, time-consuming projects that require a specific set of skills. Instead, their simplicity and ease of creation means that video games can be created by anyone and can be used to communicate almost any message, to any purpose.

The purpose can be to educate the player on the horror of a prevalent, yet taboo subject, like The Day The Laughter Stopped, or the purpose can simply be to tell a story that other media would not be as well suited to tell. What is interesting about these games is not that they’re about to take the games industry by storm or explode in popularity, but perhaps the opposite; now that games can be as easy to create as a passed note, they can be just as personal as well.

GameStop, Inc.

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  1. The Day The Laughter Stopped is a pretty sobering experience, but a great example of the form. Check out twinery.org for more examples, some good stuff there.