As of right now, narrative in games is kind of going through a bit of a renaissance. Games like Bioshock Infinite, The Last of Us, and Grand Theft Auto V all made big splashes last year, and a big part of what made those games successful were their narratives. The Last of Us specifically had a narrative so engaging that it’s being adapted to a film.
As narrative in games continues to get better, I can’t help but start to wonder something…is this narrative renaissance a good thing for games? Does narrative even matter in games? For reasons I’ll explain shortly, I’m of the opinion that narrative can actually be destructive to games.
You see, to a very large degree, narrative is a non-interactive part of games. In the three examples I sited above, the narrative is told in a largely linear way, with choices by the player being either non-existent or largely irrelevant. What the player is left with is a cycle of gameplay followed by cut-scene, repeated ad nauseam.
The problem here isn’t that the story is bad, it’s that it covers up the part of games that makes them important. I loved Bioshock Infinite, but I loved it primarily for its story. The gameplay in that game is serviceable, but it’s certainly not spectacular. It draws an awful lot from its predecessors. It’s the story of Bioshock Infinite that makes it special. But you see, that’s a bad thing in a game. It’s a bad thing because if the best thing about an interactive game is its non-interactive story, then why am I playing it at all? Yes, I loved Bioshock Infinite. Would I have loved it just as much had it been a movie? I believe that I would have.
Great stories in games can actually harm the industry as a whole, too. Take the example of Bioshock Infinite again. The gameplay was widely viewed as the most lackluster part of that game, and yet it was on most 2013 game of the year lists. If the interactive part of the game is mediocre, why is it considered for game of the year?
Narrative can make a mediocre game seem better, or can make a well-made game seem worse, but both of those possibilities seem to cheapen the purpose of a game entirely. The point here is that games, by nature, are interactive, and as such should be measured primarily on their interactivity. Non-interactive narrative obfuscates the interactive nature of games to a degree that bad interactivity can be covered up, or good interactivity can be sullied by narrative.
Non-interactive narrative can be conveyed by many other means, be it television, film, or book. Interaction doesn’t have that luxury. Interaction must be played. As such, when non-interactive narrative encroaches on interaction, it diminishes the importance of interaction, and interaction is literally the only thing that separates video games from movies, TV, etc…
All of the above being said, I believe that there is still plenty of room for atmosphere in games. After all, without some type of atmosphere, all games might as well be a rule set with a bunch of gray cubes. Atmosphere gives purpose to interaction, and can help bring the world to life. Once again, using the example of Bioshock Infinite, the atmosphere of Columbia, completely separate from the overall narrative is absolutely gorgeous. It is truly a work of art, and something that adds a great deal to that overall experience.
The difference between atmosphere and narrative is that atmosphere is nothing more than a pallet of color, texture and geometry. It simply exists, allowing you as the player to interact with it in whatever way you decide. That huge mountain off in the distance; you as the player can choose to go explore that or not. Narrative on the other hand forces the player to explore the mountain because the non-interactive story dictates it.
Sure, narrative can be interactive, and in those cases I believe that narrative should be measured alongside equally with every other part of a game. But when narrative isn’t interactive – which is more often than not these days – I believe that its existence diminishes the importance of the only thing that makes games special, interaction.