Last Saturday I had the distinct pleasure of giving a talk at Book Camp Toronto, an “un-conference” that was organized by Hugh McGuire. The main purpose was to discuss the present and future of books, and I offered to speak about my great love: using video games to tell a story.
My session was called “At the intersection of video game and narrative.” Knowing little about my audience except that they loved books, I opened with, “I know you may have been told that video games will rot your brain, but…”
I went on to talk about how games occupy a sort of cultural backwater, perhaps due to the stereotypes about the people who play them. I noted that games are often ignored wholesale by newspapers that offer sections on books, theatre, film, and music. And then I repeated the often-quoted statistic that games are now a bigger industry than Hollywood.
I talked about the wide variety of ways that people have attempted to tell stories using games, giving examples from interactive fiction, early adventure games, independent games (okay, just Braid), and first-person shooters. I explained how the tape recorders in Bioshock provided the player with a story that was rich, but optional. I ended by saying that it’s still a struggle to combine gameplay and narrative, and that we’re still a relatively young industry trying to figure things out.
And then, as per the un-conference format, I opened up the floor for 40 minutes of discussion. I was petrified. I looked out at the audience, about 50 strong, and noted the variety of ages and the 50-50 gender split. Did these people even play games? Had they wandered into my talk accidentally?
Nervously, I posed the question, “Have any of you even experienced an unexpectedly emotional response when playing a game?” After a few moments of silence, one man raised his hand. He talked about role-playing games (listing D&D as an example) and how the story and characters were really what made the game fun. A few others nodded. People began chiming in with examples of other beloved games. I started to relax. Nerdiness has this way of transcending genres.
One woman, who I believe was an author, talked about how she became completely absorbed with The Sims when it came out. Another woman who appeared to be my mother’s age told me how much fun she was having with this game called Portal. Some people hadn’t heard of it, so she explained how the game itself was fun, but there was also this sense of mystery that made you want to finish the game.
Next, a father of three told me that I was way ahead of the curve with my thinking (and I tried not to beam too much). He meant that it would be a huge breakthrough when the story could match the enjoyment of the game. He said, “My boys, when they play the DS, they just click through all the story stuff and head right for the game.”
Next, a UI designer who introduced himself only as “Rock” told me how his initial love of GTA4 had faded. He said that lately, he could only play half an hour at a time. When I asked him why, he said, “The game forces you to play as this character who is not always a good person. That’s not the kind of character I want to play, and I feel this sort of emotional conflict over it.”
Some of the audience wanted to know if there was a game that let you choose your “moral” path, and I had the joy of explaining the open world of Fallout 3 to them. A book editor from Toronto backed me up on that one, and let on just how many hours one could sink into that game.
Perhaps the most interesting account came from the representative of a major book publisher. He explained how the Little Sisters in Bioshock presented him with such an emotional conflict that he suddenly realized, “These games are our competition!” The audience seemed intrigued, so I explained that the Little Sisters were creatures could be harvested for a valuable resource, or rescued for a smaller amount of that resource. The moral catch was that they looked like real little girls, and maltreated ones at that.
Someone asked him, “Did it hit close to home for you?”
He replied, “Yeah, I have a two-and-a-half year-old daughter.”
I said, “The game does reward you if you do the ‘right’ thing. You get a really sweet ending. I actually cried a little bit.”
After a moment of pause, he said, “I won’t say what I did.”
There were a few more laughs after that, and I couldn’t help feeling like I’d stumbled upon something bigger. Nearly everyone in the audience was considered outside of the target demographic of the games industry, and yet the discussion kept up at a fast clip until we ran out of time.
On a closing note, I said, “I’m not sure what it all means yet, but I feel like it has something to do with games being an experiential medium, not just an interactive one. Friends will tell me, ‘I still remember the first time I beat that boss!’ and not, ‘I played a game where I beat that boss.’ And there are a lot of experiences that haven’t even been tried yet.”
And then, as everyone filed out for lunch and I was able to take a breath, I started feeling genuinely recharged and excited about all the potential in this medium. For the rest of the day, I felt extremely lucky whenever a fellow gamer came by to introduce themselves and ask about my game.