From superheroes to soap operas: five ways video game stories are changing forever | Games

Ten years ago, there was a revolution in the way video games told stories. Games such as Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed and Yakuza began to combine freely explorable open-world environments with story missions and side quests, allowing players to drop in and out of the main plotlines as they wished – or abandon them altogether. The experience of playing narrative video games changed forever.

So where can we expect narrative games to go next? At the Celsius 232 festival, we sat down with five experienced narrative designers: Witcher 3 writer Jakub Szamałek, comic book and games writers Dan and Nik Abnett, Bungie narrative designer Margaret Stohl and Tom Jubert, writer of Faster Than Light and The Talos Principle.

Here are the five narrative design possibilities they told us to look out for.

Removing the interface

One of the biggest barriers to expanding the audience for narrative games is the interface. Game controllers, with their myriad buttons and sticks, are an intimidating mystery to many people. Jubert argues that narrative game designers should start to think about alternatives, such as using natural language processing. This would allow players to communicate with characters and guide the story using voice commands rather than button presses.

Jubert envisions a future where narrative games can be controlled by voice, where the player actually talks to non-player characters (NPCs). “It’s about taking what players say and turning it into feeling and intents and topics, and processing that as the input to the dialogue tree,” he says. “I really don’t think it can be overestimated how much of a change that’s going to make to the industry and the player base, because it would more or less be the only type of game my parents could play. That’s why the Wii was so big – anyone could pick it up and understand it.

“You could make a half-hour game where you’re just interrogating a suspect and because the dialogue tree is hidden from the player, they never really know how much of the story they’ve explored – it always feels like there’s something else to do. You could say, ‘well last time I played I was diplomatic, but now I’m going to be aggressive’.

“For most people who don’t play video games, it is down to the image and accessibility of the joypad and the keyboard and the mouse and the special hardware you need. The moment you can just download a game onto your phone and talk at it, and it talks back and it tells a whole story, and there are puzzles in there – a mystery story, a detective story – and you’re discovering something about the NPCs – that’s huge! It’s still on the cusp but that feels to me like the first step toward proper AI-driven dialogue generation.”

Introducing body language

Right now, stories rely heavily on character dialogue: non-player characters have to tell players how they feel. But with ongoing advances in performance capture technology, animation and visual detail, we’re approaching a point where subtle facial expressions and body language can come into play. In the future, players will have to read the non-verbal cues of characters.

“I’m excited about developments in animation and motion capture,” says Szamałek. “For me, it’s not just about making things visually impressive for the sake of it, but we’re able to convey so much more when we don’t have to just work with words to represent an interaction between characters. In Witcher 2, we had a very limited array of options for defining Geralt’s gestures so everything had to be spoken, whereas in Witcher 3, we could make Geralt roll his eyes or sigh or turn his back – and we found that in many scenes, we did not have to use many words to deliver the cinematic experience of people acting naturally.

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Subtle facial expressions and body language come into play … Witcher 3

LA Noire was a fascinating experiment in this regard. There was a huge disconnect between the faces and the bodies, they were not coordinated well, but it told us about what might come in the future. I’m really looking forward to that.”

Telling stories in more subtle ways

Most big narrative video games still stick to an ageing method of imparting story information. There are long cinematic cut-scenes that provide the main plot in a completely non-interactive way, accompanied by snippets of information – scrolls, emails, holographic video projections – scattered around the world, which allow players to catch up on lore.

The next step in narrative design will be to find alternatives to these rigid conventions. One possibility is AI-driven reactive systems, which allow story details to emerge in more spontaneous ways: the game learns from the player and delivers the story when, where and how it works for them.

“I can image a day when it’s not a matter of ‘if you go into room 74 and open the bottom drawer you will find the scroll that will tell you the secret history of the princess’,” says Nik Abnett. “Instead, you will have an intelligent game that will decide when the best moment is for that particular player to have another character stand beside them and whisper something related to the lore. The game engine will develop a sense of dramatic control, so, despite the variables of how fast or slow or differently people play it, at the appropriate moments these things happen organically.”

Szamałek believes that, as the graphical fidelity and physical authenticity of worlds increases, narrative games will start to use objects and items much more intricately. “Another thing I really liked in LA Noire is that you could pick something up, twist it and look at it from different angles,” he says. “My training is in archeology, and I loved working with artefacts. There are so many stories you can pack into a mute object and I think it’s somewhat of a lost opportunity that in most games objects are just there – you don’t get to work with them.

“A few games try to do this. In Gone Home, there is a mystery to solve and there are plenty of objects – you can pick them up and try to figure out how they are relevant. It was one of the very few games where I actually felt like a detective – the ability to look closely at objects left behind by the characters really added an extra complexity to it.”

Jubert agrees: “This is how the real world works. You pick up a thing and you look at it. What always strikes me is how much money and time we spend creating these incredibly detailed environments and then we use them for nothing.”

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The game design panel at the Celsius 232 festival. From left: festival organiser Diego García Cruz, Keith Stuart, Jakub Szamałek, Spanish game designer Ángel Luis Sucasas, Margaret Stohl, Tom Jubert and Dan Abnett. Photograph: Celsius

Learning about long-running stories

Narrative video games are transforming from sequences of discrete, self-contained adventures – as in the Uncharted series – to live, ongoing adventures where new content is continually plugged in, such as Destiny, DayZ and massive multiplayer titles including World of Warcraft. Narrative designers will have to learn how to tell stories that continue to evolve over months and even years.

Dan Abnett points to comic book writing as a good model for this. “Comics are an incredibly hungry industry, you have to keep feeding the interest,” he says. “With ongoing books for the US, I will often map out eight to 12 months of what I’m doing, and as I begin to work through that process, I’m always adding a month or two’s worth of story onto the end so you know where you’re going – and that story is being generated by what you’re doing now. You think, oh, I could put that in now and come back to it – you don’t need to immediately know what it’s for.

“This is something from the Guardians of the Galaxy comic. I would often just put fun little things in as I went along – a shadowy character here, or a mysterious moment there – and I didn’t necessarily know where it was leading. But later, when I reached that inevitable point where I had to generate a fresh start or new stories, I could go back and I had strands that could be picked up again. In comics, you make the stories adhesive so that any point you can connect them together without it looking forced, and I think games could learn an awful lot from that.

“It’s a devious strategy that is also used in long ongoing soap operas. A great deal can be learned from Eastenders and The Archers because they’re constantly putting in what appear to be trivial and redundant incidents that could well be explored later. Games have always included interesting things to find, but it’s usually done purposefully with a specific pay-off later on. I don’t think they’ve ever done it with a view to the long term question mark of what the game might be.”

Connecting people in a truly global way

Violence remains central to major narrative video games, both in terms of game mechanics and social interactions. The designers we spoke to all saw a future where that wasn’t necessarily the case. “I think the biggest challenge for triple-A video games is to come up with satisfying gameplay mechanics that aren’t about hitting people, or goblins, or dinosaurs, or transformers,” says Szamałek. “I think it’s the biggest challenge that we in the industry face.”

Stohl concedes that Destiny is a shooting game, but points to the richness of its social interactions as a positive step forward. “I worry that our whole culture is drifting into isolated people in rooms with synthetic AI experiences,” she says. “I love what Bungie has done with the social culture around games: meet your friends and raid. I love that they actually make people speak to each other online – I love the human narratives of the experience.”

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‘Meet your friends and raid’ … Destiny 2: Forsaken. Photograph: Activision

She sees a future where in-game social interaction is about more than agreeing tactics or shouting out commands. “I read somewhere that most of the world identifies as incredibly lonely. I think about that all the time,” she says. “I’m always thinking in terms of connection and isolation. We need to think about whether we can mechanically support other interactions, because really that’s what killing and shooting are in video games – they’re about connecting in some way. So what are those other connections? Will it be sex? That will require a lot of mo-cap! But we do have to think about human connections. People don’t think of video games as emotionally progressive, but as online communities thrive around them, that’s a chance to be part of something.”

Stohl also thinks that game developers must learn from Netflix and start targeting a global audience. There are very few genuinely global hits in the games business; games that are successful in Japan and the west can be totally different from those most popular in China or India. Harnessing all those audiences is the next step for triple-A development.

“I’d like to see what a game looks like if it was really built for a global culture,” says Stohl. “I do believe that the next Harry Potter will come from games – there’s a global captive audience. But world builders have to consider what they’re building the story for, what the player is going to want from it and how they’re going to use it, and that becomes incredibly complicated when you think about a global market. What does a hero look like in India? Or China? What are the truly important narratives? How will the experience you’re handing off to the global market be perceived? Because it won’t be perceived in the same ways in all corners.

“No one’s cracked that yet. It’s the hardest challenge the industry faces and the stakes are high.”

  • Our thanks to the Celsius 232 Festival of sci-fi and fantasy, which takes place every July in Avilés, Spain.

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