Gears of War writer (gamewriter?) Susan O'Connor gave a speech on the GDC this year. Gamespot summed it up in three key points: Mirror neurons (players wanting what the characters want), throughlines (sounds like a theme+character arc kind of thing) and backstage storytelling (let the story go on in the background as you play). It's this last one that I don't agree with. It certainly works in GoW and plenty of other action games, but it's not THE way to write a game.
Storytelling shouldn't be the foreground, probably, but neither should it be the background. It should be the game. Granted, ludologists and narratologists alike have asserted that interactive storytelling is probably a contradiction in terms, but storytelling through gameplay has been done properly before. Fahrenheit comes to mind, or Blade Runner. Even Silent Hill, despite being a clssic online sequence/offline sequence game (i.e. "gameplay bit+story bit") managed to incorporate the action into the story.
And everybody always blames storytelling for the hardships of telling the story in a game, which is wrong. It's not all the storyteller's fault, it's the gameplay's fault, too. Take Gears itself. How can one create a truly interactive storyline when the only interaction the player can do in real time is shoot? There's no way. Games will become interactive stories when we start allowing game characters to interact with the world and characters in ways that are beyond physical struggle and destruction. You need characters to talk interactively, think interactively, feel interactively if at all possible. I have some high hopes for Mass Effect in this regard. I'll give O'Connor that the player should be playing while the story is going on, but he should be playing because he's an actor in the story, not because it's going on through background noise while the gamer shoots aliens in the face.
Let me give you an example of how this can happen in a clssic game format. I've mentioned Silent Hill, and this will be spoilers for SH2, so if you haven't played it and don't want it spoiled, stop reading (and go play it, it's a great game).
At the end of the game, Pyramid Head is revealed to be a representation of the main character's guilt over having killed his agonizing wife, cursing him to relive her death over and over again. You are given clues to this throughout the whole game, and when the main character finally realizes what's going on (a little after you, the player, do) there's a cutscene with the character accepting his guilt, then standing up and telling two Pyramid Heads "I don't need you anymore". Then the cutscene ends and, for the first time in the game, you are given the chance to kill the bastards who've been giving you hell for the last 8 hours or so. Then you face the ghost of your dead wife, who turns into a monstrous representation of herself tied to a bed. You take her out and she drops to the ground in pretty much the same position the agonizing wife was in the cutscenes. She calls out your name and the game leaves you no choice but to shoot her.
To me, this is one of the greatest narrative sequences in gaming, both for the reasons O'Connor mentions in her speech and for a couple different ones. Let's look at it in depth.
First, "mirror neurons" indeed. The designers give you an invincible monster and make you run away every time he appears in the game. Then a character develops internally, which gives him a tool to kill the monster, which is now revealed to be a representation of the character’s feelings. By the time that limitation is gone you want to shoot the things so bad that the final battle becomes incredibly climatic. You don’t only have to kill them to make the story go on and get to the ending, you *want* to kill them because you have a score to settle with the sword-wielding suckers, as a player. Granted, you can’t have every bad guy in games be a personification of the protagonist’s feelings, but that’s how it is in SH2, and it works beautifully. The fight becomes a meaningful turning point in the main character’s arc, solving a common problem in game narrative: The characters develop in non-interactive cutscenes, while the gameplay stays the same.
This concept is taken even further in the next sequence, where you don’t just feel the need for revenge. When you kill the final monster and the game drops it to the ground, leaving you no option but to shoot her point blank to end the game, they’re making you do something you don’t really want to do, effectively putting you in synch with the main character’s conflicting feelings. If this part was done in a cutscene it wouldn’t be half as strong. They’re making you pull the trigger. They’re making you not only interact, but act. Play the part.
That’s how it’s done. Not in cutscenes, though they work better than “backstage storytelling” most of the time, but in the gameplay itself. Acting during gameplay is best case scenario, the best place to put narrative in a game. Cutscenes are second in my book, then comes background story through sound bits or text.
O’Connor’s speech was actually a sample of what game writers currently think, at least in the west, so it was a sample of why game storytelling is awful overall. This is the baseline we need to rise in the future.