Generation Active: What Can Video Games Tell Us About the Future of Narratives?

I want to make a promise to the readers of LitReactor: I, John Jarzemsky, hereby solemnly swear that my next column will not involve technology, and how it will or will not affect the worlds of books and storytelling. I also promise that I’m not a robot hell-bent on making The Matrix into a reality.

Now that we have that out of the way, I have a few things on my mind: namely, the difference between active and passive narratives, and how they are most often dictated by medium. To clarify, when I say “passive” and “active” I’m referring to the level of agency and involvement afforded to the consumer of a particular narrative. Nearly all narratives fall within the former camp. Be they films, novels, plays or television shows, most media takes the form of a passive narrative: the storyteller tells his story, and the audience listens. His or her reactions to the story have no bearing on the work itself. It was only very recently that active narratives began to enter the collective consciousness in the form of video games.

Heavy Rain is what got me thinking about this (I know I'm late to the party, bear with me). Like many of their peers, the designers of this particular title started with the notion that they wanted to craft a narrative experience that hinged on choices made by the player. While I would argue that Heavy Rain leaves its peers behind in terms of execution, the basic conceit has been alive in the gaming world for a few years now: players are intermittently faced with different choices that have rippling effects on the game’s branching storyline. In theory, this means that any two people who play the game are likely to have completely different experiences, and that anyone should be able to replay the game a number of times, receiving a varied story each time. Practically speaking, the results tend to be a little more clunky, but Heavy Rain is perhaps the closest thing to a playable film noir that is currently available.

With a few exceptions, nearly all other forms of media have steered clear of giving the audience such agency. I’ve been wracking my brain for examples of active narratives outside the medium of video games, and I can only come up with a scant few. Certain forms of live theater use audience participation to change the final outcome of a staged production. There was a brief period in the 1990s when the idea of “graphic adventures” was on everybody’s minds, although these seem laughably bad in hindsight (one example, Dragon’s Lair, constitutes one third of all video games present in The Smithsonian), and despite the use of full-motion-video sequences, they tended to be lumped into the “game” category of entertainment. The closest thing we have in television is the avalanche of “reality competition” shows that hinge on audience voting, although this is a big stretch, since there isn’t really a “narrative” as much as there is “drama”, and it’s impossible to verify the degree to which the audience’s choices are being consciously or subconsciously manipulated. In the world of literature, the only thing that springs to mind are the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books, and these are targeted exclusively towards children.

Could it be that the very notion of an “active” narrative is considered juvenile and artistically irrelevant in and of itself? Video games, despite having advanced leaps and bounds in terms of both content and presentation, are still not considered “art” by the mainstream media (see Roger Ebert’s fire-starting article, in which he incorrectly uses the term “art” as a signifier of quality), and in the minds of most, are considered little more than a hobby of overgrown children. Ebert’s arguments notwithstanding, it seems that the very notion of inviting the audience to be a part of the craft negates a narrative’s importance in the minds of certain critics.  Those who deride the relatively poor and simplistic dialogue, stories, and characters in video games often unfairly overlook the inherent challenge present in attempting to tell a story that is at once engaging and simultaneously modifiable, not to mention the fact that the medium by which game narratives are delivered is constantly changing. If publishing houses were consistently one-upping each other with a new way to present books every two years or so, you can bet that the world of novels wouldn’t be nearly as complex. For the time being though, let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine a work of near unimpeachable quality, like Citizen Kane or The Great Gatsby or The Wire, and imagine that when it was first completed, instead of being a stand-alone, start to finish passive narrative, it sprang into being as a branching, multi-faceted story with different endings available. Imagine that the quality of writing, the richness of the characters, and the quality of the prose hadn’t changed a bit (I realize this may be difficult), but there was only more of the work to explore each time you consumed it. Would the public still regard these pieces of art as favorably, or would the very notion of allowing audience members to influence the unfolding of narrative events taint the work forever?

Perhaps the more important question to ask is this: given the pace of technology and the tide of public opinion, is this the direction that all narratives are eventually headed towards? Design by committee tends to yield unmitigated crap, but if recent trends are any indication, consumers are feeling more and more empowered by technology, and it’s not altogether far-fetched to imagine that the public’s demand for involvement will spill over into the world of storytelling. In a sense, Hollywood has been listening more and more to the demands of its audience over the years (somewhat paradoxically, or maybe predictably, nearly everybody I know tends to agree that most movies nowadays are terrible). Snakes on a Plane comes to mind, as does the abominable X-men 3: The Last Stand (“I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!”). It’s still not the norm, but as time goes on, more and more producers and show runners seem to be going back to the age-old adage of “give the people what they want”. Lost had a very prominent feedback loop going in its heyday. That show’s fan base was so loud and strong I remember discussing it in more than one media studies class, and it’s pretty hard to argue that the series wouldn’t have been radically different if nobody who was involved in its creation or consumption had access to the internet, but I’m beginning to digress.

If this indeed is the place that popular entertainment is heading, what does the future hold for books? As recently as five years ago, I would have said that it was hard to imagine books embracing (or being ensnared by, depending on how you look at it) this kind of novel approach to storytelling, but with the advent of the eReader, it seems less than impossible, and maybe even downright likely. Even in their current rudimentary form, it seems like an easy leap to reinvent the “choose your own adventure” line of books into something more adult and contemporary by way of eReaders. The most pressing related question is, will authors be interested in embracing this new storytelling medium? It’s hard to imagine somebody like Cormac McCarthy writing a multi-branched eBook and selling it exclusively on the Internet, but given the pace of current events, the tactics publishers are using to react to technology, and the rate of success that unknowns are having with self-publishing online, it’s more than likely that the next generation of authors who achieve the same literary status as McCarthy (or any other semi-household author) will do so via less traditional methods. And, if audiences continue to want a larger say in the creation/execution of the art they consume, then an altogether new class of writer may very well emerge.

Make no mistakes: this is all very speculative. However, in the current age of RSS feeds, iPads, eReaders, and “games” resembling playable films more and more each year, it’s no exaggeration to say we’re living in the Star Trek era, and the Holodeck is definitely on the horizon. The question is, what role will human beings (you know, the folks who brought you everything) play in all of this, and how do we want to proceed?

John Jarzemsky

Column by John Jarzemsky

John is a freelance writer who has been with LitReactor since the days of its halcyon youth. You can check out John's blog, the poorly titled Super Roller Disco Monkey Hullabaloo!, for other reviews, random musings, and ill-thought out rants. He was recently published in Bushwick Nightz, a collection of short stories about the Brooklyn neighborhood in which he resides.

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aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. December 13, 2011 - 8:36am

I like the idea of everything having multiple endings and different possible outcomes but it would also be a little frustrating if you kept getting the same ending so I guess you would have to make all endings available to someone once they finish it the first time.  Plus there is a mindset of people out there who like one definitive reality, some people are very OCD about the fact that there should be one definitive timeline in any story.  For instance, imagine if you went to a movie where it was all "choose your own adventure" and the audience had to vote on what steps the character in the film would take and it would lead to the next set of scenes and then another series of endings.  What if the audience was filled with morons AKA Twihards?  The vampires would always ending up sparkling.  Then people would ask for their money back.  That being said, I think you could have people play a video game that leads to different endings but once you complete the game, you can pick up from the "forked path in the road" and get to those alternate endings without having to start from the beginning again.   The problem with books is that it's hard to develop characters you can really care about take seriously if they just become props for a choose your own adventure scenario where the plot drives the story and not character.  Usually if you make the wrong decision, you end up eaten by snakes on the next page but I suppose you would always enter the tunnel, get bitten by snakes and be resurrected by a voodoo priest.  Although it would be nice to watch Twilight and kill Bella or Edward or make the actors clothes fall off when the acting is bad.  I see this Choose your Own Adventure thing being very popular with pornography, imagine all the possibilities and the orifices.  What was I talking about again?

Oh yeah, I think it's a good idea in theory.  I know some bizarro writers have done adult choose your own adventure books but I haven't read them.  I'm not really huge on gross out humor.  I think these Choose your own Adventure things would be great for IMAX theatre presentations or shows at amusement parks in virtual reality rooms because they are shorter and more finite plus it would make people want to come back to see another ending.  Hence, more money making but I don't see people spending 13 dollars a pop to go to the movies to possibly see a different ending to the new Avengers movie unless it involves Ultron blowing up the Earth.  I already get a headache from RPG games that can last 10 million hours because you can go on side quests and have sex with elves and stuff.  It's a cool idea though.

Kirk's picture
Kirk from Pingree Grove, IL is reading The Book Of The New Sun December 13, 2011 - 8:44am

Great article, John.

I think that, in terms of technology, we are reaching a point where narrative is about to make a huge change. As you point out, most forms of media as passive and I would argue that most games are as well, including Heavy Rain. Sure, the player gets to make choices, but ultimately, you're playing a 'choose your own adventure' that was hand crafted by a writer. 

Where I think we're headed is towards a truly active story telling experience. Essentially, we're reaching a point where game worlds can be designed that only consist of a few basic rules, leaving the "story" to truly develop as a result of the payer's interactions.

The recent hit, Minecraft, is a great place to begin looking at where we're going. A base-level of rules are written into the game world and then what happens after that is entirely up to the player. Once more engaging AI is written, I think we'll really be at a cool place. 

As we're seeing, we've begun to hit the point where graphics aren't going to be the next huge improvement in gaming. It is going to be about adding complex systems, things like procedurally generated environments, smart AI, real-world physics, etc. That's the stuff I'm looking forward to.

But admittedly, not all people want to "make their own story". Fortunately, I don't think they will have to. I think both methods of development will remain relevant. Sometimes, having that hand-crafted experience is more powerful. I think of Read Dead Redemption a lot when I think about this topic. In that game, though it is "open world" you are clearly following a path from start to finish, but this path allows the writers to put you into some very specific, powerful situations.

Spoilers follow... In the final hours of the game, you eventually get the bad guy you've been chasing. At that point, you ride your horse home to your family farm to return to your family. Through the interactions you have at this point, you realize that the relationships are complex. Your son sees you as an absent father and this is something your character wants to repair. You spend the next 2 hours or so teaching your son how to be a man. You go hunting, you drive cattle, basically farm activities. It is a little slow at first but because of the previous action, it's kind of a nice break. Secretly though, the writers of the game are using this so they can really hit you hard when your character has to sacrifice himself to save his family. That entire sequence becomes the most powerful one in the game.

Spoilers ended.

In the end, each medium needs to play to it's strengths and I'm happy that we're at a point where game developers are finally beginning to be able to play to the inherent strengths of games. The industry has been making silent films the last 20+ years, it is finally beginning to make talkies. I'm excited to be able to witness that.

Kirk's picture
Kirk from Pingree Grove, IL is reading The Book Of The New Sun December 13, 2011 - 8:53am

Plus there is a mindset of people out there who like one definitive reality, some people are very OCD about the fact that there should be one definitive timeline in any story.

This is just a flaw in how people have been taught to consume media though and it can be worked around. 

Take Heavy Rain, for instance. The lead developer of that game went on record saying he only wanted each person to play the game once, so they had their own experience. You can't even directly access the save file, so you can't "go back" if you think you did something wrong.

Another good idea is what Bioware has accomplished in the Mass Effect series. In that series, your game save is transfered from one game to the next. So the choices you made in the first game are reflected in the second. And choices from both of those games will be reflected in the third game when it comes out next year. And some of these choices are not minor, including the death of various characters. 

The problem with gaming, as it currently stands, is that players have been trained to min/max the way the play. This is primarily because of strategy guides and gamefaqs. If the developer properly designs the game systems, this is less of an issue. 

miked's picture
miked from Los Angeles is reading White Noise December 13, 2011 - 10:48am

Speaking as a game developer, I can tell you why, from a practical standpoint, we don't see many good examples of branching storylines whose leaves are all well-crafted.

Typically, developers are hesitant to create content that may never be seen. Deadlines are always too tight, and in result, we work the hardest on items that have 100% visibility. Take a look at any game and you'll notice that the first level is usually the most highly produced and polished. Conversely, look at the final encounter and you'll notice it's glitchy and lacks the presentation value the rest of the title exhibits. Everyone sees and needs to be sold on the first level to continue.

Unlike a Choose your Own Adventure book, the consequence of adding a branch to a game storyline affects artists, animators, writers, programmers, designers, and riggers. To the publishers paying developers, it could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars just to give little Timmy the option of killing his best friend whom he slayed a monster for a minute earlier.

Even if the developers decide to use choices, it can be a tricky road. Often times, the inclusion of one comes down to deciding whether or not the choice yields two (or more) consequences that provide fun, interesting gameplay. Given the active nature of games, that means never crafting decisions that lead to inaction, which is a liberty that traditional narratives exploit on a regular basis. It also means that the choice needs to provide clear, immediate and direct consequences to inform the player. This can eliminate gray area decision making and consequences if the developer isn't careful. That's why we see a lot of "choose evil" or "choose good" gameplay (Bioshock, Infamous, etc) systems.

That's not to say it isn't possible to make a branching game with interesting choices, as shown earlier with Mass Effect and Heavy Rain (both, by the way, published by huge companies). People just need to remember that the needs of games (complete immersion, empowerment, etc) are not always equivalent with those of traditional narratives, and directly comparing the two isn't always fair for either form of entertainment.



Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books December 13, 2011 - 11:15am

Great article on a fascinating topic. I think most people have had the experience of watching a movie or reading a novel and saying, "that's not the narrative choice I would have made." But for those who just want to turn off their minds and get lost in a really good story, I don't know if I see active narrative being anything more than a novelty. There is definitely more potential for its success in the eArena, but you can't really pull that off in print form without becoming a glorified Choose Your Own Adventure.

jtbrolly's picture
jtbrolly December 13, 2011 - 11:38am

Great article John, reminded me of Tom Bissell's review of LA Noire on Grantland but taking on a different perspective.

For anybody interested:

I'm glad you brought up the two cases outside of video games that I instantly thought of.  One being interactive theater, I remember attending an Improv show in Boston where the ending was based upon the audience's vote.  And the other being Lost, for anybody who watched and remembers the Nikki and Paulo characters and how the audience essentially determined the fate of those characters.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words December 13, 2011 - 12:18pm

I always thought that Role-Playing Games (RPGs) in all their variations were a form of active storytelling. D&D FTW.

maezie's picture
maezie from somewhere cold and quiet is reading Super, Sad,True, Love Story December 13, 2011 - 1:53pm

"It also means that the choice needs to provide clear, immediate and direct consequences to inform the player." -miked

As a gamer, and a fan of the sandbox/ open narrative genre, I think choices that yield results that aren't seen until later in the game are infinitely more rewarding. It feels like more thoughtful programming, since in real life not all actions cause immediate reactions. Or even better when there is an immediate reaction as well as aftershocks from a users choice. Even something as simple as changing NPC dialogue after a major story arc decision has been made adds a dimension of reality to the game world (think Fallout New Vegas monorail mission etc.). In fact, what Bethesda has succeeded so well in doing is making well crafted worlds where your decisions seem to have an actual impact. What Bethesda could use is better storytelling, or at least better story telling connected to the core quest line. Elder Scrolls Skyrim has a wealth of background information in the form of books you can acquire and additional side quests you can take one, but the main storyline is so bare bones. I think the future of gaming is in cooperation between game developers and designers and writers, artists, and the experts related to the games content. Physics engines in sports games have improved tremendously in the past few years from the introduction of athletes to the game design phase. Anyway, I'm sort of rambling now, but this was a very interesting article and definitely relevant to the future of gaming. These open narrative games have consistently been the stand out one player games for the past few years. Anyone who enjoys the genre should check out Fallout 3, Fallout New Vegas, Elder Scrolls Skyrim, and Mass Effect and Mass Effect 3 (those are my personal favorites).


maezie's picture
maezie from somewhere cold and quiet is reading Super, Sad,True, Love Story December 13, 2011 - 1:56pm

*meant to write Mass Effect 2, though I am sure with it's kinect voice integration, Mass Effect 3 will be outstanding as well.

Dan Buzi's picture
Dan Buzi from US is reading Bram Stoker's Dracula December 14, 2011 - 6:59am

Thank you for your article.  Very interesting, but I think in discussing the branching narrative you miss other forms of active narrative that might be more feasible to write.  Another way to approach active narrative is to allow the reader to look more deeply into parts of the story that they are interested in.  Perhaps there is a side character who catches your attention.  You could click on a link and go to a more detailed description of that character, or perhaps a related story in the same world.  Perhaps you are reading a first person narrative you can switch between perspectives to read the story from another character's point of view.  "I wonder how Claire felt about this whole thing?  John seems to think it's no big deal".  In short, you can give the reader the chance to see the world of the story from a variety of angles and shift the focus, making what was once a minor incident into a central moment. 

Whith branching "choose your own adventure" narrative the author would need to have every branch written before "publishing".  However, in an expansive narrative that allowed the reader to explore different elements of the story's world, the content could be added and connected through hypertext after the initial story was published. 

This would not be new, but rather a reversion to the past when oral storytellers had much more story in their heads than they would tell on a given occassion.  If a listener asked a question about some part of the story they could give more detail about that incident. 


Zackery Olson's picture
Zackery Olson from Rockford, IL is reading pretty much anything I can get my hands on June 7, 2012 - 1:26pm

I like the idea of a narrative that can be crafted by the player. I use the word "player" because I think this sort of storytelling can be best executed in the form of a game, and that having such a form of storytelling become prevalent in the world of literature really defeats the purpose of literature. When I pick up my PS3 controller, it's because I want to have some fun and take control of a character in a world that is not my own. When I pick up a book to read it, I want to be told a story from a perspective that I may not have otherwise been able to create myself.

Jane Wiseman's picture
Jane Wiseman from living outside of Albuquerque/in Minneapolis is reading Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks July 15, 2012 - 12:19pm

The form of gaming that for me looked like a storytelling revolution to rival Gutenberg was the mmorpg. In those games, the player essentially inhabits an enormous ongoing do-it-yourself novel. Unfortunately, especially after the dumbing-down that WoW brought to the genre, most players seem to have one goal: to amass as many goodies and as much high-calibre gear as possible, using as many shortcuts or outright cheats as possible, to get to the high- end game as soon as possible and raid, and these raids are essentially not much more than group pissing contests (reinforcing the very male, testosterone-driven quality of the player base, a generalization from the perspective of someone like me, a woman, but nevertheless I think generally true). Even on role-play designated servers this can be the case. So... What the earlier poster said about letting the audience decide the outcome of a movie only to have Twi-fans out-vote everyone else seems in my experience exactly what eventually happens. It's sad. However, tv seemed to have limitless potential; then the economics of the medium produced the Vast Wasteland; and now, under the pressure of a very different media environment seems to be producing actual art amongst the reeking mounds of reality tv trash, so maybe there's hope for video gaming still. Art games like "The Path" show what might be done.