From Zork to Halo and Back Again

This was originally written as a guest post for the website The Fictorians

When you start a conversation about storytelling in video games, it’s hard to not immediately jump to discussions about the writing in Halo, Call of Duty, Uncharted, God of War, and the other games that have graced living rooms across the globe. There’s a lot that can be said about the stories in these games–both how they’re written and how they’re presented. Some of these games tell expertly penned and deeply engaging stories, and there are some seriously talented people behind them. People like Ragnar Tornquist, Amy Hennig, and Chris Avellone have left their prints on the entire industry.

But at the same time, the industry as a whole seems like it’s stuck in a rut. There’s something oddly familiar about a lot of the stories being told. Since games like Dragon’s Lair first appeared in 1983, it’s been hard to avoid phrases like “it’s like playing a movie.” And that’s a pretty good summary of where we’re at with computer-based storytelling–we’ve been transplanting the movie experience and casting the viewer in the leading role, rather than leaving them as a disembodied spectator.

Of course, things haven’t always been this way. A lot of us remember the early days of computer gaming, and to compare those experiences to Hollywood blockbusters–or even low-budget indie films–would be kind of hilarious. In fact, those early games seemed like they were on a different medium entirely. So, how did we get using computers to tell stories about battling dysentery in Oregon Trail or exploring mysterious white houses in Zork to defending the universe in Halo? More importantly, where did the dysentery and white houses go? To find out, we’re going to have to rewind a bit. And by “a bit,” I mean “through most of human history.” It’s kind of a long story.

Marshall McLuhan’s phrase “the medium is the message” has gotten a nauseating amount of attention since it first appeared in 1964. There’s a good reason for that–the stories we tell are directly affected by the way we choose to present them. Some stories work across all mediums, while others are so deeply tied to their medium that it would be almost impossible to attempt it in any other. That might not seem like much of a revelation, but we’re living in an odd era that’s become obsessed with translating stories between mediums while pretending that the core of each story will remain intact.

For a while, almost every major movie release saw a companion “novelisation” released in bookstores. Some of the biggest movies (and TV shows) of the last ten years have been adaptations of popular books, comics, and graphic novels. And sometimes, this all works out. There are a handful of examples of beautiful synergy existing between the two mediums, especially when stories are translated from one graphic medium to another. Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez demonstrated this extremely well with Sin City, a movie that literally recreated the graphic novel panel for panel, shot for shot. But for each time it works, you have a hundred other attempts that are met with a shrug, followed by the damning phrase “the book was better.”

There’s always been an interplay between the different mediums we use to tell stories, and it’s pretty obvious as to why this happens. At one point, every medium is new. Early oral storytelling established a lot of the techniques we still use to string narrative together. Speaking words aloud could transport people to other times and places. Dialogue could be spoken on behalf of people who only existed in the imagination of the storyteller. But you can’t tell every sort of story with your voice alone.

When the first stories were written, it shouldn’t be surprising that what people wrote were, essentially, the same sorts of stories they were already telling orally, and the stories were told in much the same way. They transcribed. As time passed, though, we started to find new and interesting ways to tell stories. We discovered the novel, Don Quixote setting the stage for an entirely new way of telling stories that just wouldn’t have been feasible had Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra attempted to speak it aloud instead of commit it to paper.

Once we broke free from the previous mediums and embraced what made writing different, we were able to tell stories in totally new ways. Writing, as a medium, is still continuing to surprise us. Jonathan Safran Foer took a physical knife (okay, well, a laser cutter) to the pages of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, creating an entirely new book from its fragments (Tree of Codes). Both David Foster Wallace and Mark Z. Danielewski have written books that parody the medium itself, hiding the most interesting parts of the book in footnotes and sidebars. Even though they found their root in the same storytelling devices that preceded them, written stories evolved.

Every medium goes through this evolution. At first, we attempt to use new mediums to clone old stories, and while there’s certainly a sense of wonder and discovery as this happens, it’s the evolution that keeps us excited–the adventure of bending and twisting that medium to create something new. Every new medium opens up the possibility of telling original stories that excite and surprise us in ways we’ve never experienced before. Movies took ideas from theatre and radio and turned them into something new. Summer blockbusters would, by and large, make dreadful books, but movies can tell stories that are loud and bright and impossible to experience firsthand. They can actually show us things instead of simply describing them. They can hide details and use focus pulls to draw our attention around a scene in an extremely nuanced way. Movies like Timecode and shows like 24 played at telling stories in real-time, something that would be nearly impossible to experience if we were reading them instead of watching.

(A quick aside: I have no idea if anyone has ever attempted to write a real-time book. Essentially, every three hundred words you write would have to cover about a minute of action. If anyone knows of someone who has attempted this, please let me know, because I owe that person a beer.)

There is one medium, however, that ended up on a different evolutionary path than the mediums that came before it. When we started telling stories with computers, what used to be a cycle quickly became a rut.

Computers, as a storytelling medium, are separated by the mediums that preceded them by a simple but important difference–computers are technology, and technology is constantly shifting. At first, personal computers were glorified word processors, and naturally some of the first stories told on computers were the same stories we had been telling in books, but with some added eyestrain.

It wasn’t long, however, before the medium evolved. With computers, stories could be manipulated in ways that were never possible with just a printed page. Out of this one of the earliest computer game genres was born: interactive fiction. Essentially, these were books that cast the reader as the main character, telling stories in second-person while giving the reader control over where they went and what they did. It’s a setup we’d already seen in previous mediums; the Adventures of You books, followed later by the Choose Your Own Adventure series, played with this very effectively, though the interaction you could have with the book was confined to choosing one of several predefined paths through the narrative.

Role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons (the direct inspiration for the first piece of interactive fiction ever written, Will Crother’s Colossal Cave Adventure), used a mixture of written and oral storytelling to achieve this. But computers could do this on a much more impressive level–stories could have more variation, more interactivity, and could achieve this without the reader/player having to rely on another person to tell the story, or dice rolls to determine random outcomes. It was awesome. It still is.

It wasn’t just interactivity that set computers apart as a medium. In 1992, William Gibson’s poem “Agrippa” took advantage of the fact that, on a computer, words were mutable; as you read the work, it deleted itself from the device it was stored on, driving home the poem’s feeling of loss. When all computers could do was store and manipulate text, it created a fertile ground for experimentation. We can thank this era for some of the most impressive examples of the medium, such as Steve Meretzky’s philosophical masterpiece A Mind Forever Voyaging, and Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling’s definitive game Zork (and its numerous sequels).

But as I said, technology shifts. After a while, computers started pumping out more than just text. Soon, there was sound, and then graphics. Now, only a handful of years later, we have high-definition ray-traced stereoscopic visuals, 5.1 surround sound, and fifty-inch plasma displays (not to mention motion controls, virtual reality helmets, and the Rez Trance controller). Things have changed.

This constantly shifting technology has a peculiar effect on storytelling. At first, computers could be used to emulate the storytelling we used in books. Then the medium evolved, and people used it to tell original stories that could only have been told in this medium. But with the advent of computer graphics, we found we could emulate stuff other than books. We could draw on new inspirations and translate other mediums, like movies. Imagine movies where you are the main character! In a way, it was the holy grail of entertainment–something that involved multiple senses and placed you in the middle of the story.

This is where the history of computers as a storytelling medium breaks from a lot of the mediums that came before it. The idea that computers could be used to tell the same sort of stories we saw in movies–with bonus interactivity–launched us into a technological arms race. With the static mediums that came before it, we had a lot of time to sit and think about how we could use the medium to tell stories in new and exciting ways. With computers, however, we became obsessed with telling the same stories with newer technology, over and over, each time embracing the new technology but almost never pushing the medium. By and large, we treat computer and video games like we treat movies; we use the same visual language, the same story structure, the same narrative tricks. Instead of evolving the medium to tell new stories, we put innovation on the backburner. What separates games released one year from the games released the next isn’t a daring new approach to computer-aided storytelling–it’s iteration.

In a way, I wish a giant pause button could be pushed on the computer industry, forcing everyone to get creative with the toys we already have. But as much as the technological arms race has stunted the growth of computers as a storytelling medium, it’s also gotten us to an incredible position for innovation. The computers we have now are cheaper and more accessible than they’ve ever been before, and it’s allowing an incredible amount of people to get into computerised storytelling–people who are less obsessed with chasing the technology curve, and more obsessed with pushing the medium.

Offhand, I can think of numerous games that tell stories that could never have been told–or at least couldn’t have been told nearly as effectively–in other mediums. Façade, by Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, casts you as the friend of a quarrelling couple, using a simple interface to tell you an intimate, emotional, and deeply mutable story. The recently released Papers, Please, by Lucas Pope, has you playing an immigration inspector, the story dictated only by the simple action of accepting or rejecting passports. Zoe Quinn’s phenomenal Depression Quest puts you in the shoes of someone dealing with chronic depression, using an extremely clever interactive device to stress how powerless those fighting depression can feel about their situation.

It’s no coincidence that all these games use very simple graphics and are usually the product of extremely small teams–often just one or two people. None of these stories use bleeding-edge technology. Instead, they use existing tools to tell new stories, leveraging the aspects of computers that help them construct their narrative and discarding the ones that don’t. People with no background whatsoever in programming or computer sciences can now make interactive stories in their spare time, and many do.

Of course, there’s more to computers than keyboard, mice, and screens, and this is one of the preconceptions we need to shed. Alternate Reality Games (or ARGs), popularised by Elan Lee and Jane McGonigal, use computers to pull off incredible feats of storytelling that break free of the constraints of the screen, telling single stories across websites, emails, videos, and phone calls. Epic, multimedia stories like The Beast and ilovebees couldn’t have been told without the use of computers. Players of the hilarious, fantastic, and impeccably named game Johann Sebastian Joust (made by Copenhagen-based Die Gute Fabrik) might forget that there’s a computer involved at all–though the game is played with video game controllers, the screen can be ignored completely by the people playing it.

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that the same medium has spawned Colossal Cave Adventure, Call of Duty, Façade, and The Beast. Computers might be the most versatile and powerful storytelling medium that’s ever been found, and its potential has been largely untapped. We’ve gotten a little stuck. But that doesn’t mean it’ll stay that way–science fiction has already dreamt up countless ways we can use technology to tell stories, from the magic of Star Trek’s holodeck to the fever dream of William Gibson’s virtual reality to the educational potential of Neal Stephenson’s A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. We’re ready for the next stage in computerised storytelling, whatever that is.

As a storytelling medium, computers have still only flirted with greatness. But we also need to remember that using computers to tell stories is still a brand new thing–we can forgive this little hiccup. We’ve been telling oral stories for so long that we have no idea when we started. We’ve been writing down stories down for at least four and a half thousand years. Novels have been refined over four hundred years, and we’ve been making films for a hundred and thirty. It’s only been fifty years since the first computer game, and less than forty years since we started using computers to tell narrative stories. This is where things get interesting. Right here, right now. The medium has become accessible, prevalent, and open to experimentation. It’s time to start throwing shit at the wall–some of it might even stick.

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