As a Game Designer, the use of narrative in games always intrigues me, and after reading some of Steve Gaynor's articles on immersion and invisibility, and it has got me thinking...
Alright, I suppose I am a bit of a maverick - I don't really have a problem with a forced narrative that creates a memorable experience, because that creates a very important bridge between the three very important groups that plays games: the hardcore gamer, the hip gamer, and the casual gamer.
Now, let me quantify those terms:
The Hardcore Gamer: is what you expect what you hear the term "Gamer" - these are the men, women, and children who are early adopters of technology, who want the cutting edge, and who demand a lot out of their entertainment dollar. They read all of the reviews, and tell all of their friends which games are fun, and which are not. The vast majority of Game Designers definitely fall into this category.
The Hip Gamer: is a nebulous description, but this is a group of gamers that is influenced heavily by the Hardcore Gamers in terms of game purchases. They read the reviews, but tend to be more circumspect about what they purchase, relying on friends, blogs, reviews, and the like to drive their game purchases.
The Casual Gamer: is the largest market of gaming. Casual Gamers play everything from simple card games that come preloaded on PCs (Solitaire anyone?), to party Games. This is the market most difficult to target a game toward, and not just because it is the largest, most diverse market. Casual Gamers don't purchase many games per year, and really don't keep up with the industry unless it makes mainstream news outlets, yet represent the largest potential market in gaming.
Now, looking at some of Steve's concerns on immersion, these are all outstanding and very valid points that are reasoned out extremely well. But, and I'm sure we could have a spirited discussion on it, I don't believe that completely abdicating authorial control is a positive thing, and that memorable moments in games can be highly scripted, narrow and focused.
A narrow, tightly focused experience - a great example being Call of Duty 4 or Half Life 2 (along with its episodic content) - may be passe for Game Design Theorists, but it is at the heart of bridging the gap between the Hardcore, the Hip and the Casual gamers. These focused games, the very antithesis of open-worlds and letting the player create their own moments rather than sharing in the moments authored by design, give one very important tool to those that don't always play games: direction.
Hip Gamers and Casual Gamers, those that maybe purchase one or two games per month, look for a guided experience and crave direction. My Wife, the antithesis of a gamer, loved Half Life and Half Life 2 because of their level structure and episodic feel of the story and, more importantly, always knew that there was a path - somewhere - leading her to the next encounter. The game was a line, from A to B, and she knew that if she worked hard enough, that she could reach the end.
Conversely, when she watched my play GTA IV (the only one in the series I actually enjoyed, but explaining that would take up a whole post in and of itself), she kept asking me: "Where are you going?" Followed up with "Why?"
That is something very important that I think a lot of theorists (myself included, for what it is worth), being a part of the industry and therefore on the cutting edge, need to understand: We need to make games for them as much, if not more, than we make games for us. What has made game narrative so...bad, by and large...is as much a function of the game development process as it is who has been entrusted to write the games.
The games with the best narrative, open or focused, have had writers work on them during preproduction, production and right up until content lock. The best companies treat the Narrative and Story as another system that must be planned, created, trimmed, polished and refined along with everything else in the game, and also appreciate that the more a Game Designer has to spend working on everything but the story, the weaker and less engaging the story becomes.
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