Indie videogames are taking it to the next level of story design

Story design considers game mechanics an expressive part of a game’s story. JD Hancock

This week’s Game Developers Choice Awards at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco saw some of the usual big hitters win, but also, intriguingly, smaller independents such as puzzle game Papers, Please (2013), which won the Innovation Award and Best Downloadable Game, revealing a new trend in videogame storytelling.

So, what’s the trend?

Genre-pushing games such as action horror The Last of Us (2013) and first-person shooter BioShock (2007), which both swept the awards this week, present a compelling case for storytelling through new techniques and technologies such as full performance motion capture and detailed environment design.

But the influx and success of smaller independents such as puzzle games Braid (2008) and Papers, Please has presented new approaches to storytelling through gameplay and design.

While theories around concepts such as “player agency” (the player’s sense of self within a game environment), game structure (linear and non-linear) and disciplines such as “game narrative writing” are well established, the connection between the act of gameplay and story design is more nebulous.

What is story design?

Story design considers the typically mechanical qualities of a game, such as rules and interactions, as expressive parts of a game’s story. Instead of being told through a screenplay or script, a game’s story can unfold through the game’s rules at a more intrinsic level.

Sometimes our engagement with a game’s story is not explicit. When we hit buttons, waggle the controller, touch the screen or click a mouse we engage with the game’s story; enacting and progressing its narrative. Sometimes a game’s story may subvert our expectations, as in the case of Papers, Please.

Papers, Please. Lucas Pope

In Papers, Please the player takes on the role of a bureaucrat manning a booth on the border of a fictional Nineteen Eighty-Four inspired country. The task is simple: check, stamp or reject the passports of immigrants. Every passport successfully cleared on a daily basis (against a ticking clock) results in money for your wife, child and relatives.

During gameplay immigrants enter the player’s border-control booth on command and slide their documents across to be assessed. The player must visually identify discrepancies, question or interrogate the character – the pressure to do so is compounded by a daily time limit and external financial pressures.

The player wants to clear as many passports as possible, but changing border security policies, difficult characters and increasingly obtuse document checks, make it all the more difficult. But it’s possible to alleviate this. The player is seamlessly presented with choices: bribes may be taken, revolutionaries may be supported and officials (to their own benefit) may encourage you to bend the rules, at a price.

On the surface, the game is a simple timed-based “match the objects” puzzle within the context of a thriller story. But it quickly becomes a method of challenging the players’ own principles and ethics as they’re forced to respond to the story and make crucial narrative decisions through the understated game mechanics.

Papers, Please is only one of many smaller more self-contained indie games presenting a compelling game narrative through its game design.

Indie games take the lead

In interactive adventure Gone Home (2013) the player takes on the role of Katlin Greenbriar, returning to an empty home after a year-long trip.

The player explores the home environment through minimal game mechanics: walking, looking and interacting with objects. As a story about mystery and discovery, Gone Home’s minimalist design and a lack of explicit structure allows the player to soak in the details and build a picture of its missing inhabitants and the reason for their absence.

It’s a stark contrast to the concentrated challenges presented by the methodical document checking in Papers, Please.

Gone Home. The Fullbright Company

Examples range from simplistic to obtuse. The visually abstract and highly complex city builder game, Dwarf Fortress (2006 - present), builds surprising narratives as the player manages a colony of vulnerable dwarven settlers.

In action-adventure Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (2013) the player controls two characters with each thumbstick on a game controller within a fantasy tale with no dialogue. As the player comes to terms with the obtuse control mechanics they facilitate the characters’ co-dependency and gradual character development through the journey.

Of course, these are just a few of the indie games using their designs to tell stories. Each game enlists deliberate game designs in conjunction with other storytelling methods (visual design, script, animation and so on).

While larger budget escapades such as the BAFTA-nominated The Last of Us are valuable for their storytelling qualities, their game mechanics and design are often not the dominant mode of storytelling. The core gameplay design revolves around exploration and combat, showcasing a brutal post-apocalyptic world. But the cycle of combat that dominates the game often feels like a means to an end.

Character development and drama happens predominantly during cinematic cut scenes – a typically brief in-game film. It’s little surprise that The Last of Us may end up having a film adaptation.

The Stanley Parable. Galactic Cafe

These differences in game storytelling capture how diverse and divisive game narratives and their story design can be.

Further exploration will lead to richer game stories, a responsibility that lies with game creators such as those converging this week in San Francisco.

Eyes and ears will be pointed not only towards creators of larger more prestigious games, but smaller ones such as experimental narrative-driven The Stanley Parable (2013) and horror Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010).

While lacking the clout of the bigger studios, these smaller developers have championed new storytelling directions through unique game designs.

They are a taste of future developments by creators inspired to push game stories in their own, unique direction.

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