Interactive Storytelling Must-Play List

A few days ago Skye Nathaniel took me to task in comments for “[making] a point of playing Portal when there is science to do elsewhere”. I don’t regret playing Portal — it was awesome. But this makes me wonder about other things that I’m missing. What belongs on the “must play to understand interactive storytelling” list?

Here’s my own list to start with. It is, I know, both woefully incomplete and IF-slanted (and that even though I was fairly sparing about what IF I allowed on the list). I’m probably also forgetting a bunch of things that I’m planning to play myself. But that’s why I’m posting. Input?

Have played and consider relevant

Commercial

  • Planescape: Torment. Didn’t come close to finishing, but played enough to be impressed.
  • Portal. despite Skye’s comments, I did think it was worth playing through, for the characterization of GlaDOS if nothing else. And it’s popular enough that it provides a good example for discussing any of the techniques it does use — because people are likely to know about them.
  • Something in the Myst series, as a milestone of atmosphere and development. I liked Riven best for its overall structure and gameplay. But I’d include it more as source of history to understand than because it’s currently cutting-edge.

Indie but not freeware

  • The Path. I really don’t know whether I liked it or not, but I played to a finish. I thought it was both broken and kind of brilliant, and whatever you think about it, it will really stick with you. I have a Homer in Silicon column on this to come, though probably not for a while.
  • Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble. Very unusual gameplay in many respects, and there are some semi-boring patches in places, but it’s taking on issues and ideas that are worth discussing. (HiS column)

Persuasive

Casual

  • Miss Management. Gamelab’s excellent time management game with memorable characters and a distinct plot arc. (HiS column)
  • Emerald City Confidential. It’s really a graphical adventure, but it puts itself in the casual category via its marketing, sort of. Categories are hazy, did I mention? Anyway, it’s not too formally innovative except in its attempts to make a graphical adventure accessible to a casual audience (and even there, it’s adopting a new set of genre conventions more than inventing); but it does take the story to some places that aren’t completely common in adventure games. (HiS column.)

IF (long more because I know about it than because I’m making some statement about its relative importance)

  • Anchorhead, for the complexity and extent of the plot and the uniformly high quality of writing and atmosphere.
  • Photopia, as an exploration of linearity.
  • Rameses, as a classic example of the value of complicity.
  • Shade, for the changing player/protagonist relationship.
  • The Baron, for adventures in protagonist motivation and the value of choice and philosophical thinking in an interactive story.
  • Varicella, for its development of the accretive protagonist.
  • Slouching Towards Bedlam, for its excellent articulation of the different choices available to the player, and the sense of true freedom within the story.
  • Everybody Dies, for its inventive combination of image and text to accomplish subjective effects, and because it’s an especially strong use of multiple, differently-voiced protagonists (though see also Being Andrew Plotkin).
  • Blue Lacuna, or exploring player reaction and expressiveness as well as player choice; for the experiment in drama management, even though I think said drama management does not always work to keep the pacing tight.
  • For historical reasons, probably Trinity and AMFV; possibly also Deadline, Plundered Hearts, and Wishbringer. Maybe The Hobbit, though honestly it drove me insane when I tried to play it. I don’t get the impression it was a terribly successful adaptation as narrative, but that people really enjoyed getting the NPCs to do weird things.

Ren’Py… I don’t know. I have no specific recommendations here about works that were too awesome to miss, and yet I think a knowledge of the form doesn’t hurt. I’ve played a few of these, especially by Tycoon Games and Hanako Games, but I’d be interested in any suggestions if there are Ren’Py games with really fabulous stories that I’ve missed.

Various games in the newly emergent retro/art genre

  • Passage. Because it gets talked about so much. I wasn’t a huge fan, but I feel like it’s kind of necessary to know about.
  • Don’t Look Back. Terry Cavanagh’s platformer version of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, for its use of the challenge and frustration of gaming in service of the story.
  • Cavanagh also collaborated on Judith, which rediscovers some of Photopia’s techniques — temporal reordering, inevitability, narrowing of interactivity — but in a different medium. So, from my point of view, most of what this game does with interactive storytelling techniques has actually been done better and earlier in IF, but it may have introduced the ideas to a new audience, which is good.
  • (I Fell in Love With) The Majesty of Colors. My favorite, I think, in this game line: it’s intuitive and moving and unique.
  • I Wish I Were the Moon and perhaps also Storyteller (same place) for the way that they allow the player to select elements that should go into a story, rather than controlling any of the characters.

Other/unclassifiable

  • Façade. Unique and entirely obligatory, though far from perfect.
  • Ruben and Lullaby. Uses touch and gesture on the iPhone as a way to communicate feelings to the protagonist. For my taste the actual story aspect is a bit vague, but it’s a fascinating attempt and worth a look. (HiS column.)

Want to play (some of them rather old)

  • The Blackwell Legacy. While I have a dual-booting Mac laptop, I don’t have a two-button mouse for it, which makes some games unplayable. I know, I could fix that for about $20, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.
  • Neverwinter Nights. Again, I just need a $20 two-button mouse to make this go on my Windows boot partition, so it’s probably going to happen sooner than the others; I know it’s old, but I’m particularly interested in exploring the player-designed content aspect, and I’ve just never gotten around to playing with it. (I know there’s also a Mac version, but as far as I could tell it didn’t come with the editor, which makes it vastly less interesting to me.)
  • Half-Life 2. I don’t have anything up to running this.
  • Bioshock. Ditto.
  • The Mighty Jill-Off.
  • Braid. Planning to play it when it’s available for the Mac.
  • Ico.
  • Shadow of the Colossus.
  • The Longest Journey.
  • Fable. I have the impression that people were disappointed, but I’m still curious about what it attempted, perhaps unsuccessfully, to do.
  • The Witcher.

76 thoughts on “Interactive Storytelling Must-Play List

  1. Just a few thoughts:

    I’ve also been wanting to play Ico and Shadow of the Colossus but don’t have a Playstation 2.

    The Longest Journey was much too interested in puzzles over story for me. Adventure games need better narrative and better wordsmithing. On that subject though, I do hope you play Blackwell.

    I also played the Path to the end, but was much too frustrated with it’s terribly slow pacing and small story rewards to recommend it overall.

    I’m currently playing the Witcher and am enjoying it greatly, though I’m not sure why you would be drawn to it, based on your sensibilities. The storytelling is nothing special – it’s essentially a slightly more elegantly designed Neverwinter Nights.

    On my immediately-remembered list of most recommended games that one is likely to not have played are:

    Aquaria for beauty and beauty in storytelling (especially in terms of pacing)

    Spelunky. At least start the game a dozen times to see the charming procedurally-chosen introductory text. The rest is not very story-oriented, but could certainly be modified to favor procedural story creation.

    Calamity Annie is a much more interesting work from a storytelling point of view than Mighty Jill-Off from the same game creator. It’s also completely casual, whereas Jill-Off is a bit more of a skill-oriented platformer. Calamity Annie connects rather loosely to Gun Mute.

    At the very top of my list for storytelling in a game that is not interactive fiction, I might recommend Mother 3. You’ll need to play a an english translation patched version of it on a gameboy advance emulator though. http://mother3.fobby.net/

    And for procedural storytelling (storytelling that is about game mechanics as much as it is about an injection of narrative into a gameplay structure), nothing comes close to Dwarf Fortress.

    • Re. the Witcher: I don’t actually know a huge amount about it, but it came fairly strongly recommended, I think by Victor Gijsbers, so I’ve had it in mind for a while. I mean, I may turn out not to like it, but I trust Victor enough to be interested.

      Aquaria I played the beginning of, since my sister really liked it. I thought it was okay, but I felt like it was going pretty slowly and I had a hard time really getting into it. But possibly I should give it another shot.

    • Also: I know Mighty Jill-Off is supposed to be hard, and it may defeat me, as I generally am not very good at platformers and get annoyed and frustrated. But I’ve become more interested lately in the storytelling value of challenge, and it sounds as though MJO provides an interesting explanation for why the player is being tested this way.

      • Hi,

        I would second playing Calamity Annie instead of Jill-Off, even if you are interested in how storytelling relates to challenge. And I actually worked on Jill-Off, but the relationship between story/challenge in Jill-Off is pretty simple and superficial (if not effective). It’s absolutely worth playing, I think, but because it’s so well-designed and is very unified in terms of aesthetic/mechanics.

        But Calamity Annie is also very challenging and does very interesting things with reconciling the need to tell a story with the inevitable fact that the player will be restarting the game several times due to challenge… So in conclusion, you should play them both!

        I was not paid by dessgeega to post this, but I probably should’ve been.

        BTW, if you’re interested in a mainstream title with an interesting challenge/story dynamic, you might want to check out God Hand on the PS2. It’s the closest thing there is to a mainstream version of Mighty Jill Off.

      • A game that is good, I think, about the storytelling value of challenge: Loom (I can explain why but it would be a spoiler – have you played it?).

        A game with one weird, extended sequence where it suddenly becomes about complicity and what games make us do, before going back to being totally conventional: Grandia II.

  2. I’ve not played Bioshock, but I believe that a very similar brand of storytelling and moral choices without direct NPC interaction can also be found in the freeware PC game Iji.

    “Cavanagh also collaborated on Judith, which rediscovers some of Photopia’s techniques”

    I never noticed the similarity, but Terry’s a big fan of Adam Cadre, so it may not be so much of a rediscovery as an application.

  3. this is an interesting list.
    on the graphical adventure end, i’d recommend Grim Fandango. i’m not sure whether or not it does anything astounding when considering it from an interactive storytelling standpoint, but it’s a great game, and i personally love the story.
    Shadow of the Colossus is a big YES, i think. it definitely does interesting things with implied story. its story isn’t implied nearly as much as, say, The Path, but very little is directly stated.
    i was definitely disappointed with Fable. what about Fable 2? i don’t know much about it, but I’m wondering if they tried to do more stuff in 2 that got talked about but left out of 1.
    also on the console front, what about Okami?

      • i’ll confess that i really don’t know if it does anything particularly special from a storytelling perspective, but it’s got lovely art. and is just a great game.
        oh, i suppose one potentially interesting thing, story-wise, is that it’s largely based on a variety of japanese myths.

    • Seconded on Grim Fandango. I think it’s probably one of the best examples of video games as a storytelling medium. The art deco architecture and film noir characters really add to the immersion; even though there’s only a handful of places to visit it does a great job of conveying a sense of the world.

      The Longest Journey is also pretty good. Dreamfall falls terribly short though.

  4. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t feel too bad about missing Bioshock. It was hyped far beyond any reason in my opinion. It does make some attempt at making a philosophical point, but it’s a rather banal one: that a society based completely on Ayn Randian Objectivism is doomed to self-destruction in the end. While this may have shocking resonance for teenage nerds still clutching their Rush albums to their chest, I don’t think it exactly qualifies as a profound insight for the rest of us.

    As far as the gameplay itself, it’s just a bog standard ultra-violent shooter, with no formal storytelling innovations to offer at all. I understand from watching YouTube that certain choices you make in the game do affect the final cut scene, but that’s about it. It’s not even in the same league as something like, say, Blue Lacuna in this respect.

    There are impressive aspects to Bioshock, especially its sometimes breathtaking “cinematography” that reminds me a bit of Blade Runner. In the end, though, the extreme (and all too typical) violence turned me off. I think Bioshock’s praise is really just a case of drowning men screaming for any sort of even semi-artistically credible water in the desert of the mainstream videogame scene.

    But, forced metaphors aside, if you ever should gain access to a Windows PC I have an only gently used copy you’re more than welcome to. :)

    • Re. Bioshock: I think it’s useful to play the games that the commercial industry sees as the best storytelling they have on offer — it provides material to discuss, if nothing else.

      Anyway, if I wind up with the means to play it, I may take you up on that. :)

    • I can’t fully agree with this assessment of Bioshock. Admittedly the whole “moral choice” aspect was hugely overblown and fairly pointless, the ending was somewhat incongruous and the gameplay itself was pretty disappointing for fans of Deus Ex and System Shock (to which Bioshock was supposedly a spiritual successor). However, it does have some genuinely clever storytelling elements – not only the obvious moment of revelation, but plenty of other stuff to do with Andrew Ryan and the other poor deranged inhabitants of Rapture.

  5. oh, i’m also curious as to why The Witcher is on your list. i’ve played it (though not quite to conclusion) and it didn’t strike me as being particularly notable on the storytelling front. heck, it didn’t strike me as particularly notable on any front, really, though it has a fairly interesting setting and story, and pretty entertaining gameplay.

  6. Maher: Bioshock also raises “Ramses”-esque questions about free will and self-determination.

    Short: I’d also recommend the old game The Last Express for its structure and approach toward time, and the somewhat-more-recent Deus Ex and Morrowind for the freedom they provide you in choosing your player character.

  7. I must enthusiastically second the recommendation of The Last Express. There are any number of valid criticisms (the enumeration of these I’ve seen appears in Zarf’s own review, which is very worth reading), but ultimately I would regard it as the most perfect execution of narrative I have encountered in the graphic adventure approach.

    Also, though you’ve already expressed feeling that examining commercial approaches is worthwhile, as someone who is an active commercial, indie, and casual gamer (including having played a good deal of the modern IF “canon”), I feel compelled to offer a dissenting opinion on Bioshock. I don’t doubt it’s not for everyone, as I oft see it maligned by certain gaming demographics, but some of us with equally discriminating tastes were quite overwhelmed by it. I would argue that most of the mechanics are not at all commonplace among typical “hyperviolent shooters,” and there is a moment of postmodern, Brechtian plot revelation which I found every bit as thrilling as “that moment” in Spider and Web. And it is executed in a way that could only have the same impact in an interactive medium.

    • I likewise second the recommendation to check out Jordan Mechner’s “The Last Express”. I’ve spent quite some time with the vast majority of the games on the “Want to Play” list, and though several of those titles have better gameplay mechanics than TLE, I wouldn’t consider any of them remotely on par with Jordan Mechner’s remarkable game in terms of the storytelling.

      I might add (just to say a little bit about some of the games which have been most frequently mentioned by other commentators) that while “The Witcher” deserves mentioning for gleefully revelling in moral ambiguity as often as it possibly can, the game’s unusually flagrant objectification of women (even by video game standards) is more than a little off-putting. As for “BioShock”, no amount of exemplary art design can hide the fact that it’s a puzzlingly weak carbon copy (in narrative as well as gameplay-related terms) of its vastly superior spiritual predecessor “System Shock 2″ (1999).

  8. In the commercial category, I’d highly recommend the first Deus Ex. The branching storyline, the multiple endings and the amount of agency available to the player are rarely matched in mainstream gaming even today, nearly a decade later.

    I’d be tempted to add to that the first Half Life and the first Grand Theft Auto 3, for their cleverness in telling a story via a silent protagonist. There’s an awful lot of shooting / driving to go through for relatively little story, however.

    The IF list is woefully incomplete without Spider and Web, IMHO.

    Braid and Portal are two beautiful (albeit very different) examples of how deceptively simple gameplay can be made to work in the service of story.

    The Majesty of Colours is just beautiful; I’ve never been so surprised at my reaction to a game.

    • I considered Spider and Web, but ultimately left it out because it seems to me an extremely effective, one-time-only use of a couple of particular gimmicks. It does a great job with them and leaves a strong impression, but I am not sure how easily one could generalize techniques either from That Puzzle or from the narrator/player relationship.

      • Good point. It certainly teaches the player a lot about the nature of the narrator over the course of the game, but as authors I can’t think of any specific lessons we can take away, other than “it can be pretty damn cool to play with the player/narrator relationship in unexpected ways”.

      • Too abstract, and I’ve never been completely satisfied by the ending. But this was a tough call. (Honestly, there are bunches of other IF that could reasonably go on this list, but I wanted to keep that section from completely dominating everything else.)

  9. I concur with many of the opinions expressed on this list, and would like to add perhaps an unusual one:

    Kane and Lynch, surprisingly, features IMHO some of the best linear in-game storytelling and characterization in recent memory. The combat gameplay is frustrating to get through, but the character moments are great, and are often brilliant.

  10. Follow up to lots of comments:

    The Last Express is my favorite graphical adventure game. It’s more of an art game than anything indie I’ve played. It also tells story in such a way as to exonerate video games as a worthy fiction genre, if anything graphics-heavy does. In terms of time and planning, it’s like a much more heavily-implemented “Make It Good” model with more paths and developed characters, though it is also much easier for the player to figure out what to do.

    System Shock 1 and 2 are the closest the FPS genre has come to Literature (with a capital “L.”)

    Deus Ex is the best presentation of choices effecting story (an enjoyable story!) I’ve seen from the commercial world, beyond anything since, like Bioshock, Fable, Fallout 3/Morrowind/Oblivion, The Majesty of Colors, etc.

  11. Obviously, lots of important adventure games are missing. If you were going to pick just a few, Grim Fandango, Monkey Island 2, and (perhaps this is just strange nostalgia) Dragonsphere. The say why for the latter would kill the point. Maybe Sanitarium, although it’s not particularly great as a game (or even as a story).

    Shadow of the Colossus and to a lesser extent Ico both manage to convey things that other games have not conveyed as effectively.

    You might want to try Freespace 2, which tells a certain kind of story and does some excellent things with mood and scale. (In this since, something of a cousin of SotC.) But Colony Wars is probably more interesting from a narrative construction standpoint due to its branching story.

    Mask of the Betrayer is an important RPG to play, not only for its character construction but also for the role that choice and consequence play. There is very good writing, too, and solid eye and ear candy.

    Sacrifice does a pretty decent job of a branching story (branching is perhaps the wrong word), with very crisp writing and voice acting. I’m a fan.

    The Soul Reaver series is the peak of a certain kind of adolescent story-telling (every sentence overwrought and purple).

    King of Dragon Pass, which tells a story without a fixed narrative.

    Maybe one of the Call of Duty games, which do a very fine job of feeling like you’re in a movie, which is a popular type of narrative (even if not my favorite). I think the first one might be best.

  12. For Neverwinter Nights user content I would definitely recommend ‘Shadowlords’, ‘Dreamcatcher’ and ‘Demon'; an arc of modules by Andrew Miller. From what I remember they have engaging characters, a great sense of progression and also (unusually for a NWN campaign) a pretty significant and well-handled romance element to the plot.

    They come together in one handy bundle too:
    http://nwvault.ign.com/View.php?view=MODules.Detail&id=4273

  13. I don’t read the phrase “interactive story” as a very good linear story atop an interactive game. So I would strike out a lot of the suggested games on this thread — a game with a great linear story does not qualify. Neither does great characterization or great writing qualify it. I’d strike out _Portal_, for instance, and definitely strike out _Don’t Look Back_. (_Battle Of Olympus_ did the same thing, better, in 1988. But the story itself is still static.) Likewise Okami — I’m two-thirds through it, but it’s like Darwinia: gestural input combined with a great visual style. Story-wise, it uses the same cutscene / gameplay split as everything else. Same for the _Soul Reaver_ series, and a great many graphic adventures AFAIK.

    I’d keep Anchorhead but not for the reasons listed; mere production values would include a great many games. Rather, Anchorhead shuffled things around behind the scenes for the player’s story’s benefit.

    I’d include Dwarf Fortress as a case study if nothing else: pathological proceduralism. It’s related to tabletop RPGs: occasionally good stories fall out of them in much the same way. Similarly, a good story may fall out of the rules of football. Doesn’t happen often, but it can.

    _Shadow of the Colossus_ doesn’t have an interactive story at all, though its implied linear story is a good one (and references _Lord Jim_ IIRC). I wouldn’t include it. _Ico_ I would include because of the ever-present interactive NPC, Yorda — there’s stuff to learn here. (I’ve played both of these games extensively.)

    Speaking of NPCs, _Galatea_ highlights issues with player dissatisfaction with non-ludic dialogue, when such dialogue comprise the whole “game”. (Galatea is not a chatbot, because it’s set in a fictional world. Chatbots are set in the real world.)

    Varicella? Really? Similar for the uber-linear Rameses and Photopia. Curtailing interactivity in service of story is an interesting narrative technique, but it isn’t an *interactive story* technique. Rather the opposite, I would think. If you’d like narrative techniques that are specific to games, we might as well include _Violet_ and it’s method of putting out-of-world events back in-world.

    What I would include is the original _Wing Commander_. The cutscenes and gameplay fed into one another, thanks to the “lounge scenes” where you could have a conversation with the characters who fly & fight with you. These conversations affected gameplay — some characters would or would not fly with you, or protect you in combat depending. If you got someone killed, you must sit through a funeral service! If you got too many wingmen killed, everyone would refuse to fly with you. Even on the enemy side, the Kilrathi aliens would radio you to tell you you had killed the captain’s brother or some such on a previous mission, and suddenly the level got unusually difficult. And all that’s in addition to a typical branching mission structure based on how well your side does! WC uses interactivity for characterization as much as gameplay and directing the plot toward one of multiple endings.

    Mr. Eres at TIGsource mentioned _Kagero: Deception 2_, a booby-trap-the-castle game. It works similarly to Wing Commander, though it goes for breadth over depth — over 100 NPCs with individual backstories, subplots you can influence, the action will pause for a character’s last words upon death, and individual behavior and the cutscenes similarly react to what happens within the gameplay — and vice versa. There’s also a lot more dialogue than _WC_ and about as many cutscenes as a typical RPG, which is unusual for an action game. There’s even a notable moral choice presented purely by the gameplay: whether to kill a kid or not. Letting him live will definitely shut off one of the game’s endings from you, but killing him guarantees you nothing. (In other words, it’s *not* a tradeoff of resources — pure gameplay concerns say kill him, plain and simple.)

    • I apologize to everyone if this is overly snarky, but I find myself unable to resist asking the question: to whom is this post intended to be directed? Did you really just lecture the author of Galatea about the merits of her own game?

    • Er, well, but I didn’t start from the premise that the list should include only games with interactive story (even leaving aside whether I would define that the same way that you do); I said interactive *storytelling*, which might reasonably include those with interesting narrative approaches.

      • PAK: Clever question. I brought it up because I think Emily is too modest to nominate one of her own works for canonization. A lot of the works herein suggested related to interactive story via characterization, POV, or theme. A few via plot. But where’s dialog? We won’t find a whole lot of that in the video game realm, because dialogue makes poor use of its graphical nature. (Consoles’ lack of keyboards or microphones nonwithstanding.)

        Em: If I misunderstood the thread then I misunderstood, but _Spider and Web_ has an interesting narrative approach. ::shrug::

        I pick _Galatea_ for the reason I did because it teaches us something about the craft of I-F: if we quest for interactive story via interactive dialog, then Galatea highlights a potential pitfall we must be aware of. If Galatea had been written by another, then we might be able to say “if the writing didn’t suck, non-ludic conversation would work” or “if the character was unique enough it would work”. But we can’t say these things of your Galatea, so it does highlight something about non-ludic dialogue.

        (And though it creates an Eliza effect for some, other earlier works covered that ground already.)

        So, demerit yeah, but a demerit that teaches something new, with clarity.

      • Hm. I’m not sure I agree about what Galatea might prove or disprove. I mean, leaving aside the point that player reaction to Galatea is extremely varied, a lot of the complaints center on the fact that it’s easy to get stuck (guess-the-noun problem) or that it’s not always clear what effect one’s actions will have (lack of clear agency). It’s not clear to me that people would have the same reactions to a piece with more explicit conversational prompting.

  14. Emily, have you played Fathom yet? It was an interesting experiment with narrative, or at least I thought so when I played it.

    • No, and I’m not actually even sure what you mean. (A quick google of fathom + game turns up something that looks like a Mastermind clone, which I assume is not what you had in mind.) Where should I be looking?

      • Fathom is _almost_ really interesting storytelling. It’s two gimmicks (revealing either would spoil things) are great for involving the player in the action of the story, as if part of the thing, but the gimmicks are underused and little story is told at all.

  15. Please bear with the following sleep-deprived, ill-prepared, and crudely edited statements. I’d like to clarify my earlier comment a little. Portal is a brilliant game. It is brave and succinct; does wonders with atmosphere and setting; has excellent writing and humor, voice acting, and sound design; and actively changes how the player views the world, which is always a sign of strong gameplay but here reaches rare and sublime levels. The reason why I think that it is of relatively limited use as a study is that its story, for the most part, can be reduced to a rigidly scripted character discovery piece. That’s fine! Valve does this sort of thing with unparalleled expertise. That the experience is entirely planned out does not undermine the experiential impact of its interactivity.

    However, Half-Life 2 is a far more ambitious exercise in interactive storytelling due to its elaborate mise-en-scène detail, intimated but unexplained backstory, and, especially, indirect characterization and identification of the player as the game’s hero. The first two factors, while generally uncommon in videogames, are not technically interesting (and both are achieved in Portal, as well). The last idea, though, is really quite fascinating and pervades the series so thoroughly as to become its essential facet in my view.

    The player occupies the first-person avatar of a physicist, Dr. Gordon Freeman, and naturally is the protagonist of the story. Throughout the Half-Life games, characters (friend and foe alike) acknowledge the player’s remarkable and surprising feats of heroism; the character (and thus the player) actually enjoys a messianic reputation—of which all of the main characters are aware and which they acknowledge in various ways. The writing winkingly (and sometimes sinisterly) recognizes the irony of the player being referred to as “the one free man” in a heavily scripted and linear game. These may sound like trivial albeit clever little postmodernisms, but I assure you that they amount to something far greater. This package is used as a delivery mechanism for some interesting critical ideas pertaining to form and genre, as, for instance, when the main villain addresses you (Gordon Freeman, theoretical physicist) to ask: “You have destroyed so much; tell me, what have you created?” More importantly, the player–character identification is used as the ground for surprisingly effective relationships, including a father figure and a romantic partner. This is all done through a measured awareness of the player-as-hero’s actions and what they say most broadly about him; this forms the ground for a remarkable array of relationship development surrounding a mute player-character who never leaves the player’s control.

    As a side note, I think that I would argue that mise-en-scène is something that can be done (and categorically is done even when not intended) in videogames more naturally than in interactive fiction because the former medium provides unsolicited audiovisual information even if only to create a backdrop for whatever type of action is taking place. In contrast, the output of interactive fiction is always requested in a sense by the player because of the inherently turn-based nature of play. It is very difficult to bury background information in interactive fiction because everything presented to the player has the context of being potentially important. IF as an interactive medium features more passive input and active output, while videogames feature more active input and passive output (no judgmental connotations implied by the words “active” and “passive”). I find this very interesting as it hints at a universal equilibrium between user and program. These are formal generalizations, of course, so of course exceptions exist (real-time IF programs, for instance). I apologize if I seem like I’m stating the obvious or anything like that. I thought this might be a useful distinction to bring up. However, I really haven’t thought it through, so please take it with a dose of skepticism/mercy.

    There are some reactions I wrote in a forum post about two years ago after replaying Half-Life 2 that I would like to share here: “The most interesting thing about it, I think, is the way in which the railroading design sweeps you up into the resistance. Yes, your reputation from the Black Mesa incident opens all of those early doors for you, but what’s so neat is that you wind up in league with these characters because the Combine flag you and come after you; for the first half of the game, as you’re on the run and your evasion of their forces becomes more and more intense, there’s a sense that your relationship to the resistance is implicitly building due to, I suppose, Newton’s 2nd law.

    “The reason why this is interesting is more apparent if you take the plot points in their abstract. Imagine that the Combine are not genocidal tyrants. Imagine that the ruling government and the resistance differ primarily on a political level. Also, let’s axe the scene where Alyx rescues you and brings you to Kleiner’s lab. So, the regime becomes interested in you and starts to pursue you and the first half of the game is a long, convoluted chase in which you are increasingly aided by these people who keep low profiles underground. You implicitly fall in with them and become, reciprocally, sympathetic to their cause.

    “It seems to me that HL2’s adventure works pretty much like that. What is interesting here is that the potential this reveals of such an interactive adventure to manipulate the player’s allegiances works because of the intimacy it allows. If the whole thing were a film, you might sit back and say, well, I can appreciate that the protagonist is forced into this position, but really I find myself more sympathetic to the governing regime than the resistance movement. But as a game, there would really be no way to feel that way. You hate the regime because they’re after you, and you like the resistance because they’re helping you. It’s very personal.”

    This is an experience that only interactive media can achieve. People who are interested in how games can facilitate learning or persuade toward a particular viewpoint should be looking here, I think. It also occurs to me that this is potentially very dangerous! Which only makes it more worth studying so that we can understand the effects that games inadvertently have upon their players.

    Incidentally, there is an entertaining and insightful commentary series on Half-Life 2 starting here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqlzpcp0zn8&feature=channel_page. You can feel free to watch at least the first, say, six of these videos without fear of spoilers, but be sure that you do not watch the commentary for Half-Life 2: Episode 2 (Episode 2 is an expansion of Half-Life 2, not the second episode of this commentary) until you have finished the series to date.

    Emily, it is too bad that you don’t have a machine that can run Half-Life 2. The engine is known for scaling down very flexibly on PC, just so you know. Anyway, I will stop here, I think. Tomorrow, I will try to find time to leave Valve behind and talk a little about some of my favorite examples of storytelling as well as opine about your list and others’ suggestions.

    • Skye, my old friend, I must respectfully disagree.

      Half-Life 2 is a remarkable game, certainly, but I do not think its equation of the player to the protagonist is so very remarkable in terms of storytelling, either in terms of the sophistication of the techniques used or in terms of the player’s resulting experience. Games have been playing with that particular conceit and the methods to evoke it for a long time, whether for expediency (Halo’s configuration of game controls in the context of of the story) or as a demonstration of game-design ideology (as has been suggested of Mirror’s Edge). For all of the sophistication of Valve’s character-based technologies, Half-Life 2’s story (and, for that matter, Bioshock’s, as well) approximates to a graphical version of Stephen Bond’s Rameses: you’re trapped in a terrible situation, and the only meaningful agency you possess is utterly irrelevant to the question of liberating yourself from your circumstances. Your manipulator (or, in the case of Rameses, your own conscience) sneers at your helplessness.

      Even Earthbound (the predecessor to Mother 3, that game Valzi recommends above) goes a step beyond Half-Life 2’s equation of the player with the protagonist, equating the player instead with an uninvolved NPC, or God, or the incorporeal force of narrative inevitability, depending on how you’d like to interpret it.

      As for Mother 3, it’s easily the most moving piece of electronic fiction I’ve encountered, but I’m not sure it breaks much ground in terms of storytelling technique. Also, hurdles of convenience, technology, and form stand between it and many of its potential players: assuming you’re comfortable using an emulator (not unlike an IF interpreter, except that the emulation community strikes me as a bit less conscientious in their design choices and documentation), you have to locate a ROM of the game (Google will do this, but it’s not technically legal), download and apply the English language patch, and then proceed to play a gorgeous, clever, and well-written console RPG. Some people will never be able to get past those last two words; many more will never even try. Which is shame. As auntie dessgeega said (http://www.gamersquarter.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=1379&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=2050 ), “this is probably one of the greatest videogames ever made.”

      But to return to the original topic: Emily, I’ve got to commend your interest in Neverwinter Nights’s community content. The game itself is a curious artifact, bogged down like its predecessors with the D&D license and all that that implies, but back in 2002 it was one of the best avenues for would-be game designers to explore narrative ideas. For the sake of brevity, I’ll limit my recommendation to the works of Stephen Gagne (http://nwvault.ign.com/View.php?view=User.EntriesListing&id=25 ), particularly Elegia Eternum and Excrucio Eternum. The latter game especially manages to execute ideas about storytelling and morality that commercial games have been aiming at for years.

      At the risk of toppling over the already swaying pile of suggestions, I’d like to add Persona 3 and 4 to the list of commercial games with things to contribute to the dialogue about storytelling, and for reasons similar to the ones Emily gives in her article about Miss Management. However, these games suffer similar obstacles to those that beset Mother 3, and they represent a far more ridiculous investment of time and potential frustration, as they can be stupidly difficult. Leigh Alexander has summarized them adequately in an article at GameSetWatch: http://www.gamesetwatch.com/2007/08/persona_3_two-faced.php

      • Jason, you may be a backstabbing philistine, but what you say is true. The technique used throughout HL2 is not particularly novel. However, the elegance and longevity of its application are! I also think that you are unfairly reducing the effects of this particular player–protagonist identification in your comparison to Rameses; the development of relationships to NPCs (both specific and in general) is much more interesting than the overall premise.

        Another problem with Mother 3 is that simple emulation renders the rhythmic aspect of the battle system altogether unusable, which will frustrate and disadvantage players. The only way to emulate the game at proper speed is through the use of a flashcart (yes, those devices that are fast becoming illegal) that can tap into Gameboy Advance hardware (I guess that this isn’t emulation, technically). But absolutely, a million times yes: it is worth the trouble.

        I like the way you put that with Earthbound: “equating the player instead with [...] God, or the incorporeal force of narrative inevitability [...].” Yes, this is such a wonderful, interesting, and altogether affecting idea (although its execution depends a lot upon the context) that I literally weep every time, even though I have played the game at least four times now. Earthbound is remarkable for many other things, though, such as Poo’s training and Ness’s multiple level-up upon defeating the evil within his own psyche. The game consistently repurposes Japanese RPG tropes in novel ways to tell its story, and it certainly belongs near (or at) the top of any list regarding interactive storytelling.

        I had (maybe still have) Neverwinter Nights but didn’t manage to finish the game it came with, much less seek out interesting player-created campaigns, which was the reason I had bought it in the first place. I will try to dig it out and look up those stories by Gagne; thank you.

        Here are some new suggestions to add to the list:

        Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare shuffles the player amongst multiple characters and perspectives to great effect (which I will not spoil through elaboration).

        Etrian Odyssey has a very underrated story. The game is sort of a modern update to the Wizardry RPG genre and as such has a simple premise (explore the dungeon! let us know what you find, okay!), a single town with characters that provide shop interfaces and such, and spare incidental text within the dungeon, such as happening upon a mysterious fruit and choosing whether or not to eat it. Many reviewers actually complained about the lack of story. One of the many things that makes this game special is that these flavor events develop quite unexpectedly (despite foreshadowing) into some interesting revelations about the setting as well as some distasteful but mandatory quests that involve a surprising reversal of traditional RPG protagonist/enemy classes. The context for such plot movements is a game in which the player experiences a strong sense of personal investment due to the ground-up creation and customization of party members, the (overall illusory) freedom of exploration, and the important act of mapmaking. It’s a pretty unique experience and is one of my favorite games.

        Silent Hill (the original PlayStation game) is absolutely fascinating because at certain times the town in which it takes place changes into a horrible, nightmarish version of itself. There are two points during the game when forward progress seems impossible and, just before you might turn to leave, you find passages that spatially should not exist but are necessary for your forward progress. When you move through them and come out the other side, you reenter logical space, sometimes with your entrance disappearing behind you, and the building is industrial and dark (and far more dangerous and terrifying). What is especially amazing about this game is the way this occurrence becomes sort of abused, almost like you lose control of a bizarre power, and the town starts spazzing into dark, industrial mode and chopping off huge pieces of road, shutting you into a narrow pathway as if it’s guiding you with a more awakened brand of the intent that got you through those earlier situations. I get so excited about the experience of that and its numerous implications. It feels as though a god is slowly and ever more tightly closing its hands over you. It’s the role of the designer (the anti-player) made manifest, at turns benevolent and set upon your demise.

        Granted, this is more postmodern philosophical horror than storytelling. Anyone will tell you that Silent Hill 2 is the masterpiece in that arena. And rightly so! Play it for its unreliable protagonist and for the deep symbolism from which every graphic and sound element is built. But do not overlook the first game in the series.

        I actually do not think that games such as Planescape: Torment and Fallout are good examples of storytelling through interactivity. Although the former especially has an interesting (and later fascinating) existential premise that ties into the “die, die again” nature of playing a videogame, and although these classics feature richer writing and more dynamic (less black and white) choices when interacting with NPCs or undertaking quests than most modern games (Fallout 3, ugh), the text-heavy presentation is largely noninteractive.

        Super Metroid is my favorite example of how to tell a story without cutscenes or even words, using only visual language in the environment, simple expressive sound and behavior scripts, and the narrative manipulation of basic mechanics by external forces. Now I will proceed to spoil the game’s story as I leave behind such vague words! ***Don’t read the following!*** I am referring to the giant, mutated hatchling that drains almost all of Samus’s energy near the end of the game before releasing her, making sad cooing noises in obvious recognition of its would-be victim, and flying off. The encounter is foreshadowed by your discovery of many creatures’ dust-turned remains. Later, when you fight Mother Brain, you cannot win, and the metroid hatchling comes to your aid, ultimately dying to protect you. At that moment, Samus kind of flashes and suddenly has access to one (and only one) very powerful weapon, which allows her to make short work of the final boss. What is rather interesting about this scene (other than its technical aspects) is the ambiguity of the weapon’s acquisition. It has a kind of rainbow thing about it, much like Mother Brain’s most powerful attack; did the metroid transfer some power from your enemy? That seems the most sensible interpretation, but when (you as) Samus stands up and fires that thing and Mother Brain’s head gets blown back over and over again it really feels like the (laser beam) sword of angry vengeance. It’s a simple thing, but the experience is powerful and expertly crafted.

  16. You want recommendations for Ren’Py games with great stories that belong on a must-play (or rather: must-read) list?

    First of all, play the game that started it all: mikey’s “Black Pencil”. A short narrative about life, and about what to make of it. Painful at times, but just beautiful.

    Then, when you’re already into mikey’s games, get “Ori Ochi Onoe” next, one of the most stunning mystery stories out there, and with great graphics for its age!

    You also probably won’t wanna miss DaFool’s “The Nettestadt Troll”, a medieval romance/mystery with a great catch in the end.

    And if I may recommend one of my own productions: “Metropolitan Blues”, the story of a nameless spirit and its way towards finding companionship, identity and purpose in this world.

    All these games can be found on http://www.renai.us/, the ren’ai archives.

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  19. How about Indigo Prophecy? The designer, David Cage, explicitly stated that he was trying to create what he called an “elastic” storyline. It does some interesting things with multiple perspectives, and although the story got a bit diluted at the end, I found the first half very effective. I played the PS2 version, but I think there’s a PC version which should be able to run under bootcamp on a mac.

    • yeah, i’ve got the PC version of Indigo Prophecy, aka, Fahrenheit. The demo got me super excited about what it was going to do, then I was disappointed by what it actually DID do. Nonetheless, I still found it entertaining, and it had some interesting ideas, even if it didn’t manage to utilize them fully or execute them as well as I would have liked. Plus, the story at the beginning and the story at the end seem to have been conceived by two entirely different people.

  20. Woo, big game-rec thread! Which I’m late on. And everybody’s hit the big-name candidates already. Okay. Random comments, then.

    Ico and Shadow of the Colossus both excel at the *complicity* part of the equation; the gameplay makes you feel very presence in both the environment and the story events. I disagree with Ron about SOTC being less relevant: Ico has an ally NPC, SOTC has oppositional NPCs, but they’re both reactive. In both cases the NPCs present a sense of having goals, purely through body language and action. You involve yourself in those goals to work with (Ico) or exploit (SOTC) the NPCs.

    (A leaked trailer just appeared for Fumito Ueda’s third game, Trico, which looks like it goes even further in that direction. Or, as I said when I saw it: “OMG, Shadow of the Kittenossus!” If the trailer has any bearing on reality, it’s going to be brain-vaporizingly charming.)

    I haven’t played HL2 or Bioshock, but I want to get around to them.

    I’m glad someone nominated Soul Reaver, because I’d be too embarrassed to… it’s certainly not groundbreaking in terms of how its story is constructed. But I think it *was* ahead of its time (1999!) in presenting a fictional world and making it feel real by engaging the action-game mechanics. There’s even a tiny bit of NPC behavior; if you kill a vampire but don’t devour its soul, the scuttling scavengers come along behind the scenes to clean it up. (If you don’t devour *them* first. You’re badass.)

    Perhaps oddly, the best comparison I’ve seen to Soul Reaver in modern games is Aquaria (also mentioned above). Open environment, lots of nooks and crossroads that can be re-explored as you gain abilities, story elements and background/history elements scattered through the world. Just that one game has post-apocalyptic mutant goth vampires, and the other has singing rainbow mermaids. :)

    (Okami is built along the same lines, but the gameplay isn’t quite as rich. Still a very good game, though.)

    Fahrenheit / Indigo Prophecy is a must-play, as a “let’s try this crazy interaction model and take it all the way” experiment.

    I appreciate the genre of narrative microgames (Majesty of Colors, Wish I Were the Moon — I thought Today I Die was great, although I know you didn’t.) I wish they’d chosen some style other than “giant pixels”, though. The giant pixels don’t do much for me, and I don’t see that they’re terribly crucial to the game design either.

    I have an eerie desire to throw Kingdom of Loathing onto the list. Mostly, I admit, because of the singular failure of the recent Zork-branded game to measure up… but KoL *does* have a lot of story, the storyline is very dynamic (if in a shallow CRPG way) and essentially all of that story is presented as text. That’s unusual, once you get outside the IF and MUD worlds.

  21. I would probably recommend Fable II over the first, though I quite enjoyed both of them & think they’re both worth playing.

    The second one, I think, does a much better job at giving the player agency, more ways to complete quests & more detailed NPCs. And the dog, of course, is an excellent addition.

    There’s a lot more that could be said about both, but in terms of what makes Fable interesting, the sequel delivers far more than the original did.

  22. Here’s a thought–the *original* Portal, a text-based game from 1985. The narrative unfolds through research, as you and the interface (a sentient computer–in a neat twist, both you and your electronic companion are amnesiacs in an empty world) slowly piece together the pieces of the story. A Mac version was made, but I don’t know it’s availability. Anyway, find a DOSBoxable version at:

    http://www.hotud.org/Adventure/Portal.html

    Allow me to add Psychonauts to your console list. (Actually, the PC version is superior). Here the narrative is revealed through exploration of psychic landscapes, allowing for a multiple-perspective tale told as a series of mini-stories, all driven by the central themes of psychological block and obsession. There are some really powerful moments that only come through similarly obsessive exploration. This game can be hard, especially for platform-deficient people like myself, but the mechanics are fun enough to keep trying. (The ending sequence is impossible, though–I suggest stopping there.)

    And let me once again urge you, if you’re looking to do something with your PC partition, to try Pacian’s early game Poizoned Mind. It’s my favorite of his several fine pieces; at the same time linear and branching, its structure is very nearly the point of the story, and the ending reaches an uncommon poignancy. I was reminded of it when playing the excellent Violet; in that game, at one point I had figured out exactly what to do, but was doing absolutely everything in my power *not* to do those things.

    http://www.indiegames.com/blog/2007/09/poizoned_mind.html

    • I wouldn’t bother with that. Even among the usual lame academic outsiders with nothing to say about games, those articles are particularly dry, poorly written, and pointless. Spend your time reading the Gamer’s Quarter or Action Button instead:

      http://www.gamersquarter.com
      http://www.actionbutton.net

      Not all content on those sites is created equal, but I guarantee you that even the worst they have to offer is far more worthwhile than Well Played.

      • Hey, I just read that! Sadly, Skye is right: the essays offer zero insight, and the article drawing a connection between IF and KoL is flimsier than wet stunt nuts. However, it did remind me that Ocarina of Time is the Parthenon of game design; its classic architecture of roaming, collection, and skill challenge, all in service of advancing and enriching the story, codified the blueprint for adventure games (of all genres) to come.

      • I confess that contemptuous dismissal of entire groups/schools of thought doesn’t sit very well with me — nor does it accord with my experience. I’ve read some valuable academic game writing (_half-real_, especially, but some other things as well).

        That said, the essays I read in Well-Played were more descriptive summaries and subjective reactions than analysis; the book isn’t what I’m looking for at this juncture.

      • “I confess that contemptuous dismissal of entire groups/schools of thought doesn’t sit very well with me — nor does it accord with my experience. I’ve read some valuable academic game writing.”

        I certainly would not dismiss all such scholars who have recently approached games, Emily, but a sad many of them seem to pay mere lip service or pretend themselves expert or pioneering when they have no right to. There is often so little substance or criticism among “game journalism” that one would hope from better in academia.

        It is especially hard for me not to express generalized contempt when I think of all the game-illiterate humanities professors who must receive such “work” with interest and feel impressed. They and other audiences are misled about the sophistication of electronic media when they buy into what passes for cutting edge theory from authors who seem to be taking advantage of games’ youth and stigma.

        (Also, to clarify, my disdain has to do with a profession of writing, not a group or school of thought.)

      • Oh, well, okay. Bullshit-detection is a necessary skill for academic readers everywhere: in every field, there’s enough pressure to publish that many publications are badly researched or poorly theorized or just crammed with jargon. The most common fate of such work is not that it corrupts its discipline forever, but that it winds up in footnotes here and there and otherwise gets ignored.

        So, yeah, I don’t necessarily have a lot of respect for vapid or contentless work, but it doesn’t get my righteous indignation flowing terribly much.

      • Probably for the best; I have rather an overabundance of righteous indignation. Surely I will at this rate exhaust the precious resource and die at a tragically young age.

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  25. I would like to add my votes for The Last Express, if at least because it tried to do things differently. In my opinion, it succeeded on quite a few of them.

    For NWN, I thought the original campaign was not great. The story might have been nice but I thought it threw too many things at the player and I got bored and lost after a while.
    Both expansions, though, were pretty nice (Shadows of the Undrentide & Hordes of the Underdark).

    As for other modules, I’ll recommend Stefan Gagne’s work (Excrucio Eternum in particular, Penultima Rerolled and Hex Coda if you don’t mind a more “epic” and game-ish approach). The Shadowlords and Dreamcatcher series are also among my favorites.
    It seems many people like the Witch’s Wake, too, so I mention it.

  26. I’m going to carefully avoid “great games you must play” and instead consider interactive storytelling as the _only_ thing we’re interested here…

    …and promptly put forward Second Sight, by Free Radical from about 4 years ago.

    It is not the greatest game ever by a long stretch, but it has a smart, clever take on the way it tells its narrative. (To give the background, but not spoilers: you wake up in a hospital, with psychic powers and memories of a mission to snowy tundra that went wrong; the levels alternate between the hospital and the mission; as you play the levels in the past, the present appears to be changing).

    I thought it was taking me off down a few rabbitholes, but then it brought everything around brilliantly, pulling the wool from my eyes without cheating. Also: the slightly exaggerated cartoon style of the characters makes sense when you see how well their eyes are animated; there’s some great facial work in the digital acting.

    Anyhow, it is not a game I would necessarily recommend for its play, but its story is a smart one, and one that, whilst possible in cinema, makes the player more complicit in its deception by virtue of its interactivity.

  27. Oh, Emily, I wanted to say that I’m really looking forward to hearing a more extensive analysis (or whatever you want to call it) on The Path from you. I have the game, but I haven’t played it to completion yet. I think the game is interesting in a discussion of “interactive storytelling” though, because it doesn’t really have much of a story. At least, there seems to be very little explicit story, and even the implied story seems fairly minimal. It actually seems to be almost entirely up to the player to create the story inside his or her own mind. At least, that’s kind of how I see it.

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