The narrative in Gone Home (2013) is akin to a detective story.
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All work, all play: the art of videogame writing

Videogames are designed and programmed for action, which means storytelling has the capacity to be complex and engaging in ways not possible in other media.

Games writers dream up characters, dialogue, motivations and plot much like film screenwriters. But rather than keeping an audience captive for two or three hours at a time as in cinema, gamers will play for dozens if not hundreds of hours over the course of a game.

While some factors of screenwriting come into play in videogames, the nature of game storytelling is quite different. This is the theme being explored at Perth Festival this weekend in The Game Changers: The Writer and The Game, which on the face of it seems to break the traditional model for writers festivals.

So what can we say about writing for games?

Player agency

At the heart of game storytelling is the concept of “player agency”. Here, “agency” refers to the ability of a player to make changes within the game environment, or even more importantly, the illusion of being able to do this.

If the game presents a convincing enough illusion of freedom then the player suspends his or her disbelief in the artificiality of the game’s world and the limitations in their choice of pathway.

As a medium of interaction, videogames present the player with different possibilities and ask them to enact stories based on designed structures.

This may take a linear form, as in the clearly defined pathways of the action-adventure The Last of Us (2011), to the relatively non-linear in the sense of freedom experienced playing game Skyrim (2011).

Videogames run a broad spectrum and, while it is accepted that all games have rules, it can be argued that videogames are not necessarily a story-based medium. Looking to early game history, game spaces were more akin to game boards or sports fields.

Think of maze games such as Pac-Man (1980), sports games such as Horace Goes Skiing (1982), and tower defence games such as Plants vs Zombies (2013).

Horace Goes Skiing.

The objectives of these types of games are straightforward – stay alive as long as possible, and/or obtain a high score. The game space may be limited but the play strategies are endless. Story may be ascribed to these types of games, but they aren’t considered story-based games in a significant sense.

Narrative evolution

As game history progressed, the abstraction of games like Pac-Man evolved into the “convincing illusion” of fictional game worlds.

The advent of navigating 3D space in games from the mid-1990s such as Super Mario 64 (1996) and Tomb Raider (2008) led to the living, breathing worlds we experience in games such as Skyrim (2011) and Grand Theft Auto V (1997).

Over the last ten years, game storytelling has made significant developments along with the rapid rise in new capabilities of each subsequent console generation.

Building on this, the flourishing of the indie game movement has led to an increased experimentation and sophistication in game form and storytelling. We now see a greater range of subject matter and variety of storytelling approaches from both mainstream and indie game development, from the emotional drama of Heavy Rain (2010) to the pixelated puzzles of Fez (2012) and the simple ethereal serenity of Journey (2012).

Ricardo "Eb" Trejo

With the further maturation of videogames as a form of expression, and the average age of gamers being over 30 in countries such as Australia, game developers have greater remit to create and explore more adult-orientated experiences.

Contemporary videogame experiences can be so emotional and encompassing that players are moved deeply while playing certain games – think of the harrowing decision-making of The Walking Dead (2012) or the relationship that develops between Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us (2011).

American media scholar Henry Jenkins argues that games use their environment to tell stories and may exhibit four dimensions of what he calls “narrative architecture”: games may draw upon pre-existing stories and enact story through traditions drawn from other media such as cinema in the form of non-interactive expository scenes or “cut scenes”, embed story elements within the game space, and create the possibility for players to author their own stories by constructing the world in which they play as in the case of Minecraft (2011).

Exploring human emotion

In Braid (2008), game creator Jonathan Blow set out to explore loss and forgiveness. A game “mechanic” is a feature that describes how the game behaves or operates. It is tied in to the game’s rules and what a player can do within the game.

 

Thomas Hawk

Braid is a puzzle game in which the core mechanic is the player’s ability to manipulate the flow of time, including rewinding time. Here the central thematic and conceptual concerns of the game are designed into a gameplay feature that explores memory and the feelings associated with failed relationships.

A game such as Gone Home (2013) demonstrates environmental storytelling. In it, the player assumes the role of Katie, who returns home from a long trip overseas to her empty family home and discovers a mysterious note written by her sister, Samantha.

A liminal example of game design as exploration, Gone Home is akin to a detective story, in which the player searches the house for artefacts that develop the tapestry of the intriguing narrative about Samantha and the rest of the Katie’s family.

The accomplishment in the writing of Gone Home can be seen in the way the game activates players' curiosity to draw them into the mystery. There’s a subtlety and elegance to the writing of this game – despite not encountering any other physical characters, fragments of narrative are dispersed and embedded throughout which the player must actively piece together to interpret the story.

In many ways, the similarities between the game writing and screenwriting processes are limited to constructing overarching plots or writing character dialogue and cut scenes – should these techniques even be employed in the game’s approach to story.

Videogames are designed and programmed for action, which means storytelling has the capacity to be complex and engaging in ways not possible in other media. Story is affected on a moment-to-moment basis dependent on the affordances employed, the way spaces are navigated, or choices the player makes.

Videogame environments create a world for meaningful play where events unfold, challenges evolve and the story is different for each and every player.

The Game Changers: The Writer and The Game takes place on Saturday February 22 at Octagon Theatre, University of Western Australia. Perth International Arts Festival runs until March 1.

Scott Knight does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Scott Knight is Assistant Professor of Film, Television and Videogames at Bond University.

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition