The Untapped Potential of Video Games

Yesterday I finally started playing Mount & Blade: Warband. It came out on the PS4 a few days ago and it has a 10/10 on Steam, not to mention a good friend of mine has recommended I play through it on more than one occasion, so I figured it was time to give it a go. It’s been fun so far, albeit a little rough around the edges (not to mention the fact that it’s not a great console port). But it got me thinking in a bigger scope, because it manages to pull some things off that are way ahead of their time.

If you’ve read even one of my blog posts, you know that I talk a lot about the unique storytelling potential of video games. I don’t mean in a traditional narrative sense; I’m talking about the way that video games can redefine the structure of a story. They are the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure books (or at least they can be). As technology improves, they become more and more complex, in some cases creating microcosms of living breathing spaces that affect the player and that the player can affect themselves.

thesims4
The Sims uses complex systems to simulate a small world that the player manipulates

The extreme versions of this are “systemic games,” or games that have complex systems within them that the player can shape and that the player is shaped by. Examples include Mount & Blade, X-COM, and Civilization. These games all have a series of systems in place that the player must manipulate in their favor for a positive outcome to be reached. For example, in Mount & Blade the world is split up into factions. In order to gain renown in that world, the player must do tasks for and eventually pledge allegiance to one of the factions. However, this can lead to losing favor with one or several of the other factions, depending on their relation with the faction you aligned with. This creates divergent game-play, meaning many scenarios can arise out of these systems and the player will have to come up with new ways of dealing with them each time. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the narrative driven game. Examples include Uncharted, BioShock, and Asura’s Wrath. These games function more like an interactive movie; it’s up to the player to further the action, but no matter who plays it or how many times they do the story and gameplay will always follow the same beats.

Uncharted 4 Nate Elena Playstation
The more linear structure of a story-driven game allows it to have more focus

Both of these are equally viable ways to make a game, and I enjoy both equally, depending on the game of course. But what does each kind of game offer, and which takes the best advantage of the medium? Well, both and neither. Systemic games are excellent at giving the player agency, at creating a true sandbox that the player can explore and manipulate. This leads to some crazy shit happening, absolutely, but the complex nature of systemic games limits what kinds of stories they can tell, if they’re telling any at all. Most systemic games avoid trying to tell a cohesive, traditional story altogether, and that’s fine; they don’t need to tell a story because the gameplay is the story. On the opposite side of the coin are the story driven games, where because of the simplicity of their systems they are able to tell cohesive and sometimes excellent stories at the sacrifice of player agency or any real sense of choice.

Recently, I’ve noticed more games that try to marry these two concepts, to varying results. Traditionally the Metal Gear Solid series has been very linear and story-focused, but MGSV changed tack completely and added in complex interactive systems. However, in doing so it sacrificed the depth of its story, something that many fans considered core to the series. Shadow of Mordor went even further, introducing the Nemesis System (something that other games should utilize) and adding layers of interaction with enemy characters that I haven’t seen before or after, but it suffered similarly to MGSV in the story department. Still, both games are moving in a direction that I think is ahead of their time, creating a game that marries two different facets of gaming. Weirdly, I think Mount & Blade has succeeded in that respect more than any other game I’ve played.

shadow-of-mordor
The Nemesis System is dynamic and compelling, but still falls short of deep storytelling

Mount & Blade is very, very far from perfect. It looks like ass, the controls are wonky, and the UI is terrible. But it comes from the opposite direction of MGSV and SoM, in that rather than creating a story as a framework for systems it started on the systemic side of the spectrum and peppered in elements of story, allowing the systems and the characters/factions woven within to create their own dynamic stories that involve the player and their actions directly. Does it work all the time? Hell no. It’s clumsy and the storytelling is weak and spread far too thin. However, I think it represents something larger, an exciting trend that I hope takes off.

The more complex we can build our digital worlds, the more we can get the pieces to interact in ways that tell stories more compelling than two Sims getting married and then lighting each other on fire (that’s pretty compelling, actually). These pieces can become more and more dynamic, to the point that they interact in meaningful and surprising ways, truly affecting one another. Imagine a game where the story happens dynamically, where the player has the ability to make real changes within the world of the game. Imagine that the game is intelligent enough to respond to those changes and throw challenges back at the player, so that it’s never quite the same game. That is the true potential of videogames: to create a living, breathing world that the player can truly and meaningfully manipulate. We’re heading in that direction, and it’s exhilarating. Here’s a great GDC talk from Ken Levine discussing a lot of what I’ve touched upon here:

We’re a very long way off from a truly dynamic videogame world like the one I’m imagining. Still, I think we’ll begin to see more games innovate in that direction as the technology improves. It will be interesting to watch it unfold, and I can’t see what crazy experimental game is the next rung in the ladder to the systemic narrative. Until then I’m happy to deal with my Orc nemesis, Plumkrish the Destroyer. Thanks for reading, and Stay Optimistic.

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