Strength in storytelling a history of narrative in video games - part two

As we saw in part one, the evolution of storytelling in games has come a long way since its inception – from simplistic backstories for basic interactive experiences, through to the more compelling ‘Hollywood’ experiences we enjoy today.

The industry has matured, both literally and figuratively. One of 2018’s biggest games was God of War, a half-sequel, half-reimagining of what was once a brutal bloodbath of a series. It still is, but now it has a nuanced narrative that won it many awards for its storytelling. So how did we arrive at this point?

 

The start of something good

Video Games have moved on significantly from early interactive entertainment in which thinly veiled backstories were intended to flesh out the most basic of visuals. Games now offer richly detailed worlds in which compelling storylines are complemented by stunning visuals. If done right, they can add a whole new layer of nuanced storytelling to your game.

French developer Quantic Dream have become leaders in cinematic game experiences that perfectly blur the lines between Hollywood movies and games. One of their earliest titles, Fahrenheit, was released on both the PS2 and Xbox in 2005. When it was announced, Quantic Dream defied convention, and labelled the game as the first “interactive film”. Indeed, it relied heavily on motion-capture technologies and other techniques first pioneered by the games industry that have become commonplace in Hollywood productions (and have even become standard practice in RealtimeUK’s own TV & Film division).

The game featured a split-screen camera, a time-based decision system, and a branching narrative – all huge advances for the time and something that would grow in popularity.

Future games from Quantic Dream included ‘Heavy Rain’, ‘Beyond: Two Souls’, and 2018’s ‘Detroit: Become Human’, which further underpinned the advances and importance of successful storytelling in games. The former had multiple main characters that could die at any time, further reinforcing the complex and rich narratives that players could now experience.

 

Massive effect

At the other end of the spectrum, games like Mass Effect realised everything that BioWare, its developer, had been working towards. They created a sci-fi story that is still regarded by many as a classic 12 years after its initial release. Regardless of what you might think of the end of the trilogy, BioWare crafted a beginning, middle, and end that had some of the most compelling characters ever committed to video game history. And they did it with a huge focus on choice. This wasn’t just BioWare’s story – it was yours.

The decisions you made affected how everyone saw you and how they responded to you. You could choose to be a merciful paragon or a merciless renegade. You chose what to say in conversations and what tough decisions to make. And it had consequences – not all of your team would necessarily make it through alive.

Key to its success in storytelling was the heavy use of cinematics within the game, rendered in-engine to create a seamless experience. Although realising the storyline in-engine remains a key technical challenge, the tools and technologies have continued to advance. Advances in engines like UE4, Unity, Frostbite, and Lumberyard mean that achieving great visual storytelling has become less of a technical challenge and more of a ‘craft’ that is now more reliant on the key talent of directors, animators and VFX artists.

 

Where are we now?

The democratisation of these technologies has attracted key acting talent like Andy Serkis, best known for his pioneering motion-capture performance in ‘Lord of the Rings’. He brought his talent to the critically-acclaimed Heavenly Sword. Most recently, he was used to demonstrate the advances in facial performance using UE4 technology, to show the extent to which this technology can be used to convey emotion in storytelling.

Advances in in-engine technologies have allowed developers to push the boundaries of storytelling, delivering eerily-accurate digital duplicates and award-worthy, show-stopping performances. However, achieving such an effect can only happen when an understanding of the technical complexities of the technologies is married with successful direction and creativity.

At RealtimeUK, we understand how important story is to not just the game, but the trailer too. Combining compelling storytelling and excellent direction, we have delivered many examples of outstanding work. If you’d like to discuss your next project, get in touch with Dave Cullinane at dave@realtimeuk.com.