Any discussion of storytelling in games is going to run up against a barrier at some point due simply to the nature of games as (in very loose terms) “interactive systems governed by rules” seems to run counter to what defines a story. I personally prefer the term narrative as it doesn’t have the same connotations of a strictly linear progression, though there is still a dichotomy between narrative and games.
This appears to be something that is clear to Ken Levine, as the third major point he touched upon in his GDC Presentation was how BioShock was designed in a way to encourage the player to discover the narrative for themselves. He described the difference between the traditional linear narratives of films (and cut-scenes) as being designed to “… push information at the player” where as in games the ideal is for the player themselves to actively engage with the story and pull it towards them.
In her seminal book on the narrative potential of computers, Hamlet On The Holodeck, Janet Murray described the four essential properties of digital environments, [Chapter 3, page 71] that they are: “procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic.” The former two properties she grouped together as what makes such environments interactive. The latter pair she considered to be the defining aspects of immersion (A topic Clint Hocking dealt with specifically in his GDC Presentation “I-fi Immersive Fidelity In Game Design”, and something I plan to return to at a later date).
The primary two properties are of interest because not only do they encompass what is usually meant by the term interactive, they also cover a lot of what is inferred by the term gameplay. The remaining two attributes, that of being spatial and encyclopedic, are therefore what is present in addition to the core gameplay. It is within these two properties and how they interact with each other, and gameplay, that the narrative is found.
Of these narrative properties the spatial, or the ability to provide a navigable space, is prehaps the most significant difference between a narrative told within a game and one within any other medium. A film can represent a location but only a game (Using the broadest definition of the word), can let you explore that location; no longer are you bound by the viewpoint of the camera. Because it is not possible to be absolutely certain of where the you are or what you are looking at, attempts at providing narrative should be moved away from the critical path and out into the environment itself. There are ways to encourage the player to stand in the right place and look in the right direction, techniques that Valve Software are rapidly becoming the masters of with Half Life 2 and it’s episodic sequels. Even so these techniques cannot be universally relied upon, and furthermore if they are too prevalent or obvious they can feel artificially restrictive.
There will always be limits to your exploration in such games, but done right those limits can serve the narrative itself; handled correctly a blocked path serves both gameplay, by keeping players heading in a particular direction, and provides a narrative beat, by highlighting destruction that has occurred before you arrived.
Environmental narrative provides context. Throughout BioShock and Half-Life 2 there are areas where you are given freedom to explore within boundaries, and discover the background to Rapture, and City 17 (Alien Controlled Dystopian backdrop to Half-Life 2) at your own pace.
Players will be more willing to engage with a narrative if they feel they have some involvement in it, and what better way to encourage involvement than to allow players to discover the narrative for themselves.
Together with the final property of digital environments, that of being encyclopedic, this freedom to explore at your own pace is what allows games to including the level of depth required to satisfy all three audience levels, without overloading any one group with information. It’s what allows games to include both scope and depth, as Janet Murray herself describes it [Chapter 3, Page 84] “The capacity to represent enormous quantities of information in digital form translates into an artist’s potential to offer a wealth of detail, to represent the world in both scope and particularity.”
Games are not best served by the strictly linear storytelling techniques of other mediums, and it’s only by making the most of the strengths that games do possess that new and interesting ways of providing narratives, and presenting stories, can be achieved.
Nobody cares about your stupid story because you are telling it badly.