Yes! I asked for it: more of my thoughts on narrative structure in computer games!
I have been loving rogue-likes for some time now. I was all set to write up glorious praise for the purest game mechanics I have come across. Doom RL, FTL, desktop dungeons, even trying my hand at Nethack; these are games that keep plot minimal and give you the time to explore them fully. Their randomised levels, perma-death, and lack of quick save, mean you can't learn a route through them or play them by muscle memory; you've go to play them as games, accept you'll probably die somewhere along the short playthrough, but along the way you might unlock something else about the game on the way.
But something happened the other night; I was looking at the ftl wiki page, and I just got a bit bored of the ludicrously unlikely unlockables, as rewarding and enjoyable as they are. I've enjoyed ftl, in the casual way, but in order to really play it, I'd need to invest hours in it, same as a more serious game; rogue-likes are like casual games for hardcore gamers. And I can't claim to be that, anymore.
So instead i fired up Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the World. A complete avant-face which has done me wonders. I have utterly refound my love of narrative.
But before Cthulhu, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. I finished playing it a bit of time ago having racked up far more hours playing it than necessary. It is a game, in many ways. A very simple mechanic ('hide') gets you from the start to the end of what is basically a three-act story.
When i finished Amnesia: The Dark Descent, my biggest thought at the end was "does that castle make physical sense?" It's more than a moot point. There's a lift that seems to plunge floor after floor, then in the dungeon you find yourself in, the sun streams in through from what looks like only two floors above. There are guest rooms which clearly occupy the same space. And in the depths of the castle there appears to be a cathedral, with infinitely deep floors and ceilings. Maybe it's meant to be a magic castle like the sword level in thief. But while these things break you out of the game, like grammatical errors in a novel, they don't affect the plot. I might explore these ideas later in another piece on architecture in video games.
The story is shuffled up, as the game begins at the start of act three: Daniel decides to kill Alexander and erases his memory as to why (this is not a spoiler, it's the setup). During the course of the game, the first two acts are related to us through the random notes and the pages of Daniel's diary he has for some reason scattered throughout the castle in chronological order. Plot aside, the game forgoes almost all interaction; it's really a variation of a first person adventure game, with very simple puzzles separated by intense fear. It, and Dark Corners... are both what I have come to think of as 'unteractive' games.
Unteractive games, like Dear Esther and Thirty Flights of Loving, are like promenade theatre. The action happens around you, envelopes you, although you don't do anything yourself to further it. In fact, a huge amount of games are already like this, they just hide the fact with fake interaction.
By fake interaction, I mean that you're not really physically engaging with the game. Your Portals and your Half-Lifes, just to stick to first person games, are interactive. Unless you do something, the game doesn't go anywhere. Thirty Flights and Esther are games that you don't do anything in, not that that's a criticism. But all you control is the pace the information is relaid to you at. It's a style of storytelling that has only previously existed in promenade theatre, as I say, in that that involves a journey, and a feeling of involvement for the audience that is really an illusion. Most games dress their lack of interaction by asking you to do something repetitive and meaningless while they feed you narrative. I'm glad some games have had the bravery to do away with that, and just present the narrative more directly, and calmly.
That said, I think more games could do with stripping out the interactive elements and going unteractive. That underwater shock game (whatever it was called) would have been much better if it had removed all the sleepwalking combat with the crazed survivors and just left you to explore a totally dead city, with the occasional and surprisingly violent encounter with a big daddy and little sister.
Amnesia and Dark Corners have a smattering of interaction, of the puzzle solving, graphic adventure type. But the puzzles virtually solve themselves and what really you have is a story that is being presented like a second person text; the puzzles just give you the impetus to explore the world more fully.
Thief was the first game I remember that presented stories as fragments scattered around an area, that you piece together in your mind. Actually that's not true, Looking Glass games used the technique throughout their career, and from the deserted magic school in Ultimate Underworld 2, to the logs left behind in System Shock, it is an excellent way to tell a tragedy. Most memorably, the live logs you receive as you rush to save some survivors, only to find a cortex reaver looming over their fresh corpses. So the part in Amnesia where you enter the wine cellar, to find the diaries of poisoned militia, is nothing new in style. It's part of a grand tradition of games that are like looking glass games.
So I'd consider an unteractive game to be one where your actions have no consequence to the plot, and the game is honest about that. Compare with interactive fiction, where the story actually changes depending on your decisions. Games like Torment and Deus Ex are about halfway between, because even if the overarching plot is the same, characters have different arcs and the details of the plot are different in different playthroughs.
I like unteractive games now. Suddenly, more than rogue likes. I've rediscovered stories and I love them; and I love this style of being fed a story.