As the final stanzas of 2012 are chanted by the monks of time, it’s time to put on our reflective hats (as these hats are made of tinfoil, they’re also useful for deflecting Mayan apocalypti, which is convenient today). It may be bias on my part, but it feels like this has been an extremely important year for narrative(s) in and around games.
Inside our virtual metaverse, The Walking Dead delivered a moving and emotionally-responsive narrative, while Day Z, XCOM and FTL gave players plenty of systems from which to spawn their own emergent stories. Text-game tool Twine took off in certain circles, providing a medium for non-programmers to express themselves through interactive fictions. I plan to play as many Twine games as I can over the holiday period, and report back on my favourites, put here’s an initial recommendation: Cyberqueen, from the most recent Ludum Dare competition (it’s entirely text-based, but probably NSFW if your co-workers have good eyesight).
In my personal world, my company – SeeThrough Studios – managed to win “Best Writing in a Game” at Freeplay 2012 for Flatland: Fallen Angle, which was very gratifying, and I made my first solo game: Purgatorio. (And I started this blog, of course.)
But much of my headspace this half of the year was dominated by game-related narratives that took place in the “real world”.
Most notably, these included heated discussions about games journalism’s cosy relationship with publishers and women’s struggles with the status quo of the industry. Feminism was a strong theme throughout the year, although it did unfortunately bring with it a whole load of ugly backlash, and even backlash-backlash. And then there was Kickstarter – Tim Schafer’s little experiment in crowdfunding fundamentally changed the possibility space in which games are able to be produced, and was potentially responsible for more web copy than any other single subject. (Also, lots of great projects got funded, and a few crashed and burned.)
The meta-story of narrative in games feel like it’s building to something. Even AAA shooters seem to be trying to say something more than “headshots are fun”. Exhibit A is Brendan Keogh’s long-form dissection of Spec Ops: The Line, a game that wants to a be the next chapter in the multi-media lineage that began with Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. And Far Cry 3 is supposedly a reflection on/criticism of the hyper-real nature of videogames, although it is highly debatable as to whether it succeeds (as John Walker’s fascinating interview with the game’s lead writer shows (beware spoilers!)).
Can ultra-violent games like Spec Ops, Far Cry 3 and indie wunderkind Hotline Miami really ask interesting questions about the nature of the medium? Or do they themselves slide too comfortably into the tropes that they claim to be examining? Is the most that we can expect from them that they begin revealing the negative space around what will prove to be far more important and interesting questions about just what games are capable of (beyond glorying in death and destruction)?
If so, then perhaps we can think of 2012 as a cliffhanger in the great narrative of the medium:
Our heroine, Jill Game, peeks through the keyhole set into the Forbidden Door. Her eyes widen in shock. But is that a smile playing at the edge of her lips, or does she have a nervous twitch? Tune in in 2013 for the next exciting installment!