From the Archives: Our Changing Attitudes to Interactive Storytelling

As I write this, I have beside me a copy of the October 1997 issue of PC Zone, a then-popular, now sadly defunct PC games magazine from my homeland of the UK.

I keep this magazine around for two reasons: firstly, the walkthrough of Discworld II on page 145 was written by none other than a teenage yours truly, earned me what felt like a small fortune when I was in secondary school, and represented one of the earliest occasions on which words I had written appeared on national newsstands; and secondly, I simply enjoy looking back on old magazines and seeing how much the games industry and its members’ attitudes have changed over the years.

It’s this second point that I particularly want to explore today.

This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2013 as part of the site’s regular READ.ME column on visual novels. It has been edited and republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

Phantasmagoria, 1997

“People everywhere these days continue to think of interactive movies as a load of rubbish, and I must admit that most of them are,” wrote Luke Bruenjes of Victoria, Australia, author of the magazine’s “Letter of the Month” and subsequent winner of a pile of promotional T-shirts that the PC Zone staff didn’t want. “But this is only because the stories are so bad. Game designers spend ages working on gameplay, interactivity, playability, puzzles and the like, when all their creative energy should be directed at developing the story. The only thing that makes a game any good is a story, not the design, the puzzles and the rest. No producers really care about the story — they tend to think that if it looks good and plays well, it will sell.”

I was interested to read Bruenjes’ thoughts from back in 1997, because they kind of mirror my own personal attitudes right now. Obviously everyone comes to games for different reasons — a question which we explored back in the early days of this column — but for me, I’m much more likely to forgive dodgy (or non-existent) game mechanics if the story, characters and game world have hooked me in and made me want to know more. But we’ll come back to that in a moment — let’s look at the response from Jeremy Wells, editor of PC Zone at the time.

“Interactive movies do tend to get a bit of a slagging, but that’s because most of the games that fall under this banner have been utterly crap,” begins Wells’ response to Bruenjes. “Take Phantasmagoria, for example. The story could have quite easily been made into a movie, but the limited level of interaction made it nice to look at, but very dull to play. When people buy games they expect to a) be entertained (it’s got to be fun) and b) be immersed. Phantasmagoria didn’t fulfil either criteria and just left people feeling frustrated because it didn’t meet their expectations of what a game should do.

Phantasmagoria, 1997

“Roberta Williams (who developed Phantasmagoria and the excellent King’s Quest series of adventures), Chris Roberts (of Wing Commander fame) and LucasArts (who produced the superb Indiana Jones and Monkey Island adventures) all pride themselves on telling stories within their games,” Wells continues. “They also appreciate that gamers want a high level of interactivity, immersion and expect to be entertained. A good story isn’t enough. Look at games like Quake, which get people ducking and diving, and [Command & Conquer], which turn them into twitching megalomaniacs. Other elements are integral to the whole of the gaming equation.”

The fact that Bruenjes was writing about story being the most important thing in a game to him back in 1997 was an interesting point to me, but if anything I found Wells’ response considerably more fascinating because it represents an attitude that has undergone a much bigger shift over the years. People who feel like Bruenjes are still around — I’m one of them, as I’ve already said — but those who feel like Wells felt at the time are seemingly starting to dwindle in number.

School of Talent: Suzu-Route, 2017

There are, of course, still people out there who believe gameplay is king (and even those who believe that any attempt to put stories in games is “idiotic”) but the mainstream’s attitude towards games that put story first, gameplay second is changing significantly — you only have to look at the overwhelmingly positive critical response to titles such as Thatgamecompany’s Flower and Journey and Telltale’s episodic adventures to see this, not to mention the fact that a lot of people could overlook, for example, Spec Ops: The Line’s rather pedestrian third-person shooter gameplay simply because its narrative was so clever and compelling.

What has caused this shift in attitudes over the years, then? There are a number of contributing factors. Let’s first remember that back in 1997, Internet usage — at least in PC Zone’s home territory of the UK — wasn’t anywhere near as ubiquitous as it is today, and thus a lot of people got their opinions on all things game-related from newsstand publications rather than online discussion.

Ne no Kami: The Two Princess Knights of Kyoto, 2017

There were considerably fewer magazines (and writers thereof) in 1997 than there are people commenting on the Internet every day in 2013, which meant that opinions tended to be a lot more homogeneous.

If a magazine said that something was crap — like PC Zone frequently did with interactive movies – a lot of people tended to believe it without question. This is, of course, a hugely oversimplified model of media theory, but the principle is there, at least — if there are fewer reliable opinions out there for people to explore and review before making their own mind up, then there’s significantly less chance of dissent and consequently less likelihood that people will take a chance on something and occasionally find themselves pleasantly surprised.

Today, meanwhile, while we have a lot more supposed “opinion leaders” with a platform in the mainstream press than we did back in print’s heyday, we also have a lot of people more willing to put themselves out there with opinions that don’t necessarily match the “norms” of the industry. MoeGamer itself is a good example.

The Labyrinth of Grisaia, 2012

Consequently we find a lot more people inspired by these dissenting opinions to give things a chance that they might not have done otherwise. This is a very positive thing on the whole, as it means that the games industry of today covers a much broader spectrum of genres and demographics than it did back in 1997. It also, of course, has the negative side-effect of giving everyone a voice which, as anyone who has ever read a YouTube comments section will know, isn’t always a good  thing.

Perhaps a bigger change the industry has gone through over time, though, is a growing sense of maturity and the acceptance that a “good game” doesn’t necessarily have to have that elusive perfect balance between graphics, sound, playability and longevity that many magazines used to place an undue amount of focus on. The term “game” these days is actually a rather misleading one, because it covers experiences as diverse as the barely-interactive medium of visual novels (which, of course, is what we’re primarily concerned with in this column) to the completely freeform, unstructured “make your own fun” experiences of titles that, when they launched, were seemingly genre-defying, such as Don’t Starve, Proteus and Minecraft.

Katawa Shoujo, 2012

Visual novels were around even in the late ’90s, but for various reasons didn’t enjoy as much acceptance from the public in the West as they do today. Now, visual novels are still something of a niche interest outside of Japan, but we are at least getting officially-translated versions of Japanese titles for more “mainstream” systems such as PSP (Corpse Party and its sequel Book of Shadows), DS (Ace Attorney, 999), Vita and 3DS (Virtue’s Last Reward, the sequel to 999) as well as a whole string of titles for PC thanks to the efforts of specialist publishers such as Mangagamer and JAST USA.

Not only that, but we’re getting independent Western developers such as Christine Love, Winter Wolves and Hanako Games — not to mention higher-profile studios such as Telltale Games, David Cage’s Quantic Dream and Dontnod — adopting the visual novel format and variations thereof as a means of telling interactive stories, often to significant degrees of success.

It’s a sign of how far we’ve come that these games — which are often extremely light on what we’d traditionally refer to as “gameplay” — can be recognized, praised and celebrated purely on the strength of their stories, how well they tell them and their respective sense of emotional engagement rather than how “fun” they are.

School Days HQ, 2010

Imagine how a title such as School Days HQ would have been received back in the PC Zone of 1997, for example; it would have more than likely been slated for similar reasons to those Wells used to dismiss Phantasmagoria — a “limited level of interaction making it nice to look at but dull to play.”

Back then, simply telling a great story and allowing the player to subtly influence the outcome via a few important choices wasn’t enough; nowadays, however, we live in a much more enlightened age where the fact we’re not always directly moving a little man around on screen with our joystick isn’t necessarily seen as a bad thing.

You know what? I’m fine with that. Opening your mind to new experiences and potentially finding something that really resonates with you is one of the best things about gaming today, and I wouldn’t want to change it for anything. Let’s keep being this cool, and enjoying creative works for their creativity rather than marking things off on an imaginary, arbitrary checklist.

This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2013 as part of the site’s regular READ.ME column on visual novels. It has been edited and republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

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