Writing beyond the game...
So I was just over at the story forum. I was a bit sad to see it sorely underused, since I am taking a short break from hard scientific programming to focus on my story. The thing is, my story is not exactly a game story, it's a story story. As in, I'm not writing it to explain the game or to provide a strong narrative to the game. It shares the world and sets the stage, but it is a story seperate from the game. And that puts me in some weird territory, I feel...
The story of a game is, in many ways, a new concept. I was a small child when Pacman and Space Invaders could still be found in game arcades, and I grew up with unexplained shooters/scrollers, racing games, assorted platformers and all that jazz. I think the closest I ever got to a game with a real story behind it was my first Transformers game for the Commodore 64, and that was mainly because the story was, like mine, entirely seperate from the game. I don't remember the game explaining what the Transformers were doing in it, they just transformed and ran around shooting stuff. If a game had a story, it was typically a few lines to excuse the game's weird premise. Plumbers could double in size from eating mushrooms and then stomp on evil turtles. Meaningful narratives were not exactly the backbone of those games.
I would argue that this is very much still the case, at least for the vast majority of games. Cinematic cutscenes and mission objectives seem like story elements, but they are rarely more than dressed up quests of the "fetch, protect, or destroy" variety. Like many others, I cheered and laughed at the first sight of the newest Doom game's protagonist just pushing away the screens that told the game story, in order to get to the killing faster. Even in games like Mass Effect and Deus Ex, much of the story seems to just be setpieces plopped in to justify moving the action forward. "This is the enemy, this is the objective, deal with it". Mass Effect more than anything shows how the story is essentially meaningless, with the much critisized "pick a card" ending (Deus Ex: Human Revolution did something similar, but may have gotten better away with it because of fewer promisses about your aactions mattering). So you have to wonder, is the narrative of games in general just a paper-thin excuse for slapping some stylized graphics together and pointing the player at various targets? Does the story really exist as anything more than in-game factoids and exposition?
My game didn't start as a game at all, to be honest. It started as a story. More precisely, it started as a story concept. My name actually says it pretty outright: Embassy of Time. There is an embassy somewhere (and somewhen) for time travelers. Going through time and not exactly sure how to deal with your new home? Check your local embassy branch! Of course, when time travel conflicts send thousands of refugees on the run through time and space, things get a little more dicey. It also brings a lot of other factions to the table, many of them mysterious and shady.
Does that sound like the story for a game? To me, no, and I was having doubts about the entire game angle for a while. It turns out that my worries were for nothing, though, since the game fits a very nice role of "time travel agent training simulator". Agents of The Embassy have to go through training, after all, and when not on actual time travel missions, what better way to train than an artificial simulation? And once the game is advanced enough, it will become the real missions, including setting up new branches, exploring worlds and times, and much more. But the game and the story are related. They are not one and the same.
Does the name Uwe Boll mean anything to you? It should. He is the creator of a fine line of high quality video game to movie adaptations. And when I write "high quality", I mean some of the laziest, most pathetic turdpiles ever imagined by subhuman minds and put onto actual film, with actual, real-world actors, all to exploit a loophole in German tax law. Mr Boll alone is a large part of why the "games cannot be made into movies" meme continues to exist. And that, in turn, is part of the reason why there is often a strained relationship between interactive media (mainly video games) and passive media (movies, books, comics, etc.). How many fictional universes do we have that make it seem hard to answer the question "is this universe made for games or for movies/books/comics/etc.?" Not many. Either the universe is clearly made for games, or it is clearly made for (possibly one of) the other kinds of media. Other media have started to seriously break these walls down. Are Marvel superheroes designed for comics or movies/TV shows? Well, technically..... comics. But in reality, especially the cinematic movies have become as big a part of the foundation as comics are (some would argue a bigger part. Some, like the investors!). Sure, you don't need one to enjoy the other, but when you want to know some deeper background info for, say, Charles Xavier's situation and condition in the new Logan movie, you don't ask a film buff, you ask a comics buff. Similarly, the Lord of the Rings books were used by many to better understand the LotR movies.
Games, not so much. Games are more likely to either be A) tag-on additions that are entirely unimportant for the story as a whole, or B) something to rip off a storyline and known name from to make a quick buck in the direct-to-DVD market. I loved the original Mortal Kombat movie (only the original one), with its colorful kitsch and over-the-top silly fighting. But it was fluff, with nothing to add to the universe made by and for the games. And most other attempts at a game+movie (or +comicbook etc.) universe seem to be even worse. Super Mario movie, anyone? In fact, the only example of a game story truly trying to grow beyond games seems to be the 2016 movie "Warcraft", taking place in the Warcraft / World of Warcraft universe, and doing its best to do a solid story that can stand on its own but also supplement and enhance the game experience, and be enhanced by it (I am not a hardened warcrafter, but I heard many such people discuss the parallels between the movie and game universes). But despite making its budget back over 2.5 times (160m cost, 433m return) and a favorable reception (a pitiful 28% on RottenTomatoes from critics, but 71% from audiences), the chance of a sequel is, well, let's say "uncertain".
I don't know the answers to any of this. It seems that "games don't make good movies" has its merits as a warning, but not as a hard-and-fast truth. I liked the Warcraft movie, maybe because of its awkward, silly campiness (in the script. The production value overall seemed just fine to me). Is there something that makes games bad at meshing with movie/book/comic/etc. universes? Maybe. Games are a very different medium, because they are interactive. But stories are stories. I, for one, would love to see movies based around game universes like Deus Ex or Starcraft, which are deep, interesting narratives in my opinion. But they would need talented people to flesh them out. And just like superhero movies just two decades ago, it looks like there is no chance in Hell of that becoming reality. But then again, it did look that way for superhero movies back then, too!
I am going to make a universe for my game that goes beyond the game. I have characters I love, plots and conflicts, themes and settings, and even the occasional clever line of dialogue or two. I don't want story or game to be haphazardly stuck on with ducttape and a prayer. Like good comics or great books turned into amazing movies, I want them to be reflections of one another, painted into different media. I want Ida Lund, Misha, the blonde, and all the rest to exist between and behind the stories, and not just belong in a single medium.
Wish me luck?