Recently some members of the video-game community were enraged by news that FromSoftware’s oblique open-world adventure Elden Ring has been nominated in the best narrative category at the forthcoming Game Awards. Like the developer’s other titles (the Dark Souls series and Bloodborne, for instance), this complex game tells its story through short snippets of dialogue rather than long cinematic cutscenes, and via objects in the world, rather than endless scrolls, audio messages or emails. The player has to do most of the work in assembling a cogent narrative, which suited me fine, because, through the 200-hours I’ve spent with the game, I simply do not care about the plot – I have my own. I wander the dangerous lands of Caelid and Dragonbarrow as an existential assassin, like Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter or Mad Max, not bothering to try and make sense of the world, just keen to explore and fight and survive. I like this story better – especially when my son joins me and we take on foes together, revelling in the story that builds of is own accord as we play.
There have always been titles that have allowed a lot of what we call player agency: the ability to do what you like, to some degree, in a digital environment. Elite was a defining example, and Skool Daze, SimCity, Civilization and Ultima III were other early progenitors. Then came the open-world genre, ushered in by Grand Theft Auto 3, and games were for ever altered as story-delivery mechanisms. Yet traditional notions of narrative form and structure still pervade. From The Witcher 3 and Horizon Zero Dawn to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, if you want a story experience, you need to do the story missions, you need to interact with computer-controlled story agents, you need to cede agency to the story god. I’m sort of done with that now, and maybe I’m not alone.
Released a decade ago now, the open-world, multiplayer zombie game Day Z (pictured above) offered something new(ish): a multiplayer survival adventure in which players competed against each other to survive after a zombie apocalypse, shooting the undead and scavenging houses for food and ammo. Crucially, participants could also team up and form loose friendships that would be tested whenever some juicy loot was discovered. It was (and still is) at turns tense, exciting, shocking and sad, and these emotions come not from a 30-minute CGI sequence, but from real human interactions with unpredictable motives and outcomes. These were, what video game designers call, “emergent narratives”.
Since then, we’ve seen the success of multiplayer survival RPGs such as Don’t Starve and Minecraft, as well as more sinister, tense shooters such as Escape from Tarkov, which all put players into dangerous worlds and let them get on with it. I’ve recently been playing a ton of Call of Duty DMZ (pictured below), a new multiplayer mode where you team up with two other players and then touch down in the war-battered region of Al Mazrah to, well, do what you want. You can take on missions for three different factions, or simply roam the landscape searching buildings for cash and other commodities. And while there are AI enemies in the landscape, there are also other player teams. The use of proximity chat, which allows you to hear the real conversations of other players if they’re nearby, adds an almost theatrical element. And unlike battle royale games such as Call of Duty: Warzone or Fortnite, teams can escape at any time, just by getting to one of several exfil sites and calling in a helicopter.
I’ve played dozens of matches with my friends, my sons and with complete strangers, and the stories we generate are thrilling, ridiculous and always different. The tension of waiting for an escape chopper when you’re down to your last 10 bullets and have a bag stuffed with loot is unbearable at times – the emotions it creates are much more authentic than many authored narratives in this medium.
I think this is the future of video games. I know, I know, there must always be space for well-structured stories handcrafted by experts who understand concepts such as character arcs, subtext and catharsis. But they shouldn’t hold a dominant position any more. Video-game worlds are no long mission backdrops, they are possibility spaces: they need to offer a coherent setting, the ability to generate plot-lines and encounters, and the facilities to let players define their own responses to that world. Because as fun as the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 campaign was, not one single moment competed with that time in DMZ when I escaped a shootout by jumping off a bridge on to a speedboat being driven by my French teammates.
That’s what video games are about now: transitory moments of emergent pleasure and meaning. The next generation of blockbusters should reflect that. Let’s bust apart the familiar structures – the mandatory narrative throughlines, the separation of single-player campaign and multiplayer shoot space, the crushing totalitarian force of lore. Making games more like Escape from Tarkov and less like Assassin’s Creed doesn’t mean we have to completely lose storytelling. Directors such as Jane Campion, David Lynch and Christopher Nolan have toyed with the concepts of narrative, causality, structure and spectator agency for years in film and television.
To slightly misquote Jean-Luc Godard, a video-game story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in the order the designer intended.
What to play
I recommend a game that my son has been playing constantly with friends, and which fits into my obsession with player-created narratives. Hearts of Iron IV is an incredibly in-depth strategy game from Paradox Interactive in which you take control of a country during the second world war, guiding its armed forces, and using negotiation to realise your vision. As the game goes on, you end up with lots of intriguing alternate histories in which familiar global power structures break down. This resonates in our age of geopolitical instability: it has things to say about the nature of history, war and aftermath, and you can play with friends to dominate the globe together.
Available on: PC, Mac
Approximate playtime: 4-6 hours+
What to read
“Transmedia” was an entertainment industry buzzword a few years ago, with confident creative types predicting a new era of cross-platform narratives in which games, movies and comic books told intricately entwined stories. The concept has been somewhat hijacked by the Disney/Marvel/Star Wars behemoth, but according to VGC, CD Projekt Red has done well out of its Netflix series Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, which has boosted sales of its once beleaguered sci-fi shooter, Cyberpunk 2077. Animation is a better aesthetic and philosophical fit for today’s high-octane video games than movie tie-ins – just look at how the lacklustre Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted films failed to capture the essence of their inspirations, despite all the CGI that Hollywood could muster. Or could radio turn out to be the perfect partner? BBC Radio 4 is just about to run a Splinter Cell audio series based on the hit stealth action series. Sounds interesting.
Christmas is approaching and many face the prospect of gathering in small spaces with lots of friends and family. Polygon lists the 30 best couch co-op games on the Nintendo Switch, a wonderful assortment to enjoy with cousins you barely know.
The BBC has a nostalgic feature for the 25th anniversary of Grand Theft Auto, interviewing many of the original staff about the blockbusting franchise, which started on very shaky ground. (I’d also recommend this short Making of GTA video, by two talented chaps at the Guardian.)
What to click
I didn’t get my son’s favourite video game – but it got me
“No one had seen anything like it”: how Pong changed the world
Somerville review: minimalist British horror is the perfect game for winter
After recently failing to complete both Elden Ring and Return of the Obra Dinn (pictured above), Matt emailed us last week to ask: “Do you feel anguish if you give up on a game before the credits roll? Or should I just get over myself and move on because life is too short, even if Elden Ring, isn’t?”
I will never walk out of a film at the cinema and once I get past page 50 of a novel I will finish it, but I have no similar rules with video games. It’s not just about the difference in longevity – although the fact that it can take 100 hours to complete a big narrative game these days is an important factor. It’s more to do with what I discuss above: the difference between a player’s experience and the intended experience of the creator. I have still not “completed” Elden Ring in the traditional sense, but I feel as if I’ve got everything I wanted and needed out of that vast, brilliant game, and completed the stories that I wanted to hear and to tell. It’s slightly different with very linear narrative games, but I have no qualms giving up one of those if I no longer care about what happens in the overarching story – you don’t owe the game developers that time, and the chances are, if you’ve not been gripped in the five hours of a game, nothing that comes afterwards is going change that – not least because the good stuff tends to get frontloaded because everyone sees that, while only a minority of players actually do finish games. A report published 10 years ago suggested only 10% of players finished games, while this look at Steam data last year suggested a higher figure – 35% – that’s still pretty low.
In short, never feel guilty about abandoning a game early. In videos games, as in life, your experiences are given value not by the ending, but what you do along the way.