Trends of 2015: Say what you see
How narration is becoming the most interesting tool of game design.
I first played Cibele at the Moscone Convention Centre's foyer at the Game Developer's Conference earlier this year. The game's writer and designer, Nina Freeman, passed her laptop and a pair of headphones to me as we sat cross-legged on the squeaky floor, while thousands of other game makers hurried off to the next seminar on 'user research Destiny' or, 'monetising children'. Playing video games while their creators look on is always a little awkward. It's difficult to shake the feeling that they're wincing behind you at your ineptitude - almost every designer is, after all, an expert in their own work. You assume they're always fighting the urge to wrest the controller to show you how it should be done. With Cibele, the source of my awkwardness was a little different.
Freeman's game is unlike any other. You play as a 19-year-old girl, who starts a relationship with a boy via an online game, Valtameri, a simplistic top-down action RPG. Cibele's canvas is Nina's own, period PC desktop, from which you can launch Valtameri or search through her folders, which are stuffed with the usual digital detritus that we struggle to zip into the recycle bin. Valtameri is not a particularly interesting game - you wander its painterly terrain, swiping at monsters. A much more interesting story unfurls, as, via chat boxes, the 19-year-old Nina and the boy exchange messages, sometimes about what you're doing in the game, but more often than not, the lunges and parries of teenage flirting. The to-ing and fro-ing of the nascent relationship slowly heats up. At one point, the boy asks Nina to send him some photos. The action switches away from the virtual desktop, to filmed footage of Nina posing, in a t-shirt and underwear for the camera. For the player it's unthinkably voyeuristic - a feeling intensified when, y'know, the woman on screen is also sat next to you watching your reaction.
Davey Wredan's The Beginner's Guide, also launched in 2015, plays a similar trick. There's no partial nudity, but this nevertheless is a love story of sorts, told via the lens of a clutch of far less interesting games. As in Cibele, the game's creator provides the narration. Wredan speaks in the languid tones of Ira Glass, presenter of The American Life, whose style has been borrowed by so many podcast presenters in recent years. Wredan tells you about a game developer friend of his known only as 'Coda'. You explore a series of half-finished games made by Coda between 2008 and 2011. The games are, in many cases, little more than chaotic, half-finished 3D environments, albeit ones that have the kernel of a cute design idea at their core. As you explore, Wredan talks about what you're seeing. He wants you to share in his appreciation of Coda's talent and, as The Beginner's Guide unfolds, Wredan begins to use the narration to create interesting effects by juxtaposing the dialogue with the on-screen action.
The past five years has seen an explosion in live video game commentary. There are the usual pundits who, with the hyped up hysteria of an American sports commentator, explain what's going on in, say, a StarCraft final. But more generally than that, there's the army of YouTube and Twitch presenters, who spend the majority of their time talking about what they're doing while playing video games. The appeal isn't immediately obvious. Interaction is what makes games unique, the chance to exert our will and agency on a virtual world. And yet, the rise of game commentary shows that, for many, there's value in merely watching other people play games while telling their own story alongside footage - be it about what they had for breakfast that day, or what a particular scene in a game means to them.
In Cibele and The Beginner's Guide, we can see the rise of game commentary being folded back into the game design itself, used for artistic purposes. Wredan first explored the technique in his earlier game, The Stanley Parable. There you play as an office worker who one day looks up from his desk to find his co-workers vanished. As you explore the office block in the character's shoes, your actions are commentated on by an omnipresent narrator (played by Kevan Brighting), who, as well as reporting your movements offers prompts and clues as to what to do next. Brighting chastises you when you divert from his instructions or spoil the story ahead of time, sometimes even restarting the game without your consent. Here narration is used both as a storytelling device, and a means to explore the complicated relationship between a player and game designer.
William Pugh, who collaborated with Wredan on The Stanley Parable, explored the idea again this year with the recent launch of the tortuously titled Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist. In his game you play as a stagehand or runner, working behind the scenes of a theatre, which is hosting a live game. On the other side of the scenery, an unseen 'player' works their way through the scenery, while you must press buttons and pull levers to ensure their experience is smooth. Instructions on what to do come to you via an ever-present director, voiced by British comedian Simon Amstel. Much of the game's humour derives from the play between your actions and the narrator's exasperation when you get things wrong, or misinterpret his instructions.
In each of these games, the designer has used narration to elevate or deepen the game's effects. As Wredan talks about Coda's work, for example, he is able to explore more complicated and human themes than the rather cold and mechanical games you're exploring are able to. Injecting human emotion and drams into video games, which are as much machines and contraptions as anything else, has always been a challenge for designers. The cinematic cut-scene is obviously imperfect, barging into the natural flow of the game's action. The dynamic voice over, pioneered in Portal to such memorable effect, offers a far more elegant solution, the potential of which game-makers are only just beginning to explore.