In the art of storytelling, we game developers have many disadvantages when weighed against other mediums like film, literature, television, and theater. We don't have the visual expressiveness of film or television, or the liveliness of theater, or the analytic depth of literature. However, I believe we have some advantages that can be very useful when telling certain kinds of stories. My thesis here is about one such advantage and one such kind of story. It is a little brave and pretty cocky. But before I get to it, here's an introduction:
I often find myself drawn to stories about villains and bad guys, especially the ones that started with the best of intentions, only to end up the villain. They are the stars of their own cautionary tales. I like to know why the bad guys became bad. A couple such good-to-bad characters that come to mind are Darth Vader and Macbeth. but perhaps my favorite is Jimmy Markum from the film Mystic River. Mystic River starts with the murder of Jimmy's daughter and ends with him committing murder. The film effectively connects all the dots and shows his personal journey from distraught father to killer. Jimmy is a great character because we understand exactly why he does what he does, every step of the way. His tale is a cautionary one because he starts with the best of intentions and ends up committing a horrible crime.
So here's my cocky thesis for all you game developers and designers: Games can tell cautionary tales better than any other medium. Clint Eastwood, George Lucas, and William Shakespeare have got nothing on us.
One of the greatest advantages we game developers have as authors of fiction is that we have the potential to place our guest into our character's shoes (metaphorically, until Nintendo invents the Shoemote) more snugly than any other medium of fiction. I am not talking about our guest relating to, identifying with, or empathizing with a character -- anyone can imagine themselves in the place of a sufficiently strong character, and games afford this no better than any other medium. What I'm talking about is that we have the power to make our guest think and feel in the same way that our character does. When our guest plays our game, his mind merges just a little bit with the mind of our character and they act as one. When an obstacle or problem (gameplay!) is encountered in our game, the guest and the player solve it as a single entity. Because of this, we can use gameplay to indirectly control our guest's thoughts and feelings.
So now, imagine this hypothetical game: It is the great depression, and you play a character with a wife and children. You are out of work and must find a way to feed your family. Within the gameplay, you try to find a job, but all the jobs are either already taken or pay so little that your family can't even eat. The gameplay engine is flexible enough that it is possible to steal goods from shops. And so, without a single prompt from the game, you steal bread from a bakery because that's the only practical solution. You return home and your family eats, but the next day you are out of food again. So you go back to the shop, but this time the baker is waiting in hiding. He attacks you with a knife. To save yourself, you grab the knife from him and, in the heat of the moment, kill him. Maybe you didn't mean to, or maybe you did. Either way, you need to dispose of the body, because if you get caught and go to jail, your family will starve. So you go to the dock and dump the body in the water. But a guard sees you and attempts to arrest you. You kill him as well, and before dumping his body, you search him and find a valuable diamond. You take the diamond, but there is no way to sell it on the legal markets, so you take it to a black market. There, you find and get involved with shady thieves, working for them for good pay. Finally, a job that will feed your family!
It's hard to argue that you are a good character. Initially well-intentioned, yes, but ultimately your deeds are very, very bad. Your initial act of petty crime spiraled out of control and before you knew it, you were a bad guy. Certainly there's nothing unique about this story -- it's pretty generic and told much better in plenty other great works. But the difference here is that you, the player of the game, made every choice that led down that dark path. You acted out the cautionary tale. The game never prompted or hinted to you what you were supposed to do -- it merely set up the conditions that made your actions seem the most reasonable at the time.
When watching a movie or reading a book about a similar story, it's definitely possible to understand why a character goes down that bad path, but you can still say to yourself, I wouldn't have made those decisions. But by playing the game, you did make those decisions! There's no way around the fact that, yes, you are just as capable of being that bad guy as everyone else, given the right motivations. (And these motivations must be intrinsic to the world of the game, not extrinsic to the world of the player.) Hence, we have an awesome power to humble our guests, to open their eyes, and to teach them about themselves. That's why I believe that games can tell cautionary tales better than any other medium.
While there are many games in which you play or have the option to play the bad guy, there are very few that come anywhere close to telling cautionary tales as driven by intrinsically-motivated player actions.
Grand Theft Auto IV, despite its somewhat-deserved reputation as a mindless killing simulator, actually shows some hints of what I'm talking about. In GTA4 you play as Nico Bellic, a recent immigrant who is thrust into a life of crime for reasons largely beyond his control. The story told in GTA4 effectively conveys the journey of Nico from well-meaning immigrant to ruthless criminal, and he never loses the core of his humanity. Where GTA4 falls short is that the player rarely makes decisions that advance the plot -- most such decisions are made by the character in cut scenes. (Not to mention that the believable plot is surrounded in the "open world gameplay" by a lot of mindless killing that is out of Nico's character.)
Another game that comes to mind is Dragon Age, a recently-released Western RPG. The choices that the player has to make in this game are many in number and high in meaningfulness. Often the player must choose to help one NPC or another, and the choice between them is not clear. Dragon Age effectively puts the player in a situation where he has to make a choice and then deal with the consequences. What it doesn't do is provide compelling reasons to make bad choices. Yes, it's possible to be pretty evil in Dragon Age, but there is no compelling reason to be so, other than that it's fun, which is rarely if ever a reason in real life.
Many other games, like inFamous and Black & White, give the player the option of being either "good" or "evil". While playing an "evil" character is often a lot of fun, the choice to do bad acts is rarely backed by intrinsic motivations within the game world, rather than the player's extrinsic motivation of wanting to be bad because it's fun.
I'm hopeful for the upcoming release of Heavy Rain, which looks like it may have the kind of meaningful, intrinsically-motivated choice to do bad things that I'm talking about.
In summary, we game developers have the awesome power to make our guests think and feel in the same ways that our characters think and feel, and we can use this to tell better stories -- not just cautionary tales, but any stories in which we want our guests to go through the same thought and emotional processes as our characters. So why are we so under-utilizing this power? Certainly learning to wield it will not be easy and will take time, but if we don't explore our possibilities and push our boundaries then games will never mature as a storytelling medium worthy of standing side-by-side with film, television, theater, and literature.