A few pre-face notes, I'm going to be talking in some-what depth about the following games, so if you don't want any spoilers, you might want to stop now; Life is Strange, Metal Gear Solid V, Undertale, Heavy Rain, The Walking Dead and Beyond: Two Souls. All these games share (or attempt to share) a theme regarding reactive storytelling, and I'll be using random key moments from them as examples to display how it is used, and why. I'll also be splitting this into three major categories, the first will be more of an introduction and introspective look into storytelling through various mediums, the second will be the meat of the post, discussing video games and how it is used/how I believe it should be used/how it could currently be improved in the industry, and finally some closing notes and questions for anyone interested.
Stories and why we love them
Stories have been a thing since before we had the cognitive ability to understand why we were even creating them. They're a world that anyone can conjure up, be it real or as far from real as possible, that someone can actually create, and try to make you believe. As human beings we love to try to believe them, though it might not always succeed, we can always hope that what we're reading, watching or playing will result in us getting at least some of an emotional reaction out. Drama, action and emotion all result in the difference between what creates a simple telling, and a fantasy in which we can truly put ourselves in.
Historically stories came in the form of books (Or theater, but I'm going to leave that out for now). Then we moved into movies, and then we progressed into video games. But why? What's the difference. How can you, given a medium, create the best experience that plays off the best aspects that each of those three options can give. Well first of all let's look at the limitations of each. Books give little to no visual feedback, aside from perhaps a few illustrations. They're left up to the person engaging to design and create the world in their head, a task that some people find easy, and some find difficult. In addition to that reading is a quiet, and somewhat time consuming act, in which very little ultimately happens outside of your head. It's a personal (sometimes father-son) endeavor, the author has written about what his grand design was, but it is up to you to paint it within your mind. Movies, unlike books, very clearly give you a visual (duh?). They show you what the director wants you to see, and I don't believe this is necessarily a good thing, depending on the skill of said director. A wrong image, a wrong portrayal. A wrong casting. When moving from a book to a movie there's so many new things that can possibly go wrong and break the illusion attempting to come to fruition. In addition to that it's a very static operation. Whereas reading a book can be done practically anywhere, at any time, watching a movie requires a little more preparation, a better setting and the right mood, all things which can end up detracting from the experience you feel. Finally video games. They (basically) share all the same negative points as a movie, however they add a few new ones into the mix. Gameplay has to not be a chore, the visuals are suddenly far harder to create (CGI vs Realtime rendering), and probably most importantly, everything has to work in tandem, else you'll result in a game which feels half-assed around a certain part, and polished in others. I'm sure you can list a bunch of games with strong stories but weak gameplay, or visa versa. How many can you list that manage to keep both up at the same pace? I can only truly think of a very few (Red Dead Redemption is certainly at the top of that list).
A lot of these points have obvious counterpoints which create the benefits of these mediums, with a book you're free to let the reader design the world, with a movie you can create awe-inspiring set pieces, and with a game you can truly immerse the player via projection and character attachment. Only once you manage to understand why something is bad, can you push it to become better. Enough waffle for now, let's start to focus entirely on video games!
Videogames as a medium is fantastic in which it can give us a method of storytelling that is (almost, Goosebumps choose your own adventures I'm looking at you) basically unviable in any other medium. It allows us to create our own story, it allows us to truly connect with our character, due to the fact that we've made the decisions that have put him into the situation that he's in. No other medium can effectively do that, and yet so far no game has (in my opinion) truly properly taken advantage of such an amazingly incredible possibility. Of course I understand the technological limits that are imposed, but in this day and age it's more that viable to create such a game. Just incase you missed it, reactive storytelling is where (quite literally as the name states) the story of the game, reacts to the decisions you made during the game. Still don't get it? Okay, let's use an example. The Walking Dead (By Telltale games) is the best and probably most critically acclaimed example of this kind of storytelling. You can (by choice or by failing to do certain things) completely write characters out of the story, completely change the path from A to B, you can play the game a dozen times over and get a different(ish) experience every time. Reactive storytelling is literally the future of video games, as soon as video games stop squabbling over gameplay vs story and finally come to cohesively co-exist.
Let's talk about Life is Strange. If you're in the BYOND Skype Group you almost certainly know how much I utterly despise Life is Strange. I make no quams about it, I openly admit it, I am horribly biast against this 'game'. That is because it fails so ridiculously hard at that first vital gate to being a 'game'. It is not a game. It is more like a choose-your-own-adventure movie. Press button, get different story. This is a clear and exact diversion of the two concepts I above mentioned. There is very, very little substance to the actual game, however it's received (much to my dismay) incredible amounts of critical acclaim, soley because it's using reactive storytelling in an honestly very effective way. I wouldn't say that you should follow the lead of Life is Strange, but if the topic interests you, I'd recommend giving it a play just to get a feel for how they tried to accomplish the formula.
Let's talk about Undertale. Again I'll openly state, I'm very biast here, because I absolutely adore this game. If you haven't played it, stop reading, and go play it. I'll wait, no really. It's like, $5 on Steam. It's worth it, it just fucking is. Undertale is my second best example of how to use reactive storytelling. There are many, many points in which you can change the outcome of a varied number of things, and they managed to make it so that all of those things actually had an emotional impact on the player. I'm trying to remain as relatively spoiler free as possible for this one, so take for example the two snoopy dogs. You can choose to kill them, or not to kill them, doing so changes where they appear later in the game, and if you chose to kill them, the game WILL make you feel like a total dick for doing it. It's fantastic, and it turned this otherwise ordinary (relatively funny) indie game, into an absolute masterpiece. Here's a fun fact, did you know that Undertale actually reads your other savefiles, specifically previous play throughs, and changes subsequent ones to reflect that? Takes it to a whole 'nother level, that does. Fantastic stuff.
Let's talk about Heavy Rain. To my knowledge, Heavy Rain was one of the very first games that pioneered this method of storytelling. And I have very good feelings towards it, I enjoyed Heavy Rain, despite what many people think of it. It didn't have 'too' much gameplay in it, which is disappointing, since it suffers from it in the same way Life is Strange does, but what it did game in gameplay was just enough to engage me, and make me want to keep playing. The story, on the other hand, was marvelous. Whether or not it was particularly realistic, or believable, is a discussion for a different post, but anyone who has played Heavy Rain and ended with the ending where Ethan hangs himself in prison, you all know the guilt you felt. This was what made me play this game over and over, to find out every possible ending for all the characters. This is also one of the very few instances, where the decisions actually effected the ending of the game. Most of my examples have branching paths, but a very clear start and end point that is mostly unchangeable. Not Heavy Rain, Heavy Rain instead has a relatively few branching paths in between the start and the ending, but it has a very very large multitude of endings. Something to take note of, it's a quality that is most important and that most of these story driven games seem to just leave behind.
Let's talk about Metal Gear Solid V. "What?" I hear you say. Yes, MGSV actually has quite a lot of reactive storytelling in it, contrary to popular belief. And that, is a fact which I adore. Kojima's magnum opus made players take the choices which humanity would always want to take, which is why so few people know, you CAN actually kill Quiet. You CAN actually leave that dog behind. You CAN actually leave Skullface alive. All of these things change or take out or add huge chunks of the story to be or not be played. This is my best example though, because until you play the game again, you would have never known that. This is reactive storytelling at its current best. You can find cassette tapes throughout the world, as I'm sure you know. Did you know they change the dialog, and even some story options, depending on what you do or don't know? All whilst having some of the most fantastic gameplay I've had the pleasure of enjoying in a long, long time. This game manages to be a game first, whilst also being a story first. This is what you should be taking notes from, if it interests you.
Let's talk about The Walking Dead. This game, or series of games I suppose, effectively brought the concept to the popular masses, and that cannot be disrespected, and it has more gameplay than Heavy Rain or Life is Strange, but it suffers from what I touched on with Heavy Rain, in that whilst it has many branches in the middle, the start and end is relatively unchanged. Having said that, the emotional attatchment the game ends up making you feel towards a lot of the characters is quite interesting. Most of the time (Not all of it) when a character dies, its your choice, and you chose to remove that character because you had negative opinions of them. Isn't that fantastic? A video game, made you spite a fictional character so much that you removed them from the rest of the experience. I guess you could consider it the opposite of MGSV, in which you'll almost always take the moral high ground, but in TWD you're not above getting down and dirty. That's some masterful world depiction right there, drawing you into the character in a world so bleak and void of hope that you'll make tough choices that are otherwise ridiculous.
Let's not talk about Beyond: Two Souls. It's just shit, lol. Gameplay is poo, story is poo, branches are poo, ending is poo. I regretted buying it after Heavy Rain.
I hope my examples and descriptions have helped you to understand what reactive storytelling is. And I hope you have some sort of understanding as to why it can be a powerful tool used in your games, and how if you use it wrong you can result in some real duds. The age old question "Story or gameplay?" was always a resounding "gameplay" from me, but now that there's a third option, "Story or gameplay or story==gameplay?", I can safely say that the newcomer is the winner every time. It needs to be done right, MGSV has its own share of issues that it has, and again it suffers from a lack of ending options. Perhaps sometime soon someone will make a game with the gameplay qualities of Dark Souls, the journey branches of TWD, the story absorption of Undertale, and the ending branches of Heavy Rain. Perhaps that person could be you, if you put your mind to it. It's certainly a behemoth of a task. But I don't pretend to be the do-all end-all of the topic, so I do have a few questions for anyone interested.
1: What do you think is more important, attachment to characters through progression (Levels, dedication, roleplay), or through story decisions? I can't decide, why would either be better than the other, or even why or how both could work together.
2: Did I miss any forefront games that have the same qualities? I left out a few duds here and there, but I'd love to know if you think I should have mentioned something in particular.
3: Why aren't you playing Undertale, fgt?