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Last Updated: Monday, 2 April 2007, 07:55 GMT 08:55 UK
Game industry seeks deep stories
By Diarmuid Mitchell
BBC News

The Outsider screenshot
Frontier warns of "nightmarish choices" in its forthcoming game
As consoles have become more powerful there's no doubt that games look better too.

Photorealistic characters, vast game environments in high-definition detail, and artificial intelligence continue to improve.

But as the visible parts of games get closer to perfection, the tools used to tell the story in the game are also due an overhaul, according to some veteran games industry figures.

Both Peter Molyneux, head of Lionhead Studios, and David Braben, head of Frontier Developments, agree that the industry is focusing on new ways to add greater depth to stories.

"At the moment there's a huge amount of talk about story and narrative, branching plots and multiple endings, and player-directed content," Mr Molyneux said.

Cut scenes

The industry needed to find new alternatives to existing, outmoded storytelling techniques, said Mr Molyneux, whose firm is working on the sequel to its award winning role-playing title Fable.

Peter Molyneux
Because of branching complexity, where Fable had 20,000 lines of dialogue, Fable 2 has about 250,000
Peter Molyneux
Lionhead Studios

Many video games move story forward by using "cut scenes", short expositional interludes which punctuate the play.

But cut scenes suffer from several different problems.

Mr Molyneux said they were "tragic moments in gameplay because gamers' patience and tolerance for cut scenes are measured in seconds".

Research shows that many gamers skip cut scenes, preferring to get straight back into the action, he said.

Multiple branching

And it is not just players that they frustrate, they also cause problems for game makers too.

The main problem is tailoring play so it reaches a point where using a cut scene makes sense, said Mr Braben, a 25-year industry veteran, who made his name with classic title Elite.

"So what you end up with is pinch points in the story which very much dictate the storyline and you almost have a game-over situation if those points aren't met," Mr Braben said.

"There have been some experiments where there have been multiple cut scenes for each point. But that creates a major issue for the amount of story creation you have to do."

Fable 2 artwork
Game characters are becoming less two-dimensional, experts say

Creating scenes that can branch in many directions is impractical because the number of possible storylines grows exponentially, said Mr Braben.

And though giving players lots of ways to get through a game sounds good, the psychology of the average gamer confounds its usefulness, Mr Molyneux has found.

"The tragic thing we found with multiple branching is what actually happens is that when gamers spoke to each other about their experiences they felt they had done the task the wrong way," said Mr Molyneux.

"We found people were restarting parts of the game to get to the same thread as their friends."

Gamer choice

But in spite of the complications, developers are seeking ways to give gamers more say in directing the action.

Frontier's current project, The Outsider, is a political thriller in which the main character is falsely accused of killing the US president.

"We've chosen a story where it makes sense for the player to go in many different directions," said Frontier head David Braben.

"You are actively making the choices and then living with them. People make snap decisions that are not always best for them," he said.

"They think they can shoot their way out of a situation, but then they get painted as a killer."

But increasing the number of game choices impacts on other aspects of game development.

"Because of branching complexity, where Fable had 20,000 lines of dialogue, Fable 2 has about 250,000," said Mr Molyneux.

Hollywood techniques

And it is not just in story that the games industry is looking to improve, it is looking to Hollywood scriptwriters and directors for help to improve dialogue and characterisation.

Sometimes this influence is explicit. For instance the cut scenes and in-game dialogue for Frontier's game Thrillville were written by one of the scriptwriters of The Simpsons.

David Braben
I'm sitting here as a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin saying I'm going to become a Hitchcock
David Braben
Frontier Developments

Frontier continues to draw on film industry techniques to create deeper, more engaging characters.

"Most game characters are as shallow as a puddle - they're really lightweight," said Mr Braben.

"'I'm a baddy, I shoot people; I'm a passer-by, I get shot.' That's about as much characterisation as they get," he said.

"We're going through a process - in the same way the film industry does - of putting together character bibles.

"So even though it may not be evident in the story - we know this is where this character grew up, this is why they are the way they are, these are the chips they have on their shoulder," said Mr Braben.

By creating a back story for characters game writers gain a better understanding of their own creations, giving characters greater depth and enriching their dialogue.

"It's astonishing how much of a character's background defines how they would respond to something," said Mr Braben.

The characters' history defines the language they use in different situations, he added.

Changing mindset

Many game industry figures see parallels between the evolution of video games and film.

The Outsider screenshot
There will be no cut scenes at all in The Outsider

Like the early movie industry, the games sector sees itself as an emerging medium that has yet to mature.

The new technologies emerging in gaming are similar to the shift from silent films to the synchronised sound of "talkies", said Mr Braben.

Silent film producers introduced very little dialogue to early talking films because they did not change their mindset, he said.

But directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles in the 1930s saw cinema as a medium for story-telling not merely a medium for spectacle.

"I think that's where the games industry is at now - we haven't changed our mindset but we're moving forward. Many of us are in the industry for the potential rather than the history," said Mr Braben

"I'm sitting here as a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin saying I'm going to become a Hitchcock, hopefully," he said.

Mr Molyneux agrees that the video games industry is in the process of redefining what the medium is capable of.

"The future of storytelling, the future of narrative, the future of what are great compelling moments in entertainment are more likely to be held by what you think of as computer games now than any other medium," he said.

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