I think I may have hit upon why I become so frustrated when I read what other developers are saying when they talk about storytelling in video games. I mean, even people that I really like, people who want to tell good stories with video games.
My theory is this—there are two camps of people interested in the storytelling potential of video games.
The first camp believes that Video Games are Platforms for Storytelling. This is the largest camp and the vast majority of AAA titles released today are created within this camp. This camp wants to use the medium of video games to tell stories. It’s an outside-in approach that inherits all the baggage of traditional video game design, along with all the conceits that stories are linear constructs. Despite all their very different outputs—Bethesda, Bioware, Double Fine, and Konami are all in this camp. Looking Glass was in this camp as well, but were really freaking good at making it work. I actually place Tale of Tales in this camp as well and believe they try to resolve the “design baggage” by leaving it at the station when the train pulls out.
The second camp believes that Game Mechanics Communicate Story. This is a rather more niche approach and the best examples of it can be found among indie games. This camp examines how game mechanics themselves convey meaning. It’s an inside-out approach that often breaks the “rules” of game design and runs the risk of alienating traditional gaming audience and being accused of “not being a game.” Daniel Benmergui and Gregory Weir are in this camp. I believe that Peter Molyneux himself is in this camp, even though Lionhead Studios and their output is not. Will Wright is probably in this camp as well.
Clearly, my sympathies and focus lie with the latter camp. I don’t feel the former camp is “wrong,” but I do feel they’re not advancing the art as much as they’re iterating past successes and failures.