How Cinematic Narratives Took Over Gaming’s Biggest Convention

If you only saw one story about E3 this year, it was probably Keanu Reeves showing up at a press conference to promote a game he’s in called Cyberpunk 2077 (not to be confused with the futuristic drink-slinging indie darling, VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action). But if you’re confused as to what a movie star like Neo is doing in a video game, you haven’t been paying attention to the development of gaming as a form of storytelling over the last handful of years.

If last year’s E3 — the world’s largest interactive media (see: video games) expo — was about reliving the past and cashing in on nostalgia, this year’s event was all about the narratives. Regardless of studio, platform, or genre, video games are becoming more and more intertwined with the “traditional” media forms of film and television, as well as the Hollywood circle that tends to surround them.

For instance, George RR Martin has decided to further procrastinate on finishing A Song of Ice and Fire by teaming up with the Dark Souls folks to put out the incredible-looking Elden Ring. Justin Roiland (co-creator of Rick and Morty) just released the hilarious and wildly inappropriate Trover Saves the Universe to the delight of VR gamers everywhere. The studio behind interactive slasher film Until Dawn (which featured actors like Rami Malek and Hayden Panettiere) is now working on the first title in The Dark Pictures Anthology, which will almost certainly be better than Universal’s attempt at a “Dark Universe.” Even Dragon Ball Z stepped away from traditional fighting games with Kakarot, a single-player game which will follow Goku through some of the anime series’ story arcs.

But beyond the games with actual Hollywood ties, the rest of E3 was just as stacked with games featuring strong narrative components. The Outer Worlds looks like a classic Obsidian Entertainment RPG that will provide a stronger sci-fi story than pretty much anything on cable television, while The Sinking City takes a classic noir detective story and throws it into a Lovecraftian world that horror fans should geek over. Hell, even a game like WRC 8 that’s all about bringing insane detail into digital rally racing is including a deeper “Career Mode” in which you build your own story while hiring agents, mechanics, meteorologists, and a whole lot of other people between races.

Perhaps a perfect microcosm of this evolution can be seen in Techland Publishing’s Dying Light 2. Although their 2015 release is still considered by many to be the high point for open-world zombie killing (and parkour), the sequel’s focus is expanding upon the gameplay and building a lively environment and a movie-quality story around it.

“The original game was strong in gameplay, so we want to continue to support that strong gameplay with the narrative too,” says Kornel Jaskula, one of Techland’s producers. “We took what we’re good at in the gameplay, and we brought it to the narrative side. We wanted to add something memorable — something that players will think about and makes them feel like the agent of change in the world. We’re using those cinematic moments and narration to help the player feel a certain way throughout the game.”

Of course, the rise of stronger narratives in video games isn’t new for every studio. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009) changed Nathan Drake from the male version of Lara Croft into one of the most dynamic and memorable characters in video game history, Bioshock (2007) still has a perfectly executed plot twist that M. Night Shyamalan wishes he thought of, and Daedalic Entertainment’s Deponia series (2012-2016) gave classic point-and-click adventure games a serious boost in storytelling for modern gamers.

Considering Daedalic’s history of crafting narratives, they understand the value of striking a balance between forcing a story upon gamers versus letting them create their own through open-ended gameplay decisions — which can be even more crucial when considering how massively popular watching streaming video games has become through platforms like Twitch.

“It’s interesting to see narration be more intertwined with gameplay and more important to almost every genre now, while at the same time user-driven narratives become important as well,” says Jonas Hüsges, Head of Business Development and Producer for Daedalic. “It’s creating a situation where you have really well-crafted written stories with high production values that are getting really close to film, while on the other end of the spectrum, you have content that is completely randomized and built for streamers. That is also some kind of storytelling, you just have less control as a developer.”

For those streaming the game, a tight narrative doesn’t work as well unless the audience is tuned in from the beginning and committed to watching each stream like an episodic TV show. But when a game like the much-anticipated Borderlands 3 or Monster Hunter: World (whose Iceborne expansion has ferocious new monsters, quests, areas to explore, and — most importantly — adorable winter outfits for your cat-like Palico) offers virtually endless replayability even outside of their primary storylines, streamers and viewers alike can enjoy hour after hour of shooting, slashing, looting, and general mayhem. And that’s not even taking into account the tales woven among party members and friends through socializing during either of the cooperative multiplayer-heavy games.

Oh, and perhaps the biggest reveal for all of E3 was an actual playable demo of the long-awaited remake of one of the greatest video game narratives of all time. Considering that Final Fantasy VII seems like it might come in at over 100 hours (although split between a few installments) this time around, it could be just the thing to fill that Game of Thrones-sized hole in your life.

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