Storytelling in video games has come a long way since two white rectangles hashing it out over a white dot. The medium has been inundated with releases that have unfurled intricate, and gripping narratives. The type that would make even the most established Hollywood production houses a tad uncomfortable.
From a gamers perspective, video games are surpassing film as a medium for storytelling, and it’s only a matter of time before the general public catches on. With fewer restrictions to bind them, games are, if anything, showing us just how unimaginative modern day cinema has become. No doubt this will be a big topic of discussion at the current Codebreakers exhibition at ACMI, celebrating women in the gaming industry.
We spoke with video game producer, writer and Codebreaker Brooke Maggs to learn more. Brooke works include the soon-to-be released game Paperbark, inspired by the sights and sounds of the Australian bush in Summer, and the also soon-to-be released The Gardens Between, a meditative and charming story following two best friends. We also discuss with Brooke what impact the rise of complex narratives in video games has on female lead characters.
The Neversphere: The way a story is told tends to change depending on which medium it’s told through. In your experience, what’s unique about telling a story through video games?
Brooke: The most unique part of telling stories with video games is that the audience are players; their actions are recognised by the game system. Game developers get to decide what those actions are and what effect they have on the story and the world. They could be collecting, solving puzzles, killing, racing, jumping, surfing, surviving, cooking – the list is endless!
The challenge for the storyteller is to have these actions feel congruent with the story world, the themes of the story and the characters. There are so many kinds of games and so many ways to tell stories with them. The narrative can sit in the background, providing context and reward on occasion, or it can be at the forefront, driving everything.
The Neversphere: Developers can pump endless amounts of funds into their graphics, but if the story is wonky, it’s all for nothing. Do you feel the industry puts as much importance on storytelling as it should, or is there a disconnect in that area?
Brooke: Due to the success of some amazing narrative games, like The Last of Us, Bioshock and Tomb Raider, there is now a precedent for big titles to have compelling stories. Game companies known for their excellent storytelling put a great amount of emphasis on it because they know it’s what they’re playerbase love.
The developers I have worked with who have set out to make a narrative game have been considering it from day one. Sometimes story or interaction can come first. For The Gardens Between, we began with an idea for a mechanic, a way of interacting, like moving time, and then the story grew with it. Other times, it is the story that informs the player interactions.
Not all players play for the story. For example, if the story was wonky, there is still much to be had from the gameplay, being in beautiful, expansive environments and collecting. But when narrative ties into these things extremely well, you’re right, it makes the experience so much better!
The Neversphere: Paperbark is a beaming example of how a strong and vivid narrative can affect a gaming experience. It’s incredible to see/hear things that are (more or less) outside my front door as opposed to the sights and sounds of say, post-apocalyptic North America. I’d really like to hear about the industry response to Paperbark!
Brooke: Thank you! Paperbark is a gorgeous game about a wombat and the hot Australian summer. It draws inspiration from Australian picture books like Snugglepot & Cuddlepie, Possum Magic and Blinky Bill. The team is focussed on capturing the sounds of the Australian bush, that buzzing, stinging feeling of the hot sun and the smell of eucalyptus trees. The whole game is a love letter to growing up in Australia and wandering around the bush.
I love working on this game because it’s proof that there is still so much we can do with games, so many more topics to cover. It feels like home. The industry has had a similar response. When it was showcased at PAX East, a games convention in Boston, the response was overwhelmingly positive, people were engrossed in the demo and would then talk about their own experiences camping in the bush or in the wilderness of their own countries. Once people play Paperbark, they realise that the Australian bush hasn’t quite been captured in this way before in a game. It is inspired by water colour landscape artists, like Albert Namatjira, and people often remark on the unique colour palettes in the game.
The Neversphere: The trailer for The Gardens Between is simply glorious. One half of the protagonist team is Arina, a headstrong girl. She can be seen fearlessly leading in the preview. What was the response from both industry, and fans, to not just The Gardens Between but also Arina?
Brooke: Thanks, Mike! The response has been wonderful. The team has been working hard on this game for a number of years now and it shows. At PAX East, people of all ages were drawn to the game and were not disappointed. A little bit about the game: The Gardens Between is a surreal puzzle adventure that follows best Arina and Frendt when they fall into a mysterious world of beautiful gardens. There are no time pressures, players cannot die, and the game encourages players to look, consider, and enjoy the garden environments. This was hands- down the best way to invite people of all ages to play. Knowing they couldn’t ‘die’ or ‘fail’ was such a relief! People would play our game and then return to the booth with a group of friends. It was a wonderful feeling.
One of the best things about the characters, I think, is that younger players connect with them, too. I love showing the game to young girls and seeing them respond to Arina: they loved her. As a team, we wanted to make a game that portrayed the characters and the friendship honestly. We wanted it to resonate with adults as well and so far, the responses to Arina, Frendt have been positive. I think it’s because neither character outwardly projects particularly ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ qualities. Frendt is curious and a dreamer. Arina will act first and think later. They’re kids with their own personalities.
The Neversphere: When we look at games such as Horizon Zero Dawn (Aloy) and The Last Of Us (Ellie) it’s obvious, much like in real life, that women are as capable as men. However, we’ve seen it in films, novels, and graphic novels for some time now. In your opinion, why is it only starting now in the gaming world?
Brooke: There are a myriad of reasons! It’s complex but I think it has to do with diversity in the industry (the more women we have making games, the more we may have in games) and what big developers view to be ‘risky’ in terms of sales. By capable, I’m assuming you mean active and having a seminal role in the narrative. In which case, I definitely think it helps for games like The Last Of Us and Horizon Zero Dawn, setting a precedent for the rest.
Games are also shedding their reputation for being only for children with the average game player in Australia now aged 34. I think this has the effect of creating more complex narratives that allow for more nuanced portrayals of women and men.
The Neversphere: In the past, the main staple for female narratives in gaming was based around being helplessly lost, or captured by the enemy, (think Mario and Zelda for example) or merely a love interest. What do you see as the main staples for female story arches these days?
Brooke: In the independent game space, there are excellent portrayals of women. Games such as Gone Home, Life is Strange and Australian games such as Ninja Pizza Girl, Ticket To Earth and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries all show women as complex people. Main staples that persist are sidekicks, the woman in the refrigerator (killed off to provide the main male character with motivation and complexity), the cyborg/AI or ‘insert piece of feminine technology here’, and ‘the woman in the ear’ who is the control centre operator, the oracle, seer of all yet we rarely see her. These stereotypes are not a problem in and of themselves – I would love to play a game that had all four! – but when they repeat in isolation without nuance, they get tiresome.
The Neversphere: Furthermore, how are audience’s expectations of female leads beginning to change, based on your experience and the feedback you’ve received on the topic?
Brooke: I haven’t received much feedback on the topic. I don’t think that’s something people necessarily express but they notice when they see something different or fresh. For example, when I played Gone Home, I knew I had not played a game with these kinds of characters before. I was thrilled that I was playing as a twenty-one-year-old woman uncovering a series of events that had happened to her family while she was gone. I can count the amount of times I have played a young woman in a video game on one hand.
The Neversphere: What’s a trait in a female character that you’re yet to see in gaming, but would like to?
Brooke: I want to see more games that show a spectrum of diverse women and how they relate to one another. I want to see friendships, relationships, mothers and daughters, sisters, enemies, mentors, and colleagues. I think it’s fine to have a woman as the lead but too often, there is a woman in the lead role, and then the majority of the world is men. Where are all the other women?
Not only is this wildly inaccurate, but, in my mind, it almost undoes any good intended by putting a woman at the front. This is because the world she is in is still clearly a man’s world. Inverting the situation, like making the hero a woman instead of a man, is helpful but it is far from progressive…
…It’s only the beginning.
Code Breakers is a free exhibition celebrating the achievements of Australian and New Zealand women working in video games at ACMI and will run until Sunday 5th November, open daily from 10am