A New Way to Tell Stories?

At the release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (TES5), I blogged about my initial frustrations with the story arcs in Skyrim. Soon it will be possible to do something about it.

Just as a quiet revolution is taking place in the written word thanks to those Maverick Capitalistas at Amazon, so recent advance both in the technology and the culture of videogames is bringing about a similar revolution, possibly even a revival, of old fashioned storytelling. I am beginning to wonder if games like TES5 aren't part of the development of a new way of telling stories; the first new way to enter our culture since the tabletop RPG (for those of you in the Bible-Belt, this is a euphemism for "satanic cult" – for the rest of you, this is the technical term for Dungeons and Dragons and its myriad progeny).

In traditional storytelling, the teller uses a setting that is instantly familiar to all his listeners. In the 1001 Nights this is mythic Baghdad and it's environs; in Grimm it is the North Europe countryside; in Andersen it is the North Europe town. In Tolkien fanfic it is Middle Earth. In modern fantasy it's a mishmash of all these locations with a bit of romanticised Arthurianism and Gygax stirred into the mix.

In truth it doesn't much matter; what's important to the storyteller is that the setting is shared and familiar to his audience. (When, in a couple of weeks' time (late, I know), I will put my first "live telling" on my blog, the setting will be a very familiar one, though none of the above.) The familiarity of the shared setting liberates the storyteller from lengthy world-building, knowing that most of his audience is there for the tale - and a tale is discussion and action - wherever possible at the same time.

With TES4, Bethesda delivered a ready-made shared setting, which they populated with people (in gaming parlance, 'NPCs' (non-player characters)), and populated with stories (in gaming, as in fairytale parlance, 'quests').

Once they deliver the "creation kit" (announced for next week), it will be possible for the real storytellers to get to work, using their shared setting to tell new or retell old stories. The Creation Kit is a software package (sorry about that), but one much more rounded and fully developed than the one provided with the previous TES4 (Oblivion). It should make it possible for far more people to create not just apparel, weapons  and furniture (the most commonly created items in TES4), but to write stories and then put them into the game.

Commercially, the benefit for Bethesda is that players will continue playing for the next 6 years (as they did with TES4) because they keep adding new stories, new people, new places to discover, new challenges, new ideas. This gives Bethesda time to develop the next game, and ensures that there will be tens of thousands of people eager to buy it even if it takes a long time to come to market. This is exactly what happened between TES4 and TES5.

Culturally, the benefit for storytellers and story readers, is that so many more of us will be able to create new stories and then play those stories. As a medium, the game world is somewhere between a written fairytale, a history play, a heroic fantasy film and a "choose your own adventure" book.

If it sounds like I'm doing my best to talk up a video game until I can argue that it has the same cultural status as a book, a play or a film (or indeed, a roleplaying game), that is because I am. As a storytelling medium, the videogame has come on in leaps and bounds in the last few years. Even so, it is still in its infancy. But the time is already long past where it can be dismissed as a time-sink or a distraction. It is fast becoming as much a developed cultural activity as filmmaking, and it is worth trying to see it that way.

As for me, I already have my name on a couple of game content projects. If you have come to this page looking for Skyrim modding help, I am available for free for dialog writing, story editing and voice acting, and I will (once I have learned it) also be available to give free advice and guidance on turning your idea for a quest into fully fledged game content.

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