In 1987, Rand Miller and his brother Robyn formed Cyan in the small US town of Spokane, a 45 minute flight from Seattle. Together they created The Manhole, widely believed to be the first game ever on CD-ROM. It was a beautiful children's adventure that would provide the backbone for what has been coined 'one of the most important games ever.' That game was Myst, and it sold millions.
At the same time it was was lambasted by game journalists who felt it was somehow destroying the very fabric of their hobby. This was mostly down to how it worked more than anything else. Players would effectively indulge in a beautifully drawn set of slideshows that they would move through using a click of the mouse. Puzzles - many insanely hard and often without obvious purpose - would confound non game-players the world over for months on end.
However, Myst has always excelled at spinning a good yarn. Indeed, it is now considered, for all its flaws, to be a marvel of interactive storytelling. Rand, now a legend in the industry as he nears the end of one of the most successful game franchises ever with the release of Myst 5 (the last he assures), is still as enthusiastic about narrative through games as he was when he first let his fantastical world loose on an unsuspecting public back in 1991. This last episode will tie up many loose ends which fans of the series have been itching to discover.
Since that landmark date in the early nineties the art of storytelling in games hasn't come all that far. Think of Metal Gear Solid 2, with Kojima's plot told through half hour cut scenes that made no sense, or Mortal Kombat, which contained a story so utterly compelling a movie was made of it. You get the feeling Shakespeare and Spielberg aren't exactly quaking in their boots. Any knowledgeable hardcore gamer arguing for storytelling in games compared to books and film usually results in an uncomfortable struggle. For an expert like Rand, he doesn't even bother:
"It's just pitiful," declared Miller. "It doesn't mean that were not making progress, but it's just pitiful. I have to step back though. Not all games need to tell stories. Gaming is an interesting mix of entertainment types. Frankly, a football game doesn't need to tell a story, nor a basketball game or racing game. There are plenty of examples of games where I really don't care about a story and it can actually get in the way. That said there are a lot of people who are espousing this new medium as a new way to tell stories and I think that's the one that's pitiful compared to where books and movies have been able to go."
It's easy to admit to this apparent failure, harder to explain it: "One reason is the interactive nature, the ability for the person to have to feel that they have control. If you take away that control it doesn't feel as satisfying as a game for them. Another is our ability to relate to characters and emotions. Our experiences are brief with NPCs. They're not real - we know they're not real. At this point they haven't become real enough to even cry over like I would a pet when it dies."
One way in which developers have tried to combat these challenges is to introduce Hollywood scriptwriters and have them work on games. The theory goes that these scriptwriters have established knowledge of writing stories and delivering plots in film, and should be able to transfer their skills across the entertainment divide, while having the added bonus of adding a name to the game title. In reality, though, this is often not the case, and film writers find it almost impossible to write a narrative for an interactive medium. Rand himself has seen this first hand and believes hiring Hollywood talent isn't always the solution:
"If you have the word scriptwriter by your name suddenly it's 'oh you're a scriptwriter!' But it's just ridiculous. Somehow a third rate scriptwriter in Hollywood can suddenly come to a game and they're all like 'oh, you must be great!' No, you're a crappy scriptwriter in Hollywood; you're not going to write me a great script for a game either! Or even less than a third rate Hollywood scriptwriter. Somebody has done just a couple of scripts and, 'oh, they're a scriptwriter!' I'd much rather base it on people who have experience, who've done it before and who understand the psychology of the gaming world than somebody who has the word scriptwriter in front of their name.!
Indeed, Rand believes this is the way forward for storytelling in games: "We're actually raising our own set of scriptwriters in the game industry that understand that you're not writing a linear script." In any case, many have rejected this comparison with film and literature and instead prefer to compare storytelling in games with 'play your own adventure' books or the old Nightmare virtual reality children's show, where a player would enter a virtual environment, blinded by a helmet, and guided by friends back in the studio. They would then make their own choices throughout the game, interacting with actors, picking up items and restoring health. For many, non-linear and linear storytelling is as different as chalk and cheese.
Rand points towards some of the issues he experienced while developing Myst V as examples of this struggle: "There's two aspects to storytelling that go into our game design. There's the story in the game, pieces that you want to get across, the dialogue and information that needs to be delivered, but there's also the story that's built up to this point. That, frankly, is very linear and a scriptwriter could be very involved in that part and be better at it than a game designer, but that's not as important a part typically in a game design company. We're maybe the exception because we love having that history of back story. It keeps things interesting for us. Actually my younger brother is working with us now as writer on all of our projects and it's not because he's the best writer in the world, although he's very talented, but it's because he knows how things work and what stuff will work to bring people to certain places."
When thinking of delivering a narrative in games, it's easy to consider lines and lines of script and pathways as the only issues. There are, however, many nuances and subtleties that go into delivering a compelling story in a game, outside the obvious word heavy text adventure: "The history is lots of script and it's a lot of fun to do, but when you're doing the game you've got so much in mind. You're writing performances for characters. You have to know what each character can do," commented Miller. "In Myst V, for example, we have a character that's on a beach, he throws a stone and he can climb up onto steps. It's not like a Hollywood movie; you have to know the technology. Can we throw this? Can he face the camera? How much can we move the camera? How far can we move in that space? What's the terrain like here? There's so many things that we have to consider as part of the gameplay. And the other thing is considering whether or not the player can click away? Can they choose not to listen or do they have to listen to this? Is this information imperative or is it just frivolous? The game design has to wrap all around that as well. How long does it have to be? Are we losing the player? Do they want to go somewhere else?"
It is because scriptwriting in games is more complex than simply telling a linear story that many Hollywood writers have found the transition extremely difficult, and why Rand would much rather hire someone who has risen through the ranks of game development and knows the system. Even so, with so much experience and with so many millions of copies of the Myst franchise under his belt, Rand is still learning in the interactive storytelling game himself:
"It's incredibly difficult and we fail miserably sometimes," said Miller honestly. "Even in the last game, Myst 5, we continue to battle under how much control we give the player while someone's talking to them. A lot of times, when somebody's talking to you we do what's called a cinematic. We control the camera and try and make it seem more cinema-like so that you realise: 'ok I'm just watching, this is fine'. So I came up with the idea several months ago for those who decided they didn't want to listen. I wanted to let them feel like they're in control. We said 'let's let them not move because we need them to hear the script, but lets let them look around in any direction, just like you would if you were talking with someone you weren't interested in but were being polite. You wouldn't want to walk away while someone's talking, but looking around isn't too impolite. We can get away with that, we said - there's some psychology stuff there that might work. We tried it and I'm not sure it's that successful. We tried it a little too late in the development process to do it right."
"But that's the kinds of thing we struggled with. How much control can we get away with? How do they feel like they're listening versus not listening? If it's a short speech anyone will listen to it and they'll get all the details, but if it's longer they won't. And you have to write the performance so that the actor pauses and has dramatic inflection in places where you have to give them information they need to know. In a movie you're trying for more of an emotional response, in a game, as much as we'd love to give the emotional response and try to, there's information you have to know to progress."
It's evident Rand isn't afraid to try new things, and push boundaries when it comes to delivering experiences in games, even if he himself sometimes wonders if it is worth it. When it comes to his forte, telling stories, it's clear that new approaches need to be made if they are to be spoken within the same breathe as Dickens and Hitchcock. Rand reveals a little bit about what he's doing to try and achieve this:
"We're starting with a blank sheet of paper and saying 'OK, what's the next step?' How can we evolve this in ways where we can build characters and we can tell stories that have never been done before and still make it feel like its interactive entertainment? We've come up with what we think are really innovative cool ways for future stuff and we have no idea if it will be successful or not."
Surprisingly, this involves taking away some of the control from the player, which in today's climate - with free-roaming games like Grand Theft Auto selling bucket loads and sandbox gameplay being the new buzzword - is a risky venture for any publisher.
"Some of it involves the non-linear aspect of gaming. Gaming so far has established that the more you give a person the ability to explore the world the better. But there are other ways to do that and still maintain a linear control. We can do things with a camera and characters that you can't do if the player had full control. So a lot of this has to do with really pursuing some very interesting avenues in a linear interactive game. I know that won't make a lot of sense but I don't want to give too much away. We're very early on and its exciting stuff. I feel that nobody has been entertained in this way before. But I don't know if any publisher will want it because it's risky."
You feel, though, that for storytelling in games to progress any further than the peak in 1997 when Cloud laid Aeris to rest in Final Fantasy VII, a brave leap needs to be taken. Perhaps the story based games of the next generation will come from the genius of Rand Miller in his small development studio on the US West Coast. If not, in his own words "we go away, and somebody else innovates. It's a heck of a business."
"I'd like to see the industry mature a little more though," added Miller. "Maybe it will mature only in the real gaming sense and if it does were not going to need better scriptwriters. But if it matures in a storytelling way, where people are starting to get emotionally involved, then we absolutely will have to have those scriptwriters. We'll have to have the ones that grew up in the industry and we'll have to have the ones that come over and learn the industry as well because, if that happens, if the storytelling aspect of games begins to mature, it means that we are starting to be able to emotionally appeal to people. It means were becoming artists to some extent. And to me an artist is somebody who's good enough at what he does that he can reveal truth through his work and that's when you need people who are really good at writing. That's when you start affecting people."
Whatever happens, storytelling will become no less important in Rand's eyes: "It's a path in the industry I would hate to see fall away, because it's the only way in my mind that this industry can become something that's worthwhile and can truly affect people, so they understand more of themselves and the world they live in. And frankly, story is how it's been done for millennia. Humans are wired to respond to story."
As Rand Miller leaves the fantasy world of Myst behind after nearly 15 years of interactive storytelling, it's easy to believe his next adventure will have us all wired come the next generation.