Five years ago, Leah Hoyer was a director of original programming at Disney, overseeing The Disney Channel's slate of animated programming like Phineas & Ferb. Today she's at ArenaNet serving as the Guild Wars maker's head of narrative, with a stint at Microsoft as director of narrative design along the way. Though she's only been in the gaming industry proper for a few years, Hoyer told GamesIndustry.biz last week that she's already noticed a distinct change in the way it treats storytellers.
"Story is definitely not the front-and-center star of games the way it is in TV, but the recognition for how important it is to the overall experience is absolutely growing," Hoyer said. "It doesn't have that overall authority and primacy it does in television, but that doesn't mean people aren't thinking it's important."
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"The bigger [games] get, and the more expensive the budget gets, you start to realize how important it is to have characters and a story world that people are excited to be a part of."
Hoyer said when she started in the industry, one of the most surprisingly frequent questions she heard was "Why is narrative important in video games?" These days the question comes up less and less, and has been largely replaced by "How can we better tell narrative in games than what we're doing now?" Hoyer attributes that perhaps subtle change in the degree of importance story in games is afforded to fan reaction, with an assist from the economic realities facing large-scale development.
"People obviously get invested in the characters and the story they're playing through," Hoyer said. "And by no means am I saying that every game needs to be a particularly narrative heavy game. There are certain genres of games or types of games that don't need a lot of story. But the bigger they get, and the more expensive the budget gets, you start to realize how important it is to have characters and a story world that people are excited to be a part of."
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There's still a lot games can learn from the storytelling of film, Hoyer says. But she'd rather they look not at the latest developments in that field so much as at its beginnings, when movies were the disruptive medium on the rise.
"If you look at film, when film got started, people were not even allowed to talk in film. They didn't have the technology," Hoyer said. "As soon as film got the ability to have their characters talk, they very quickly stopped using text, because that was a storytelling medium from books. They'll still use it to this day in just the right way, like the opening to Star Wars and the like. But they use it very sparingly, and they use what they do best, this very visual medium that has sound in synch with it."
For games to make the most of their medium's storytelling potential, Hoyer thinks that might mean moving away from text-based conversations and cinematics. She wants to embrace more immersive methods of storytelling. For example, she points to Starbreeze's downloadable title Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, a game she's encouraged her staff to play. The game has virtually no dialogue, so it must convey meaning and story through more ambient storytelling in every aspect, right down to the control scheme.
"One thing we've always wanted to make really clear is backstory and mythos isn't story. What you're actually doing when you're in the game is very much about the time you're in the game."
The game requires players to control both of the brothers, the older one with the left analog stick, and the younger sibling with the right stick. People are generally better at navigating with the left stick, Hoyer said, which helps flesh out the older brother as the more in-control and precise of the pair. And because they aren't used to moving around game worlds with a right analog stick, players may find it initially awkward and clumsy before coming to grips with it by the end of the game, mirroring the younger sibling's growth in the story.
"You very much get that sense of the story, the sense of the world, just by playing through it," Hoyer said.
For Guild Wars, Hoyer wants to embrace that ambient storytelling approach instead of overloading players with long-winded cutscenes or lore dumps between missions. That's not to say she dislikes the world-building aspects of so many MMO games, just that she wants to handle it as something other than a "lore dump."
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"I think lore is excellent. And I know there's a particular type of gamer who absolutely loves it," Hoyer said. "For many people, that's why they play games, because they want to understand the complete world, they want to understand how all the different pieces are related to each other, how these characters might have encountered each other in the past and how they may encounter each other in the future. But one thing we've always wanted to make really clear is backstory and mythos isn't story. What you're actually doing when you're in the game is very much about the time you're in the game. It is such a here-and-now, in-the-present media. You know that if you don't shoot that guy fast enough, he's going to shoot you and you're going to die. In the same way, your story should be about the present."
Even though film has been around for more than a century, and TV for a few decades less than that, there are some ways in which the deeply entrenched old guard media are more welcoming of experimentation than games, where the medium's rules of narrative are still being discovered and fleshed out.
"The thing about television is that television from the get-go assumes that story is the most important thing," Hoyer said. "And because of that, they've gotten really good at telling stories, but they also realize that so many people have told good stories so they're always pushing to tell a story in a new way and maybe take it from a different point-of-view. But the thing that games have going for them is they have even more ways to tell a story. They have all the ability to tell stories like books and TV and film, but now they have this way to really immerse people in the telling of the story. And I know there are a lot of game companies out there, ours included, that are really excited to find ways of building and shaping a story along with the player."
"Hands down, it is harder to tell a good story in a video game than it is to tell a good story in TV."
Unfortunately, there's a trade-off to having all those extra ways to tell a story in games.
"Hands down, it is harder to tell a good story in a video game than it is to tell a good story in TV," Hoyer said. "And that's largely because the whole point of TV is to tell a really good story, and there's so much more that has to happen in a game than just the storytelling.
"TV and film focus almost everything on their story to a certain point, then they concern themselves with things like casting and art direction and all of that. Whereas it's a much more intricate, complex puzzle when you're working in games. You're all trying to be part of creating the best experience, and that requires sometimes story backs up design, and sometimes art backs up story, but also that at the end of the day they all work well together to create this amazing experience."
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Despite that added complexity, Hoyer said she doesn't she herself returning to a medium more centered around the storyteller's needs any time soon.
"Right now I love it," Hoyer said. "I can't imagine being anywhere else than doing what I'm doing right now and being able to influence this large world that reaches thousands and thousands of people and delights them with new content every couple weeks. That's just really exciting."