Video games have come a long, long way in the last three decades, and while gamers have enjoyed many emotional moments in their favorite games, the fact is that the AAA space has yet to truly tackle serious subject matter with the confidence and gravitas that some AA or indie studios have managed. For her part, game writer Rhianna Pratchett has tried to inject more nuance into AAA gaming by exploring the backstory of Lara Croft in Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider reboot and its recent sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider (for which she won a Writer's Guild award).
One look at This War of Mine, That Dragon, Cancer or Papers, Please reveals what the medium of games can offer, but Pratchett does believe that a maturation of content in the AAA space will happen thanks in part to the influence of the indie crowd.
"I think games have huge potential as an empathic medium because you're stepping into the shoes of the character... I think that has a lot of power to it and I think we're only merely scraping the surface of what that could mean for storytelling. Certainly, some of the feedback I've had on the first reboot of Tomb Raider, where male players were saying, I was put into a situation through Lara that I would have never experienced or am unlikely to experience as a man in the real world and I gained a new perspective and understanding of some of the things that women go through and some of the threats that they might face because of that. That wasn't something that we had to particularly consider when we were working on the game, but it was a really rewarding experience to hear about," she remarked to GamesIndustry.biz
"I'm hoping that things may trickle upwards in terms of the AAA games becoming braver at tackling those things. And I think we are getting a little bit more and I think we're starting to see that middle ground getting a little more occupied," she continued.
"When the numbers go up and we start having more diversity in the characters and we have more female antagonists and more female antiheroes, I think that's going to be really interesting. And I'd love to see more diversity within male characters"
"The indie space is doing some amazing work with empathy. You mentioned That Dragon, Cancer. And even some of the slightly less serious things like Papers, Please, for example. I'm now slightly more respectful - not that I was ever rude - to Border Control than I ever was before. I'm a Brit so I find I mentally default to politeness anyway but there's an extra respect. I thought that was really powerful and that was very good at using the mechanics of the game to create guilt in the player, which was remarkable. So yeah, there's a lot of exciting stuff happening and I think it's great to see the indie game trickling above ground and I'm hoping that's going to trickle into AAA as well. What we did with Lara in Tomb Raider hadn't really been done to that extent before in terms of really focusing on her character, her journey, and friends - it had been touched on in other titles, but we really embraced it in a way that we hadn't done before to the same extent or in the same direction and that was hard to do in the AAA space."
One of the reasons that the AAA space may be lagging behind the small studios is that, as Pratchett described in her DICE talk, writers are brought in much too late in the development process oftentimes.
"The industry is just not used to working with writers or thinking about writers. It's getting better but writing used to be done by anyone. You need to shift your mindset to think, 'Ok, I'm going to get the writing done by a professional writer because I've got the art done by a professional artist and the music done by a professional composer.' And that mindset is shifting but it still does feel like there is an undercurrent of, 'Well, anyone can do it so writer is just the title we give to the person who does rather than that they have a specific skill set'," she said.
Story is so critical to a game's structure, Pratchett believes, that every person working on the project needs to learn about storytelling, because ultimately everything does affect how the player interprets the story.
"The tip of the narrative is actually what you see and experience in the game, but there is a body of heavy creative thinking that goes into supporting that and the narrative comes through everything. I always talk about BioShock, the original, for using things like environmental storytelling in a way I've never seen to that extent before. They utilized everything from the position of the bodies to the graffiti to...level dialogue to advertising. Everything supported the story. So that's where I think we need to move to. It needs to be not just gameplay over here and writers over here - although it's great writers are now in the room. But now we need to go, 'Ok, now everyone let's learn about storytelling,' in the same way that everyone has to learn about storytelling to make movies and TV," she noted.
It's no small coincidence that some of the most beloved games come from developers who have backgrounds in writing and narrative design, Pratchett added.
"I think you need someone in the mix who understands the different facets and how they can support the story and writers tend to be good at doing that. That's why you see so much success with game directors and creative directors who've also been writers as well. Amy Hennig, Neil Druckmann, Ken Levine, they are writers who are also game directors or creative directors and they have some hard power. I just don't have that much hard power in the industry. We are kind of cogs in the machine. And unless you have hard power on a game development team - creative director, game director, or what have you, you are part of the machine and you've got to find a way to work with everyone else," she continued.
Having that power in the AAA space is important, because if a big budget game is going to tackle more serious content or focus on more diverse characters, it's the higher-ups that have to give the thumbs up.
"Everything like that would always have to be signed off [on]," Pratchett acknowledged. "It does involve everyone working together and supporting that even if it's just in the concept phase. It's a kind of difficult one to call. Because AAA development works very different from middle ground development and indie development. So indies can be braver in some regards because they don't have layers of people. Sometimes narrative can be easier with smaller teams because there are less people to have to go through and you can iterate faster. You can work directly with the person that is putting your narrative content in the level or you could be the person doing that as well. Once you get a bigger team it becomes a lot harder and that's why narrative design has become so useful because they do provide a conduit between writers and the rest of the team and they do have one leg in narrative and one leg in design and they can help smooth everything over and they become more focused on the mechanics by which the story is told as much as the story itself."
Aside from Lara Croft, Pratchett has worked on some great female characters, like Nariko in Heavenly Sword or Faith in Mirror's Edge, to name just a couple, but she doesn't like the description of "strong female lead" that's thrown around nowadays.
"We do tend to overuse the words 'strong female character' - you never hear them say 'strong male character.' It's almost like that's inherent. What we really mean is good or interesting or textured or broad or exciting. It's more than strong and strong I think does these characters a disservice... And I know calling it a strong female character is just a step we go through before just calling them characters in the same way male characters are just called characters," she commented.
"When the numbers go up and we start having more diversity in the characters and we have more female antagonists and more female antiheroes, I think that's going to be really interesting. And I'd love to see more diversity within male characters. I think there's a lot we can do there with diversity of all our characters. It's not just the female characters... It was really good to see at [last year's] E3 the number of games coming out with interesting female characters leading them or secondary characters."
Pratchett would love nothing more than to see AAA games adopting a much greater diversity of characters that represent different races, sexual orientations, religions and more. There was a story a few years ago that said Pratchett had wanted to write Lara as gay.
"I think we're only really just scratching the surface of what we can do elsewhere but I think the storytellers that we now have in games are going to help lead the way in VR"
"That was greatly misinterpreted... It was me saying I would've loved the challenge of making Lara gay, but they spun it as if I'd gone in there saying I want to make Lara gay and I've been crushed down by Crystal Dynamics. It wasn't like that in the conversation we had. It was more like, I recognize the need for more diversity in many things, not just sexual orientation but in ethnicity, in age, in ability, etc. And as a writer I see that as challenging and important and there's not enough out there," she said.
One area of the industry that could have a huge impact on narrative and empathy in games is virtual reality. Shining a light on more serious subject matter and a diversity of characters could become that much more powerful through the lens of VR headsets.
"There's so much interesting stuff that can be done with it... One of the games I played was Land's End by Ustwo. There's no narrative in that - but I really love the mechanic of looking at the box and setting your sights around moving them with your head and your eyes. You felt really like you had Carrie-like telekinetic power and that felt really satisfying even without narrative, so imagine if you could set those mechanics against a narrative backdrop," Pratchett said.
"That's created a feeling in me that's interesting and powerful just from that particular mechanic and being able to do that so it's very interesting to see that sort of thing utilized in storytelling and VR. I think we're only really just scratching the surface of what we can do elsewhere but I think the storytellers that we now have in games are going to help lead the way in VR because, more than any other entertainment medium, we understand the role of the player in the narrative and we understand how to create a narrative around a player instead of for an audience member... So I do think that that's where VR is going to draw a lot of its talent from."