What Remains of Edith Finch is a creative success, as the Giant Sparrow-developed narrative game received glowing reviews and brought home the BAFTA for Best Game of 2017 last month. For the game's creative director Ian Dallas, it is (to date) the highlight of a career spent telling stories in video game, including 2012's The Unfinished Swan and stretching back to Telltale's Sam & Max series from 2007.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at the Game Developers Conference in March, Dallas said he's seen the market for narrative games grow since he first started in the industry.
"Yeah, in that there is a market for narrative games, and that's a change," he replied. "To have games self-identify as narrative games... I don't think that was a practice I saw 10 years ago. It's really great we've expanded the possibility space for what games can be."
Dallas said there's a much more conscious focus on narrative these days, from both developers and players. It's a virtuous cycle, because no matter how ambitious developers might be to tell powerful and affecting stories in their games, it's difficult to fund those types of projects if they can't reasonably point to a potential return on investment.
"Even five years ago or whenever when The Unfinished Swan came out, it felt like making a game that wasn't intended to be challenging was still an act of defiance"
"I do feel like the success of more narratively mature, or complicated, experiences makes it a lot easier for people making games across the spectrum to be able to tell their bosses, 'I want to do this and you can see this is not a niche thing. Players have gotten used to this,'" Dallas said.
But just as players can collectively turn a game into a hit and pave the way for developers to attempt more narratively substantial games, so too can they reinforce the status quo and discourage the growth of the medium.
"Even five years ago or whenever when The Unfinished Swan came out, it felt like making a game that wasn't intended to be challenging was still an act of defiance. There was an existential threat to it, like 4chan or whoever would get upset this game existed. And I don't know if it's just exhaustion or if it's people having more of an open mind, but that no longer seems to be a problem. People are no longer concerned that games exist, where five or 10 years ago, it felt like there were more ire. The mere fact of something having a Steam ID and being available for sale got in people's craw."
Dallas pointed to complexity of story and characters as other areas where the field has made plenty of strides in the last decade, but still has a strong tendency to rely on familiar storytelling mechanics.
"For example, Horizon Zero Dawn, which a lot of people really deeply love, feels in a lot of ways very traditional," Dallas noted. "But the more time I've spent as a game developer, the more I'm aware of how much that comes from players. It's not that developers don't want to try different things and experiment. It's that players have come to expect that there will be cutscenes, or there won't be cutscenes, or whatever the convention is for that particular genre. And they've not only gotten accustomed to it, but they're angry if it doesn't appear. So there's pressure on the developers to kind of match what those expectations are, particularly as the game budgets get larger.
"So yeah, I wish there was a little more experimentation in the AAA space, but people like Naughty Dog are certainly doing a lot of good work. Their [stories have] interesting characters, but they have a really difficult problem. How do you tell stories intermixed with gunplay and vehicle driving, or certain kinds of stories? I don't personally need to see any more revenge fantasies. I'm done. I've seen my fill for a lifetime. But that's what naturally fits best with a lot of those mechanics. So it's difficult."
As for how those sort of treatments become codified among the audience, Dallas pointed to "the prevalence of nostalgia as an aesthetic goal" in games, whether that be through visuals or gameplay mechanics. One recent hit that underscored his point was Cuphead.
"We don't group episodes of Seinfeld and the NFL under the same umbrella... But somehow if we're playing Madden or Uncharted, it's like, 'That's a game. That's the same thing'"
"That game could have been made 20 years ago, and that's part of what people love about it," Dallas said. "Obviously the visuals are of a higher quality, but the interactions are very similar to [Konami's '80s arcade side-scrolling shooter] Gradius. But the fact that people really love that is hard to understand, because I come from a place of wanting to constantly be explore new things.
"So I think my life direction is just very different from that, but I respect that a lot of people find great joy in these very traditional experiences. In some ways it's like the way people love symphonies. You can say, 'Well symphonies really haven't changed much!' Well, they don't necessarily need to. There's an audience that loves that."
The issue is a bit exacerbated with video games as the term "game" has expanded to cover an incredibly broad range of experiences, even though people treat them essentially the same.
"We don't group episodes of Seinfeld and the NFL under the same umbrella," Dallas said. "If we're watching a football game, that's a completely different experience. But somehow if we're playing Madden or Uncharted, it's like, 'That's a game. That's the same thing.'"
So what's the future for narrative games? Dallas' view may be a bit different than one would expect.
"I guess it would follow a similar trend to other markets in that they tend to ossify a little bit," he said. "They create genres amongst themselves, and I think there's a little bit of that now. Like if a game is a TWINE game or a Firewatch kind of thing... There are some 'schools' that we're seeing."
If that ossification of genres in narrative games does happen, Dallas may not be part of it. At the time of the interview, his plan was to spend the next year training to be an animator before diving into his next game. When asked if that project would even be a narrative-focused title, Dallas said quite convincingly that he doesn't know for sure just yet.
"I just want to develop my skills and my eye for motion, partly because I'm interested in this as a field of human endeavor, but also I feel like there's some wonderful experience there at this intersection of expressive motion and flexible player controls to create interesting motion," he explained. "In most games movement is just there to indicate your next target with the implicit rule that 'if it moves, kill it.'
"On the other hand, I love that in [Fumito] Ueda's games--Ico, Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian--you're given time as a player to appreciate the movements of characters and that motion is often the primary way that personality is conveyed. Ueda started off as an animator and I think that's a big part of why his games feel so distinctive and human. The rest of us tend to start with mechanical systems and try to add the flesh later."