ARCHIVED: Video Games and the Future of Fiction

by Katharine Reece MFA '12

Think about the last story you read. Did it end the way you wanted it to? Were you disappointed with any decisions the author made, and how you weren’t able to alter the course of events?

If your answer is yes, Noah Wardrip-Fruin understands, and would probably suggest you start playing video games. Wardrip-Fruin teaches computer science at UC Santa Cruz, where he co-directs one of the world's largest technical research groups focused on games. At a talk at Sarah Lawrence in April, he said he believes the future of fiction belongs to those who can both write great stories and great computer systems.

Wardrip-Fruin showed a variety of clips from video games old and new, such as Dragon’s Lair (a 1983 laserdisc video game), The Sims (a real-life simulation first released in 2000), and Uncharted II: Among Thieves (an action-adventure game released in 2009). He used each example to demonstrate how much autonomy the player has in controlling the game’s outcomes. As gaming technology has evolved, he says, the level of control given to the player has increased.

Wardrip-Fruin compares the tension between story development and player control to written storytelling. Referencing older, less sophisticated video games such as Dragon’s Lair, Wardrip-Fruin says, "You could make one choice at any given time, and that choice was either the right one, in which case you saw the next video clip, or the wrong one, in which case you die." The story was static and controlled, much as it is in a novel.

But this is no longer the case. Now games are becoming capable of creating stories in ways that few art forms, including film, can replicate. Small choices made by the player alter the outcome of the game’s overarching story, and myriad options can unfold.

Wardrip-Fruin argues that because of this, video games have the potential to be about more than just fighting villains and managing the amount of ammunition you need to survive. As the technology evolves, he hopes that players' actions and choices become so real that their choices are questions of morality.

"We want something more," he argues. "We want game systems that engage issues like how we think about the world, how we relate to each other, how we craft fictions." We can interrogate our own responsibilities in the world, he says, by modeling them in the game world.