Storytelling at its best is a two-way experience, a "communication between author and audience" that provides just enough context to help frame, but not completely control a story, said Tracy Fullerton, the director of USC's Game Innovation Lab.
And it is through narrative that games have the best chance of delivering experiences that aren't just dramatic and meaningful, but sublime, she said.
It is in pursuit of the sublime that Fullerton, in her work with the lab, helped create a trio of games that reexamined the traditional form of in-game storytelling.
Cloud, the first work by some of the team who would later go on to become thatgamecompany, creator's of Journey and Flower, was one of the lab's earliest experiments in narrative when it was released in 2006.
The original concept for the game included an elaborate backstory penned by Jenova Chen, Fullerton said.
"The player plays as a young alien pioneer from Jupiter," she said. "It was much more detailed than this and when it was presented I kind of rolled my eyes at all of this and said, ‘Why don't we forget about this and focus on the mechanics.'
"When it came time to revisit the ideas, Jenova laid the lightest bit of story from his childhood over those mechanics and we left it at that."
The end result was a powerful game about a child who would fly out of his hospital window to make friends with clouds.
The vacuum created by a lack of detailed backstory let player imagine their own fiction as they played the game, which were often much more meaningful tales pulled from their own childhood experiences. People wrote the team telling them about those stories.
"The letters suggested that players empathized with the cloud child who flew out of the window of the hospital to make friends with clouds, but they also brought their own memories to the story," she said.
That was, she said, an example of storytelling as communication between author and audience.
"It's an interesting technique for framing narrative in games," she said. "In Journey you can see that same kind of light narrative framework.
"There is a sense of lost civilizations and gods in the game, but do we find out about that civilization? No, thank god."
That sensibility of resisting the urge to put a specific narrative into a game, and instead eluding to narrative is the primary work Fullerton said she's doing in the lab now.
That was certainly the case with The Night Journey, a collaboration with a media artist that was released in 2007.
In The Night Journey, the team wanted to express a sense of a spiritual journey.
"We wanted a game that would evoke this idea," she said.
The game drew narrative inspirations from the writings of historical figures like Islamic poet Rumi, Zen Buddhist poet Shankara and Hindu mystic Upanishads.
The idea was to create a game mechanic empowered by enlightenment and provide a loose narrative framework to help deliver that sense of spiritual growth.
The end result was a game that many felt extended the boundaries of what games can communicate to their players.
The lab's current project is a video game recreation of Henry David Thoreau's experience in 1845 of living at Walden Pond for two years.
The core conceit of Walden, The Game, is surviving the eight total seasons.
"You must survive in the woods. You will die unless you have enough resources," she said. "This survivability serves as the bedrock of the game."
Players began, as did Thoreau, in the summer when living in the woods is "simple and charming," Fullerton said.
"As the seasons roll on, life in the woods holds greater challenges," she said. "If you don't plan ahead you might find yourself without food or shelter."
If you ignore the need for these things, you will eventually pass out and when you come to you will find yourself at a campfire in a dulled world with some of your energy restored.
Beyond needing to build a shelter and go about the day in and day out of finding food and surviving, the woods of this virtual Walden Pond are filled with small wonders and situations that you can only find by exploring beyond the places you might routinely go to forage.
Players can, for instance, happen upon a mother partridge and her chick, see a perch jump from the water or get caught in a sudden thunderstorm.
The more these moments happen, the more inspired a player is meant to become by nature and the closer their bond to the natural elements of their new lives, Fullerton said.
"Those who experience these peak moments are more apt to experience more of them and vice versa," she said. "As one explores the virtual world the opportunity to find these moments depends on the state you're in.
"If you explore, your inspiration will be high and you will have a better chance of finding them. If you spend your time doing chores your inspiration will be low and your game will be more like life in a grind."
Ultimately, a player's experiences is used to fill the game's journal which in turn writes the player's own version of Walden, one that can teach that life is an inspiration or that life is mean.
And it is these sorts of cooperative narrative experiences, stories shaped by an interaction between author and audience, that Fullerton thinks is most likely to lead to games that approach the sense of the sublime.
She said she thinks these sorts of sublime games are probably more than five to ten years out, but that getting there will be easier as long as people continue to strive toward this goal and share their knowledge and experiences.
"We all learn," she said, "from each other's crazy wanderings in the desert."
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