What is the future of storytelling in videogames?S

When we interviewed Bear McCreary about his upcoming soundtrack to Zipper Interactive's SOCOM 4, we also had the opportunity to speak with Ed Byrne, creative director at Zipper. The following lively discussion precipitated from a single question: "Are videogames art?"

I would say that games right now are we what call "craft" – between art and entertainment. It's an entertainment medium that approaches, at points, poignancy and emotional expression that can actually move the player. But for the most part, the player is an entertained participant. [Team Ico's] Shadow of the Colossus is one of the few games to really approach art – within that game, I was amazed and dismayed that I was murdering these huge things and couldn't stop playing it. The emotional content was amazing. And there were periods there in which I had to stop playing it because I wanted to chill out and "play" a game, and I wasn't ready to feel what Shadow wanted me to feel.

But compare that experience to say the Madden football series, which is literally a game about a game. That's more about the visceral experience. That's not to say there aren't sports games that get into players' stories and delineate what they can and cannot do. I think games are struggling to find a form of artistic expression that is our own and we haven't found it yet.

For example, there's a very clear difference between some kind of campy musical and a piece of theater that is art all the way. But then again, the best fine art doesn't actually sell – videogames are still an entertainment medium and need to make money.

Noah Falstein, who designed Sinistar, once wrote an article about how humans have always used games as training. Chess is really just a way of teaching the art of war. Hunting and gathering societies would play games to improve essential skills, spotting prey and developing quick reactions. Interactive games have always had a place of learning in our culture other than entertainment. Humans learn more strongly when they're being entertained. We're seeing "serious" games in which surgeons are being taught to use complex robotics using videogames that use the same graphics and technology as PS3 games. The armed forces have a recruitment center in which you can play humvee simulators because they're actively recruiting gamers - the guys who play WarHawk or Crimson Skies.

In the future, we'll see graphic technology push the immersion and the fidelity of games, you'll see more and more things reacting to your behavior. You may see games that generate their own storyline as you go. What happens now is you'll get to the edge of the city and there's a wall. We're getting to the point now in which the game might be able to generate more city as fast as you can drive, endlessly. It'll be a little bit more like Star Trek's holodeck, where games are able to provide a seemingly boundary-less, but the root reason people play games will always remain the same. More technology and more immersion, but the song remains the same.

My favorite game of all time is Elite, a space trading game which was the seminal, great-great-grandfather of all space trading games. It was a free-roaming game, you'd play, flying planet to planet, and then one day a message popped up with a special mission. That was the first time a game had delivered something I never expected.

As far as storytelling goes, the surprise mission didn't advance the story at all, but it presented something in that universe more than what I'd previously expected. That's the first time I ever remember thinking games are special.

Other great moments that pushed videogames as storytelling included Thief –- in that game, the character you play had a voice. It was a first-person game, so you never saw your character, but he had monologues about what he was saying. The game was less about cut scenes and more about the character's insight. I don't want to spoil BioShock, but it was incredible in that it used the fact that you're playing the game as a narrative element. It's not quite breaking the fourth wall, but it was a fantastic way of turning the tables on the player. Half-Life too – it's revealed at the end that all the aliens are not out to destroy you; rather, you were at the forefront of a human invasion process gone awry and you've inadvertently invaded this alien dimension. If I have to stop a game and reevaluate everything I've done, that's just as good as watching a fantastic murder mystery.

I grew up in Ireland, where's there's a long tradition of seanchaís, or storytellers. And these guys are revered – the seanchaí will pull up a chair, everyone will shut the hell up, and you begin to imagine what he says. Now, this is a form of passive participation. The one thing about games is that the player always has the opportunity to change the story in some way. We offer them the illusion of freedom, but there is a [tacit] programmed path. In the future, you may have a situation in which the protagonist you control dies entirely, and the game keeps going.

Games will hearken back to the old text-based adventurers of trying anything like, "PICK UP BRICK, THROW AT WINDOW, GO NORTH." The most classic example of this kind of storytelling is Shenmue. That game was like, "YOU ARE IN YOUR HOUSE. WHERE ARE THE BATTERIES?"

Experimental games have done some crazy stuff in the past, as they're not saddled with commercial concerns. There was this game Passage which was totally abstract and you lived an entire human life through a colored maze. That kind of stuff is fantastic because it goes back to the modality that discovery is part of the game.

Thanks to Kris Hamilton for the additional input on this interview. Top photo is from Shadowgate for the NES.