For all the accomplishments of the video game industry, there are still barriers that interactive entertainment has yet to break. Many games look fantastic and play well, but with few if any exceptions, there remains a stubborn wall between the player/observer and the characters in the game world (sometimes linked to the evolving "Are games art?" debate). There are many symptoms of this phenomenon, from stiff animation to stilted dialogue to unconvincing voiceover work, and the situation now is only marginally better than it was when I started writing about games more than a decade ago (many players can name a handful of choice performances, but these are the rare exception, rather than the rule).
Coming closest, in recent memory at least, to bridging that gap (which is much deeper than the typical explanation of an "uncanny valley" between near-photographic images and reality) is L.A. Noire, a gritty detective story set in 1940s Los Angeles. The combination of careful writing (much rarer in interactive entertainment than it should be), a cast of competent professional actors, and a few bits of new technology, puts the game leaps and bounds past the typical action/adventure experience, where it usually feels like most in-game conversations exist only to push the kind of dull exposition that would make David Mamet's head spin.
I've criticized some of my otherwise favorite games for this very problem, saying of Dragon Age, for example, that the game was buried under uptight, wooden characterizations that come off like the dated, stagy delivery of an old fantasy film. Arguably among recent games the inventive detective thriller Heavy Rain probably came closest to surmounting these obstacles--or at least bravely attempting to.
So, why is effective storytelling, as seen in television programs such as "Mad Men" or "The Wire", such a difficult task for video games, where paradoxically nearly any setting, character, or event imaginable is just a few keyboard strokes away for an able team of programmers and artists? … Read more