It’s hard to match the narrative scope and immersive experience that a compelling story-driven game has over other storytelling mediums, allowing players not only to fall into the world of a well-crafted story but to experience it firsthand. These types of games can empower someone with a new perspective, or let us live a double-life as a superhero. Narrative-driven games allow us to become someone we’re not, which is perhaps the biggest reason we enjoy these experiences. Now, with the power of Xbox One X, creators are able to bring us even closer to their vision. With our Xbox One Storytellers series, we’ll sit down with some of the industry’s greatest creators to talk about the strength of storytelling within games, their inspirations, and how they see the genre growing in the years ahead. Today, we’ll be talking to Jens Matthies, Creative Director at MachineGames.
Is there a secret to crafting a compelling single-player narrative?
Yes, there are many secrets! The type of genre will put limitations on which kind of methodologies you can deploy, but in general, I consider “player/protagonist parity” most important. In short, this means aligning the player’s motivations with the main character’s motivations through shared experiences.
Do you think single-player experiences create a better sense of immersion than multiplayer experiences?
No, I think immersion can be created just as effectively in a multiplayer game. However, there’s a level of intimacy that is hard to reach in multiplayer. You can get really personal when it’s just the game and the player when the experience isn’t filtered through social considerations.
How do you balance your narrative goals with your gameplay goals?
That is the hardest challenge. It is always very tempting to sacrifice gameplay on the story altar, or vice versa. Our strategy is making sure to have empowered representatives championing the various aspects of the game. We meet and negotiate with each other until we find a solution that satisfies our mutual needs. This takes patience, respect, and charitability, but it is always worth it in the end.
Have things like branching missions and multiple unique endings changed single-player game development?
I would say there’s an eternal increase in the complexity of triple-A games, but I think this change is something you need to thrive on in order to be a good developer.
Are there any genres you think story doesn’t matter, or ones you think fit the goal of telling a story better than others?
Yes, there are many types of game that do not need a story. A timeless classic like Tetris for example.
What sort of benefits do more powerful consoles and PCs offer to single-player storytellers?
Fundamentally, increased power enables the developer to more accurately realize their vision. When I started in this business 20 years ago, making the jaw of a character waggle as they spoke was the cutting edge. These days I obsess over the design of each character’s teeth.
Were there any particular single-player experiences in your gaming life that inspired you to create or really struck a chord with you?
For sure! Games like Space Quest, Half-Life and Ico have been hugely inspiring to me.
Is there a specific game’s single-player level or narrative moment you consider close to a perfect narrative experience?
I think The Last of Us is as close to perfection as it gets. There’s a moment when Joel falls down an elevator shaft and ends up in a flooded basement. He calls up to Ellie, asking her “Are you ok?” She shouts back down to him “No!” This moment sums up their characters and relationship in a way that cannot be translated into writing. Of course, the scene is written in the script, but it is the perfect harmony of stellar performances, clarity of vision, and flawless execution that turns these two modest lines of dialogue into a perfect moment.
How have single-player/narrative games changed most over the last 10 years?
The bar has been raised sky high in terms of storytelling ambition. We see a lot more complexity in themes and execution, and much better integration between story and gameplay.
How do you see single-player games evolving over the next 10 years?
I’d love to see a continued emphasis on intimacy in the stories we tell. The video game format is the closest we have to experiencing things from a different perspective than your own. To step into the shoes of another person. When done right, it can be very powerful.