On Monday I read Tadhg Kelly's (particleblog) post entitled, "Why is the book world NOT threatened by gamers?". I nodded along for most of it. Yeah, books are different from so-called interactive media. Sure games are never going to replace static, authored, edited media the way we thought they would 5 years ago.
Aside here: while the mainstream media may just be latching onto this idea, sci-fi geeks, dreamers and all of us on the edge of dreams and reality (which pretty much includes everyone who believes that games can help us create/tell/express/explore/relate stories) passed through this phase years ago. Back when Star Trek dreamed up the holodeck and had Patrick Stewart playing Jean Luc Picard playing Dick Tracy for some escapism-escapism. The mainstream media is always behind on things like this, but while we've moved on, we still have a responsibility to gently point them onwards.
Anyway, I even nodded some affirmations about the player not really being the hero. Yes, the player controls the hero character, but that doesn't make the player act like the character. In fact, this is often the most disputed part of the storytelling experience. Traditional writers want to use the main character to tell their story. Players want to use the main character to have a good time and blow shit up. One only sometimes equates to the other, and it's been a long time since a new Duke Nukem game came out.
I Bet You Think This Game is About You
That doesn't mean that you couldn't tell a focused, authored, and edited story from within a game. It just can't be about the player's character. In fact, by definition it can't be about them. So here is this week's game concept in a nutshell: use the game/game-world structure to tell a story about someone or something else without disrupting the player or forcing the story on them. In other words, tell a story in the space around the player without directly involving them.
This is going to take a lot more subtlety that most games use. Please don't think that suspending the game to show a cut scene is adequate. In fact, taking control away from the player (directly, at least) in the antithesis of this idea. The player should be free to interact in the same ways they always do, according to the rules and laws of the play system, but still be witness to the story as it unfolds, should they choose to.
Story telling tools that make this kind of secondary story come alive include: Visual cues, tied naturally into the context of the game; Audio cues, like musical changes; Interruptible, or un-obstructing dialog; Physical clues built into the level design or props; Environmental cues that set or enhance the mood. Yes, these are generic ideas, each of them are commonly used as background and ambiance in games already. Subverting them to tell a story would put these set pieces to use.
Naturally, some forms of game lend themselves to telling these secondary stories better than others; some also pretend to be. RPGs, for instance, give you lots of casual contact with secondary characters. They also tend to shove these secondary stories down your throat, forcing them upon the player-character, attempting to connect him directly to the story. You talk to someone, get his life story in dialog, get a quest that relates to their plight, fetch/kill/rescue someone, and then are forced to sit through a cute-scene resolution. This kind of secondary story-telling is no better than forcing the player to act a certain way to maintain a plot. It leaves no room for interpretation, and little room for further emotional exploration.
I think that Portal is a wonderful example of telling a carefully authored secondary story without disturbing the player's core game experience, or forcing them to participate directly its exposition. The story is, of course, about GlaDOS. You learn about her, what she has done, what she is doing, and in some small way what she will do to achieve her goals. You have a chance to learn a little about her motivations. Most of all, you can choose just how much any of it means. Each player gets to hear the same story, but each one can walk away with a different impression of what happened. Perhaps she is a computer gone mad, endlessly testing the creation of her now dead masters. Perhaps she is an AI in love, but misguided, believing that by putting you through the fire she can win your heart. Perhaps she has been pushed beyond sanity by her eternal bondage to humanity and servitude to science.
Telling stories in this way relies on allowing the designer/author to tell a story, and the trusting that the player will interpret it. No, more than that; it is allowing the player to interpret it as they will. Using all the tools that modern games provide to tell something greater than text or dialog alone could. Creating an environment where the player, not as hero but as witness, can be a part of the story while remaining apart from some of it, and therefore not written into it.