Interactive story-telling is the latest buzz word within the video-game industry. Traditionally, the player would be expected to follow a series of pre-scripted events that dictated the final outcome, but now it is possible to influence the story within the game. Essentially, this allows you to make the story up as you go along, and become more involved in the experience.
The computing power required to manage the complexities of diverging plot-strands has only recently been achieved, and as such interactive story-telling within video-games is still a comparatively new feature. Until recent times, stories within video-games were distinctly linear affairs, usually told through a series of cut-scenes between game-play. Sometimes, video-games would offer the player an illusion of free-will with the choice of dialogue options which would vary between "Noble Peace Prize Winner" and "be a dick" (ie Final Fantasy VIII). Unfortunately, your choices would have little to no consequence upon the game, thus neutering any claims of being an interactive story.
Historically, the first computer games were simple platform games, which incorporated minimalist storytelling elements. Since then, as the games have evolved and the industry has matured, there has been a drive to ensure that everything now has a more cohesive story. Compare games like Valve's Half Life 2 (2005), which blends a fantastic setting with a very good narrative and story, to iD's Doom (1992) in which all you needed to know is that you're a space-marine in hell, and you're killing demons.
Interactive storytelling first came to the forefront with the release of such video-games as the heroic dark-fantasy Dragon Age: Origins. My first experience with interactive-storytelling was with the science-fiction epic Mass Effect series, where the decisions you made as Commander Shepherd would result in you condemning team-members, leaving the galactic council to die, and enjoying romantic liaisons. The repercussions of your decisions would continue to be felt throughout the series as they impacted upon the story.
One of the key ingredients of interactive story-telling is the immersion that you experience as a player. You are no longer a passive consumer, but are now emotionally invested in your character and their story. Would Commander Shepherd's fight against the Reaper invasion in the Mass Effect series matter to us so much, unless we were actively involved with the character?
It is fascinating to note how there is no definitive image of what Commander Shepherd looks like. Shepherd's appearance in the Mass Effect series is entirely customisable to suit each player's preferences, which goes part of the way in the player investing themselves in the game. In a basic sense, the character within the game essentially becomes a cipher for the player.
If you are to believe the marketing hype, interactive story-telling is a never-before-seen feature that is uniquely found within video-games. Yet, that is not true. Live-action role-play, also known as LARP for short, has been offering this same interactive storytelling experience for several decades, within the immersive experience that live action role-playing offers.
One LARPer I spoke to (a Research and Development Technician by trade), commented:
"There has always been a drive in different media for greater interactivity. You are not just watching something on a screen, you are making decisions. As graphics have improved you might have more attachment to characters. It is almost like having a film in front of you, but being able to change the way the story goes."
LARP is much like traditional table-top role-playing games, such as the classic heroic-fantasy Dungeons and Dragons or the Lovecraftian-horror Call of Cthulhu. However, rather than describing your character's actions and what he or she does, you wear what they would wear and react as they would. The interactive story-telling elements of role-playing come into play with your character's actions influencing the ongoing story. When you blend this with the immersive qualities of LARP, it is easy to see why players can be become so involved in the LARP.
Computer engineer "Evil" Gary Smith (don't worry it's just a nickname) is also the Liaison Officer for the Derby Branch of Fools and Heroes LARP society, as well as a former Campaign Co-ordinator. Gary compares the types of story-telling narratives within LARP to being very similar to the new breed of video-games:
"Generally there seems to be two extremes of storytelling. One is the outright linear, where plot is carefully planned beforehand and players can only proceed down one route or other and generally will fail if they do not try those routes. The other is the sandbox approach were plot is built around the actions and whims of the players and the resulting plot may eventually be nothing like you originally envisioned. Both methodologies have their advantages and disadvantages, just like video games. The linear allows you to devote significant resource to props, costume, set pieces etc. (or in video-game terms cut-scenes, detailed areas etc.), while the sandbox means that the players feel empowered to actually do what they please and the plot will react to them".
Compared to other games, LARPing is the only one which allows you to completely immerse yourself into the setting, and perhaps offers the player their best chance to experience what it would be like to be someone else. That is until full Artificial Reality video games are realised, which will not be for some time.
No matter the quality of graphics or the narrative tropes employed within the video-games story-telling, there will always remain an irrevocable distance due to the necessity of employing a control method to interact with the video-game.
What it all comes down to is the level of immersion that each medium can offer. Even with the movement-based interactivity provided by the Xbox Kinnect and Nintendo Wii, players are still required in video-games to watch the screen and press the a button on the game-controller to swing a sword. With LARP, you are in a field and swinging a sword, which frankly trumps anything a video-game could offer.