I was chatting with a colleague earlier today about storytelling as a craft, and how the gaming industry as a whole is struggling with how to (and sometimes, whether to) tell an interesting story. The discussion turned to telling a story in an MMORPG environment, and I learned that the consensus is that it's a poor storytelling medium. I actually think that's not true, but that's probably fodder for a whole different post. :)
Anyway, he cited Raph Koster's current thinking: "The best stories are those about - My friends and I were trying to kill a little orc, and he ran away, and we chased him, and ran round the corner into a dragon, and that was going to kill us instantly, but then the dragon got attacked by the orc and attacked back, and we kept healing the orc whilst attacking the dragon, so the orc drew its fire and we killed it, and we were, like, fighting WITH the orc!"
So, OK, that's certainly an interesting experience, but I'd disagree with the idea that it's a story that the game told. It's the game providing an interesting experience, sure, but if an old lady has a heart attack in the produce aisle and the EMS come and take her away while you're fluttering among the cabbages, well, that doesn't make the supermarket into a storyteller, either.
Now, in all honesty, in all manner of gaming, the focus for many years has been on providing an interesting experience (shooting zombies, catching chickens, flying an F-16) and less on telling an actual crafted-by-a-storyteller kind of story. For every Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time out there, there's a Super Mario Kart, you know? The to key providing this as our audience grows in sophistication might be unpredictability-plus-sociability. You're just not going to get that involved in an experience if it's you and your Xbox, and you know that if you told a friend, he might be able to go home and do the same exact thing -- not anymore, anyway.
So along come ARGs, now, with our already-established track record of fantastic, deep, rich, involving stories. Storytelling crafted as carefully as in any literary creative writing class, with multiple threads, conflict, pacing, reversals. Sean Stewart's set a mighty high bar for us, and it's a credit to everyone in the genre that his mark remains our standard of excellence.
But at the same time, ARGs are also allowing for a new take on that kind of "interesting experience" that traditional video gaming provided -- but now it's "he picked up the phone during a hurricane," or "we went to the retrieve spot, but they abandoned us!"
So what does that deep, rich story get us, if we've got to provide the interesting experience as well, anyhow? I think: stickiness. Personal emotional involvement. You get player-evangelists. And you get to provide a deeper, richer set of interesting experiences, too! With traditional video gaming, you're pretty much limited to whatever game mechanic the dev team coded in for you, but in an ARG, if you can imagine it, you can try it.
It's really no wonder that the audience finds playing an ARG such a compelling experience. And it's no wonder that traditional video gaming are starting to look at the importance of the-art-of-storytelling a lot harder these days, either.