- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2011

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Menacing alien machines descend on Earth, and amid all-out war, a soldier searches a building to find a frightened boy hiding in a vent.

“It’s OK,” says the soldier.

“Everyone’s dying,” the boy replies.

The soldier must choose: Help the boy or tell him to flee.

Though it’s full of dramatic tension and realistic animation, this isn’t a scene from the next Hollywood blockbuster. It’s actually from upcoming video game “Mass Effect 3.”

Game makers are crafting more sophisticated story lines and creating characters that evolve based on their experiences within a game. It’s an attempt to interest new customers and reverse a decline in video game sales as the maturing business fights for people’s attention in the face of new devices such as the iPad.

A new crop of games calls for players to make choices that go beyond selecting a weapon. Among other things, players are asked to make moral decisions that force their characters _ and the game’s narrative _ to evolve in different ways. Upcoming games such as “Bioshock Infinite” and “Star Wars: The Old Republic” tap into this vein.

These storytelling games couldn’t come at a better time. U.S. sales of gaming consoles and video games hit a peak in 2008, at $21.4 billion, according to market research firm NPD Group. Since then, however, annual sales fell 13 percent to $18.6 billion in 2010. So far in 2011, sales are flat compared with last year.

With the recent Supreme Court decision protecting violent games as free speech, it’s more appropriate than ever for games to have more of a message.

Part of the goal of involved storytelling is to keep players occupied for longer, playing out stories through to the end. Video game makers are trying to stop players from getting bored and quickly offloading games onto used game shops, which can sap sales.

The new games merge first-person shoot-em-ups with movie plotlines to develop what some in the industry are calling a new art form.

In the past, games mostly sandwiched so-called theatrical “cut scenes” between bouts of trigger-finger action. In “Grand Theft Auto IV,” for instance, players are given missions on a roughly linear progression as other hoodlums call by cellphone and recruit them to participate in crimes that will elevate the player in rank. Players can follow along or ignore the story lines in favor of other pursuits, such as discovering hidden details like the giant, chained heart inside the Statue of Liberty lookalike.

Gradually, non-action scenes are becoming more central to games and the story is the focus. “Grand Theft” was a start in that direction, with two different endings depending on player choices. The new “Star Wars” game will have about 20 different endings and a billion ways to get there.

“Photographs tell stories. Movies tell stories. Songs tell stories. Games tell stories,” said Ken Levine, creative director for Irrational Games.

Levine’s studio is poised to release “BioShock Infinite” next year. The shooting game confronts main character Booker with moral decisions _ like saving a man from execution or putting down a horse _ all the while roaming around an immersive floating world that resembles early 20th century America.

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