Once Upon A Playtime

I’m on deck at DIY Days NYC to give a talk about storytelling in games (a talk that is, at present, called “Once Upon A Playtime”). Basically, with this talk I’m shunting aside the old question of Are games art? because that question is (to me) meaningless to the designer, to the creator. Instead, I’m focusing on the question, Can games be used to tell an effective story?

I don’t know the answer to that, yet.

When I first started cracking the nut that is this question, my kneejerk response was a blustery, stammering, “Well! Wuh. Pffh. Of course they can! That’s not even a question.”

Except…

Then I really took a good long look.

At its core, storytelling is (duh, bear with me) the act of me telling you a story.

Ah, but gaming isn’t quite that. Gaming is about you experiencing a story, and further, it’s about you making your own story from that experience. I don’t mean to suggest that this is a bad thing. It’s not. It’s a great thing. It’s its own thing. But is it classic and effective storytelling?

The campfire storyteller, the writer, the filmmaker, the comic book artist, they’re all telling a measured story. It unfolds word after word, page after page, frame after frame. It exists at the pace of the storyteller. It’s a roller coaster ride. You’re buckled the fuck in. Your only real options as the recipient of the story are:

a) Keep listening (reading, watching)

b) Quit that shit (put the book down, turn off the movie, walk away from the campfire)

c) Change the pace of my consumption (read more slowly, watch the film in increments, choose to read the graphic novel over the comic series as its released)

As a game, though, my options are larger, wider, and altogether stranger. Yes, in the Call of Duty games, I traverse the battlefield, unlocking cinematic events that continue the story that the creators are telling. (Be aware, I’m not arguing that games do not tell stories; I’m asking again whether these stories are effective.) But I can stop. I can dick around. I can run around the battlefield area, shooting holes in cars, or letting wave after wave of enemy spawn for giggles. In Halo, I might even partake in emergent gameplay — me and a co-op buddy might sit and screw around with a level (re: a “chapter”) for hours, building ramps for our Warthogs, grenade-jumping to get secret skulls, shooting rockets into each other’s faces. Whatever.

Given that an “avatar” in the game world is generally the story’s protagonist (Master Chief, f’rex), that’s kind of wonky, isn’t it? Imagine being told a story and then the storyteller stops in the middle and suddenly rambles on about how Master Chief tried to give his Spartan best friend a plasma fire enema, or how the two of them ran around on the battlefield playing a digital game of high-definition avatar grab-ass for a half-hour. The story’s arc suddenly plateaus, or rather, hits something that looks a static frequency. Meaning, at that point it’s just noise.

This isn’t a bad thing for the game.

But it might be a bad thing for the story.

Is the story just context for the game experience? Is it just The Thing That Frames The Fun?

Is the story that meaningful in a game? In a pen-and-paper roleplaying game it is, but even there, the creators of said game are not actually telling a story. Not even with a module. They’re giving the gamers the tools to create and engage in their own storytelling endeavors. In an ARG (alternate reality game), the “story” that’s concealed is one that might be meaningful to the canon of that property, but once more, I can experience the story in an ultimately arbitrary and random way. I can come in late, I can come in early, I can juggle the pieces and put the story together as I see fit.

In some ways, this is great, right? Games then embody show over tell. Half-Life and Portal show us the story. We can care, or we can just shoot things. We can search out the writing on the wall (in both games, literally), or we can give the story the finger and run around with the Gravity Gun, shooting boxes into the faces of Combine agents.

It’s too twee, really, but in games, are we talking about storyshowing rather than storytelling? Is storytelling an art that simply cannot operate properly in a game context? Does interactivity offer too many random elements? Does interactivity render the old storytelling mechanics inert?

I’m honestly having a hard time thinking of a video game that truly told an effective story. Are there any? I’m not trying to make anybody mad; it bears repeating that I’m not saying I have not enjoyed the stories and worlds put forth by games. I have. I love games. But has the story of any video game matched up with the best films, the best novels, in terms of storytelling potency, in the terms of true craft? Will video games have a 70s-era surge into craft? Can we ever see the video game equivalent to Taxi Driver or Apocalypse Now? Or Moon? Or District 9? Will video games ever give us something as powerful as Ulysses or The Things They Carried or even Lord of the Rings? Yes, I love Bioshock. I love Mass Effect. But even when I can explain a game’s story in a way that isn’t totally ludicrous, I don’t know that I’m really getting the same emotional urgency and narrative impact as the great stories of our time.

By putting the supposed target of the story (you, me) into the story, have we irreparably damaged the act of storytelling in that particular situation?

I cannot help but envision the day that we begin to tell new stories, static stories born out of our digital interactive experiences. Just as today I might tell you a story about how I went to the convenience store and got robbed (relax, that didn’t happen), I might in the future tell you a story of the time me and a couple of buddies invaded the Overlord’s base and how it was a total suicide mission in the end. Hell, I might tell you that story now. I might tell you how Hindmarch and I sniped some pinko fools, or how last night I protected a Little Sister from an army of Splicers but how everything went pear-shaped when the game dropped one of those ape-bodied brute splicers in my lap at the same time some dude started chucking firebombs at my face. I’m getting stories from the game, but the game is not telling me a story.

Help me out here. Noodle this shit. Give me a boost so I can get my head around this. It feels like a rabbit hole; I tumble, I tumble. Can you think of video games that have effectively told stories to you? Stories on par with the best and brightest? Did the interactivity — the sheer possibility of option — change your notion of “story,” or is it simply outside that notion entirely?

70 comments

  • Here’s my couple of coppers on the matter.

    Playing a game that features writing and/or a story as one of its main selling points is basically inviting you to an exercise in improvisational collaborative storytelling. It’s especially true in role-playing games or games with a branching story campaign (Wing Commander springs to mind) – the creators basically say “Here’s the set-up, here are the tools you’ll need, and here are some interesting characters (who may or may not also be tools). What happens next?”

    I think you have a point in that there’s not quite as much emotional impact inherent in game-playing over experiencing a story in cinematic or novelized form for the first time. I’m not sure if a video game has sat me down & told me a story as effectively as a novel or movie has, but a few of them certainly made me feel like I was part of a story – a participant, rather than just a spectator. Instead of just trying to beat the game or earn some achievement, I wanted to see the story through to the end, find out what happens next, with the same urgency and trepidation I get before turning the next page in the book or watching the next scene in the movie unfold.

    • At this point, I’m less concerned with how it makes me *feel* — after all, I could be moved by a particular painting, or a touching moment playing out in front of me at the park, or the way a hooker licks jelly off my toes. (Er, my wife isn’t listening, right?) The end to the first Bioshock had me really emotionally engaged. It was downright touching. The end to… Ultima VI, I think, where the Guardian is blasted through the Black Gate, had me cheering.

      It’s less about how I feel and more about the model of storytelling.

      It is collaborative, you’re right — but is a collaborative storytelling experience a truly potent one in terms of narrative impact? Could Scorcese’s films have worked as an interactive collaboration? Or is something lost? Something watered down?

      The sad part is, video games are nowhere near where pen-and-paper roleplaying games are in terms of raw potential. A roleplaying game really lets me inhabit a character and a world. Very few — if any! — video games have given that much power to collaborative storytelling, yet.

      — c.

  • We’ve been talking about this A LOT at work lately. At some point I might compile my thoughts on the matter into something a little less like “And this! With that! And then whoa! And you’re like, yeah!”

    • It’s tricky shit, isn’t it?

      The followup question to a conclusion (say, “Games are not good vehicles for storytelling) is: “Does it even matter?” My toaster doesn’t tell me a story, and that’s okay. Maybe it’s fine that my game doesn’t tell me an effective story, provided that it’s a *good game*.

      MORE INPUT NEEDED.

      — c.

  • This is particularly interesting in light of Random House’s recently announced video game initiative and partnership with Elemental: War of Magic. Advance Wars: Days Of Ruin didn’t have the strongest storyline, but it was certainly effective, managing to create an unexpected emotional connection to specific characters that definitely affected some of my tactical decisions.

    As for collaborative storytelling, it’s how I’ve always viewed RPGs and I think it offers some interesting opportunities for readers and writers. Fourth Story Media’s Amanda Project is frequently noted as one of the best examples of it right now: http://www.theamandaproject.com/

    Looking forward to your talk!

    • Thanks, Guy!

      The Random House thing intrigues me. I’d actually love to get in on that.

      On stories and video games — I guess in this discussion it’s important to define terms. Defining “effective,” for instance. Maybe “effective” is too weak a word. If I can’t open my door at home because I forgot my key, I could probably take a sledgehammer and knock the thing down. Effective, yes. Also clumsy, and not really the best example of how to open a locked door.

      — c.

  • Okay boys, I’m not nearly as experienced with all this gaming stuff, but I’m going to give you the few thoughts I have on this. I don’t actually play games, but my husband and I like to work on them as a team. He plays blindly while I read him the instruction booklet (cuz I’m a chick – I’m not afraid of directions) and order him around like an annoying back-seat driver. Whatever. It works for us. And we’ve spent many a night playing bleary-eyed into the wee hours of the morning when we find a good game.

    In the beginning of this post, I had the same initial response to “the question.” I thought, “Well, duh, he’s a gamer…he knows what great stories games have nowadays.” But then I saw where you were going with your point. You’re right. As far as getting the same storytelling experience that we do from our other medias, it’s NOT the same. However, this post has made me realize that I try like hell to MAKE it the same.

    Brian (my hubby) is like you. He wants to run around and blow things up for shits-n-giggles. I, on the other hand, want him to make it as realistic as possible and keep pace with the story. Example: Hit Man for the 360. I don’t know if you’ve played it, but the idea is to become a super assassin who gets in, gets his mark and gets the fuck out with as little damage as possible. At the end of each mission, you get a newspaper to read that summarizes what you did and how close the cops are to figuring out whodunit. The more you fire your weapon, kill people that aren’t your mark, and make a scene in general, the worse you do. I wanted him to do things covertly, be inconspicuous, follow the mission to the letter and be the best assassin we (he) could be. He chose his weapons, not for their stealthiness, but for how big of a hole they’d put through some dud’s head or how much shit it could blow up.

    So, maybe games have the POTENTIAL to act as the storytellers, but it comes down to who’s playing the game. After all, boys will be boys…put a gun in their hands and they start jerking off like it’s christmas at the bunny ranch.

    Do you that if you actually stuck to the missions, went from one to the next without any dickin around and put stock into the story that you would feel differently? Maybe it wouldn’t exactly be the same as a book or movie (which then the answer to the storytelling question would still be “no” i guess), but it would probably be pretty close.

    My favorite games we’ve played (and I base my tastes on storyline, entertainment value during the shoot-em-up part, and hotness of male protagonists ;)) are Army of Two: 40th Day, Hit Man, Assassin’s Creed II and my all time favorite is Wanted. LOVED that game.

  • My quick thoughts, because I don’t have a lot of time (sorry about that, because I love this post and topic) is this – yes, it can have extreme emotional impact but the narrative takes on a different shape because the storyteller is getting a narrative as well. The best games I have ever been a part of have been an equal parts of setup/direction by the person running the game combined with players directing the path of the players and adding new elements to the story.

    It does not impact in the traditional guide/audience sense, it creates a new format for stories. The best thing I can liken it to is an improv that doesn’t plant people in the crowd. It doesn’t have to be comedy, any improv will do. This becomes a challenge, and an engaging one for the person directing the events and for the audience, who suddenly play an actual role in the entire affair. You also never no exactly what is going to happen, no matter how much you plan for it.

    Sound familiar to the carefully laid plans of most game masters? Players will always think of another way, and that creates a more dynamic and reactive story. The story will still have the same impact of a traditional narration; it just won’t have the same type of impact, and I think that is the important thing to remember.

  • Well, I dunno. I don’t have piles of experience with “professional storytellers,” but there’s this image in my head. It involves the storyteller at a library starting to tell a story, and then once in a while asks the kids “And what do you think they saw?” And what the kids say, in turn, can influence the story.

    For that matter… when the Victorians told fairy tales without all the rape and dismemberment, wasn’t that the audience taking a passive but indelible role in what the story came out like? What about when Shakespeare threw in some humor for the groundlings, or when Spenser decided he was going to really blow sunshine up his Virgin Queen’s skirts by glorifying her? And yeah, he was ripping off Ariosto, who in turn was telling his story for the glorification of his noble patrons’ line. I love Orlando Furioso, but I’m not getting the same stuff out of it as I would if I were allegedly descended from Ruggiero and Bradamante.

    Maybe I’m just being contrary, but to me audience participation is totally integral to a storytelling experience more often than expected. In the sense of a video game narrative, the gameplay segments feel to me like intermissions: stop, stretch your thumbs, then get back to the story in a bit.

    I think video games are absolutely capable of storytelling, but they will never be a pure storytelling experience because they are also video games. They’re trying to do two things at the same time (though some video games are not trying very hard at one or the other), so comparing them to media that are trying to do only one thing at once is kind of iffy. Better perhaps to compare them to movies or books that are trying to do multiple things at once. Can we have a pure storytelling experience in a movie blockbuster that is also trying to wow us with visuals? How about in a commercial short that’s trying to sell us something?

  • I really like the phrase “storyshowing” versus “storytelling”.

    I’m not certain I would have been able to express it this way before reading your post, but I think the properties you describe are what make games appealing to me. A well-done game, for my preferences, is one where I can make the story my own – one that lets me tell my own story. There can be a meta-plot that drags me along, but I develop my own internal motivations for the character and learn how the character changes from thier experiences.

    This is distinctly different from the passsive medium of storytelling, and I think that’s a good thing.

  • My experience says PnP games can tell amazing group stories, single player video games can create individual stories if they are intended to and are well crafted, and multi-player video games create group stories, but not usually about the story the game was trying to tell, but rather the story of the group’s experience playing —which can be retold forever and incorporate more fiction with each telling :)

  • I think that a video game gives you the opportunity to see and experience things that might only be hinted at in a book, movie, etc.  In a game you’re playing between the scenes.  A chapter in a book might end at one location while the next chapter starts you at a new location some time in the future.  In a game you play through the dark space between those chapters.  Does it water down the impact because the story is no longer distilled to its purest form?  Maybe.  It might also have the opposite effect because the gamer plays an active role in the story.  In a game you’re living the story and like real life, not every moment is an epic battle or a critical decision.  Truly memorable moments are not diminished by the mundane ones that surround them.  

  • You know, you’re being really, really unfair to the poor video games. Story-based games are, what, thirty years old as a genre? An awful lot of your examples of other stories were written before Gygax first looked at his little lead guys and said, “Hmm, what is *this* guy thinking?”

    Let’s try asking a slightly different question. Can a video game tell as compelling a story as, say, Terminator: Salvation? Can we have an RPG that approaches the fine literature of Sleepless in Seattle? Was the story in Dungeon Siege better than the story Uwe Boll vomited onto the screen?

    If the answer to that is yes, then the answer to your question must be yes. We simply haven’t figured out the key notes to hit yet to make an interactive story as compelling as a well-controlled one.

    And, personally, I think a lot of the indie games like, say, Shab al-Hiri Roach can do as well as any B-flick. Of course, those are concentrating on telling a story, and don’t give you a lot of room to dick around with random bullshit. But, they still include the factors of multiple inputs and no second draft (one of the factors that I think really holds RPGs back as a story-telling medium).

    I know it can be done with pen-and-paper RPGs. Of course, there I think of it more like story-finding rather than story-showing. (Much like Michelangelo just chopped away any marble that didn’t look like David’s junk.) The game has an infinite number of stories embedded in it, and your choices reveal one of them. I guess the same is true of video games. It’s just that your story does, indeed, include long asides of randomly blowing shit up.

    Maybe it’s not the game’s fault that the story you chose isn’t as good as, say, Village of the Damned. Maybe part of the equation is that the player has to *choose* to hear a gripping tale full of pathos, rather than dick jokes and random explosions.

  • So, the thing in my mind about game stories is that, by normal yardsticks, they kind of suck. Pacing is off and thematically they’re an incredible mess, yes despite all this they can be absolutely down and dirty gut-punchingly powerful. For my money, the reason for this is straightforward – no other medium offers a greater degree of investment in the characters. Even first person narrative just takes you along for the ride, but if you are actually playing these characters, there is a sense of identification that twigs to something more powerful than just looking at a pawn on a board.

    I don’t know why this is. I suspect men in white coats have some manner of explanation that sounds all sciencey, but this is what I’ve seen. But stop and look at “good writing” in video games – it is almost never the story that is being referred to, it is almost always the characters, their actions and characterizaton. Bioware’s plots are ok, but the games keep me coming back because the characters come alive in our shared experience. If the game handles this well (and many don’t) then I can get an emotional reaction to events that is not based on how well they’re presented, but on _who_ they are happening to.

    That is NOT the usual payout for a story. When people talk about the things they want in their fiction, I rarely hear “Investment” at the top of their lists. But it’s impossible for me to deny that there’s something here, something powerful. It feels like something that’s just a tool in fiction writing gets turned on its ear and put front and center.

    I don’t know if that’s truly a transformation. Hell, I don’t know if it’s story or not, but I don’t care too much. I’m willing to call it whatever is most useful to help get more of it.

    -Rob D.

  • The experience of playing a video game in the manner you describe is a bit like reading a story that’s poorly edited. It has all the elements of a good story, but there’s a lot of cruft in there where the heroes go off and dick around without actually accomplishing anything or furthering the plot.

  • “Help me out here. Noodle this shit.”

    Only because you asked….

    A decade ago or more it was assumed that interactivity was additive to storytelling. You take your basic story, you add interactivity, and presto: more!

    But that’s wrong. As you note, stories are defined by 100% authorial control. Adding interactivity (player choice, whether algorithmic or scripted) necessarily lessens authorial control. For more:

    http://www.ditchwalk.com/docs/game-vs-story/

    http://www.ditchwalk.com/docs/meaning-in-storytelling-and-the-impossibility-of-computation/

    The goal today is trying to provide the user with enough choice/fun/stuff that it makes up for the negative effects of that weakened authorship. The better games allow the player to become their own story, rather than trying to force a single narrative experience on all users. (This is always a matter of degree.) I think that’s clearly a model that works, and probably the one most worth pursuing. For more:

    http://www.ditchwalk.com/docs/interactivity-and-narrative-crawford-compilation/

    The limit of doing all this — and it is a hard limit — is language interaction. Because stories generate all of their effects through language, it would obviously be beneficial if language could be made interactive. Unfortunately, it can’t, and that creates a dead space between authorial storytelling and computer storytelling. Authors can create characters that talk to each other: computers can’t.

    This limit absolutely crushes most storytelling in games because it’s impossible to effectively conceal. Lean on language more and you only expose the problem and the limits of the computer. Lean on interactivity more and you obligate yourself to a world without characters, or at least characters that can communicate using language. (Simlish is a great solution to this problem, but also one that limits — if not deadens — the emotional range of The Sims.)

    If you want to really dig deep, there are ways to finesse the problem, but they require considerable effort. For more:

    http://www.ditchwalk.com/docs/transparency-in-interactive-entertainment/

  • I’ve been answering this question for over a hundred posts at Gameplaywright, and the answer is still tantalizingly unclear. I’m going to give you material that I should just put in a post over at GPW, free as a comment.

    I think that, yes, games can tell effective stories. The issue is that games do not often tell replicable stories — they create narrative situations which can unfold dramatically, but might not every time.

    The trouble with “storyshowing” is that a) showing is supposed to trump telling when relating a story, isn’t? Why is storyshowing (which is like, what, waving the DVD in front of me?) somehow more hollow than storytelling? It’s because b) the audience can opt out of a story in a game more easily, because in most cases we the storytellers have explicitly given the player something to do other than to be rapt. This can be good for immersion but bad for investment — we’re like, “hang on, story, I just want to play with the Force for a few minutes.”

    Is it the audience’s fault that they’re not invested in the story? Yes. Partly. The audience plays a role in a storytelling performance, and that is that they come willing to buy into the thing. If not, we deem them jerks for talking or texting during the performance.

    Games have that backwards. In games, a player is deemed a loser (or what have you) if he gets invested or submerges himself in the story. Often, this is because the story is objectively deemed laughably bad and not worthy of proper audience respect, but the culture is formed there and the hill is steeper for games than it was for movies — it may take more than gaming’s Citizen Kane to scale that hill.

    As long as the kid who cries at Shadow of the Colossus is deemed a weirdo, the audience is demonstrating that it doesn’t have self-permission to be effected. As long as even one kid cries, though, the game’s story was somehow effective.

    How many people need to be effected? Ten? Ten thousand?

    How do they need to be effected? Exactly the way the game’s Lead Designer hoped for?

    Effective is a tricky word for this argument.

    So I’ll reassert here what I say at the Shared Worlds camp, every year. Games, right now, are about bad or mediocre stories told well. So far, at least, most stories are rote or too convoluted or otherwise hindered, but still they are sometimes told well enough that we loathe our enemies, jump at the scares, or feel guilty when we let our comrades fall. Games have instances and situations down pretty well. That speaks well of our chances.

    • Holy Christ on a Carousel.

      You people feel strongly about this topic. Good stuff.

      I’ll have actual thoughts when I’m done this script read, peeps.

      But keep talking. I’m a-listening.

      — c.

  • Mr. Hindmarch, you make some excellent points. But, the word you want is “affected,” not “effected.” :)

    While I’m here, I’ll elaborate on one of my earlier points. If you look at the writing process in the Wendig Book of Dogma, you start with an outline or a mind map. You write the hell out of a first draft. Then you rewrite the hell out of that six or sixteen times.

    All that a game writer gets to produce is that mind map, and a dozen cut-scenes. Maybe some bits of dialog. He then turns it over to other people to add the scenery and descriptions. Then, finally, it gets to the player. That player then turns that outline directly into the finished product of a story. One shot, no rewrites.

    How well would your script do in that case? I think the answer is “Transformers 2.”

    And replay isn’t the same as rewrites. The big touchstones of the story, the cut-scenes, lose their emotional impact because you’ve seen them before.

    I think this is one of the reasons that games like Heavy Rain may be the path to truly literary games. The choices that the player makes really alter the story being told. If the game writer is talented enough to make at least the majority of those choices come together into a compelling story, you’ve got a winner.

    This is essentially, though, writing a thousand rough drafts of your story and letting the audience pick which one they want to turn into a final draft. Making this work is going to require a different set of skills than any creative writing professor has ever conceived.

  • Even the best game (video or pnp) that intends to tell a story is going to be hard pressed to rival the best movies have to offer. There are just too many opportunities in a game for the player to be taken out of the flow of the story. PnP games try to get around this by becoming more strict in their scripting. All those “adventure paths” published by Paizo are excellent examples. Don’t get me wrong, they are great. However part of the joy of a pnp game is the unknown the players bring to the mix. I think the story we create from pnp games more often than not comes in reflection.

    Those memorable gaming sessions or campaigns will stick with you a lot longer and be more rewarding than the 2 hours spent watching a movie. But getting that is reliant on the participants and really is system independent. Smoke in a bottle.

    Video games can get closer to making something repeatable, but I think the best we can hope for is getting the equivalent experience from a first rate graphic novel (which is a pretty damn good thing in my opinion. Mass Effect, Batman: Arkham Asylum , Bioshock and a few others have a basis in great writing and scripting of characters. The thing some of these games have going for them (Mass Effect in particular) is the ability to replay the game and change the story. Choices actually have impact, granted you will get to the same finish, but you have some power to alter your path to the end.

    Sorry I rambled a bit on this, but freakin work is distracting :P

  • Lugh, it’s just one of several errors in the comment. This is why I loathe trying to rattle off serious comments as fast as I can, to get them in while the discussion is still going, without an edit button as a safety net — the whole comment then becomes about a typo, instead of about its substance.

    • (I’ll throw in a hasty add that, Lugh, Baby Jesus cries when you critique typos in a comment. We don’t want the Baby Jesus to cry.)

      (I’ll also add that, realistically, how you describe game writing is how scripts for film and television work already, and they don’t produce Transformers 2 every time. For good or ill, nearly every film or television production is “story by committee.”)

      (More later.)

      — c.

  • @Hindmarch – Oh, I know. Just a pet peeve and all. Which is why I was careful to preface the correction with an appreciation of the substance of the comment, and postface (What? That should totally be a word if preface is.) it with a smiley. I really did appreciate the thought about our judgment of the people affected by the stories informing our judgment of the quality of the stories themselves. There’s a lot of self-fulfilling prophecy in there.

    I think that your statement that games are about “bad stories told well” is a gross over-simplification, and generally unfair to the potential of games. But, I’m guessing that you already know that it’s a gross over-simplification, and splitting the hairs is beyond the scope of littering Chuck’s comment thread.

    @Buzzregog – Your comment about what players bring to the mix raises another tricky point about RPGs, and even some CRPGs. One of the most critical elements that the author brings to any story is the characters. And, yet, in an RPG that’s one of the central elements that the author *CAN’T* control. How do you build a moving character arc that can be applied to any character the player chooses to insert?

    One of my huge beefs with the Pathfinder campaign that I’m currently playing in is that I am completely swept up in events that have nothing to do with my character. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m only fighting these bad guys because they want to destroy the world, not because they mean anything at all to me. Some of that is inexpert DMing, but a lot of it is just the nature of the adventure being tightly plotted with very limited places for the characters to fully engage.

  • @Chuck – Hey, Baby Jesus is getting nailed to a tree tomorrow. I think my comments are the least of his concern!

    I’ll also say that “story by committee” is a bit different from “serial scripting.” Committees discuss things with one another, and benefit from multiple points of view and feedback. The author of a game can discuss things with the art people and the programming people, but has extremely limited ability to communicate directly to the player about how he should play. The player has an ability approaching zero to communicate back to the author or the rest of the team how he’s progressing through the story. You are losing the entire feedback mechanism that refines the story.

    • Well, in terms of film/TV — the “author” of the screenplay doesn’t usually have input into direction, sound, art direction, or even into the next (or final) draft of the screenplay.

      And in terms of a feedback mechanism that defines the story — well, that’s really one of the issues at the center of this. Stories are generally not beholden to constantly changing feedback loops. I’d argue that just such a loop damages a story (but creates the game). Again, this isn’t a bad thing, but it’s *a* thing worth looking at.

      Again, more cogent responses (esp. to your thoughts, Ethan and Will) when I have more/better time! Good stuff, all. Keep chatting, all y’alls.

      — c.

  • Uhhhhhhhhhhhh. Can my original comment be deleted? In comparison to all the other kids on the playground, I sound like a preschooler trying to have a conversation with a college debate team. You guys are so over my head it’s not even funny. When I woke up this morning I thought I was, at the very least, semi-intelligent. It took a discussion about video games to make me feel as smart as Patrick from Spongebob Squarepants. Ouch.

  • @Gina – Nonsense. Your post was on point, coherent, relevant, and highlighted the disconnect between the storyline and the gameplay very nicely. By Internet standards, it’s practically high rhetoric.

    • @Will:

      The only whinging was that last comment about whinging. :)

      Your other comments are spot on and insightful. I actually agree that games are — often, if not always — bad stories done well.

      — c.

  • Let me just jump in here and say a couple things while I have a free moment.

    Part of the reason for this question is, as a guy who periodically is involved in the Designing Of Games (including a thing or two surrounding our film), I’m challenged by the notion of “storytelling” in games.

    It seems like any attempt to utilize the standard storytelling tools — y’know, all the garbage I rant about here, like arcs and structure and good writing and whatnot — are useful as individual components in terms of game design, but can be limiting when once attempts to insert them wholesale into the process.

    So, while this seems a lofty discussion, it very much attempts to put focus on the nitty-gritty, the practical side of Making Games.

    How do you tell a story using games?

    If you rely on The Old Ways, you might be shooting yourself in the foot. You might be jamming a square peg in a circle hole. It might be better than to say, “The strong suit of a game is not the author’s story, but the player’s story, and so the best ‘game story’ is actually one built from tools you as publisher-creator provide to the player-creator.”

    Make sense?

    — c.

  • Now, a handful of aimed comments and thoughts —

    @Lugh: I’m not comfortable comparing games to, say, Sleepless in Seattle or Terminator: Salvation. I don’t want to argue about the quality of those movies, but my assumption is that you bring them up to say that, if games can meet that lowest common denominator, they work as traditionally effective storytelling. To which I say, why are we comparing games to (tastes aside) the worst of the breed? I’d rather hold them to the best examples, see how they fare.

  • @Ethan:

    I don’t know that traditional storytelling is something that fares well with true interactivity. Yes, storytellers respond to cues both subtle and overt, but once the participants began actively directing the action (i.e. going beyond cues), we’re talking about Grand Theft Auto then, and not Romeo & Juliet. It feels a far cry to me to suggest that Guy Playing Video Game is the same as an audience member at one of Shakespeare’s plays.

    — c.

  • Lest anyone think I’m picking on games, I’m not. But I think we need to look at “telling stories in games” as a whole different animal than any other kind of storytelling.

    The traditional tools do not suffice, especially in the order we are supposed to apply them.

    A game’s story is about the player’s story. Authorial intent isn’t automatically lost — but it probably is with most players. And that’s okay, because authorial intent can be nicely trumped by the player’s own experiences, which is most important (in games) above all else.

    — c.

  • When games are designed so that stories arise from making sense of an experience, then they tell stories in a way particularly suited to games. When games tell stories as a way of justifying the right to have the experience at all, they are framing devices. Most video games have the latter type of story. Halo’s story exists to justify Master Chief shooting aliens. Tabletop RPGs excel at the former type of story, as do MMOs, and structure is used more to provide a context for experience. There is considerable bleedthrough, in that I can think like Master Chief and speculate on his motivations, but this is different from an RP guild in WoW using a quest to frame their own interactions not just to complete the quest, but play out rivalries and romances and things.

  • Chuck, I know you’ve written features and novels; have you ever written a comic script? A video game script? These are different breeds than feature film scripts, to be sure, but some of it is a matter of degrees. In a comic, the writer/artist and the reader both control the pacing of the story, yet the comic story doesn’t lose its own authority. Some games, like Call of Duty, are largely similar — the story unfolds largely the same for everyone, eventually, except for matters of pacing being imposed by lingering players, deaths and restarts, etc. What is it that draws the line between one and the other as being a proper story?

    Part of the issue, for me, is that “effective” hasn’t been defined for the argument, but neither has “game” or “story.” Games like my beloved Thief: The Dark Project tell a story, clearly, without affording the player much control over that story (instead, the player has a degree of control over characterization), yet it’s still undeniably a game. Where are we drawing the contours of this discussion?

  • Lugh wrote: “And replay isn’t the same as rewrites. The big touchstones of the story, the cut-scenes, lose their emotional impact because you’ve seen them before.”

    Hopefully this is going to change once games start to adopt certain features. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, for example, includes a host of setting and dialog changes triggered by different choices you make when you replay it. Ordinarily this wouldn’t amount to much, but on that game’s specific case, the changed content doesn’t change the overall plot, but it adds up to understanding it better and better, which adds emotional impact.

    I also wonder if we’re not splitting hairs unnecessarily here, specially when it comes to deciding if games really feature stories. I’m a little loath to the idea of creating whole new systems of thought and concept just because something that already exists is taken to another platform (pun intended!) and/or is re-purposed.

    All in all, the storytelling process already varies according to the genre and the audience the teller is facing/crafting the story to – or even the actual place where the storytelling is happening (say, in front of a campfire or on a stage). Is it really that different to write a more scattered narrative for games just because said audience can skip parts or set it aside to do random stuff?

    We were also taking about technique over Twitter, so I’ll bring that part here. I have the distinct impression that writing techniques used to invoke certain emotions are as effective in games as they are in traditional writing/storytelling. The fact that the audience can sidestep it doesn’t really change the nature of the techniques. I am reminded of this article over Gamespot:

    http://gdc.gamespot.com/story/6253641/five-ways-games-can-make-you-cry

    • @Will:

      I’ve written comic scripts (none published) and video game scripts (two ARGs out there, one coming up, and some other video game work incl. an Android app).

      Writing a comic doesn’t feel that much different from plotting TV, or even the chapter in a novel.

      Writing games — both video and pen-and-paper — has been a whole different animal.

      The chief difference is, in all other forms of storytelling, I’m writing a story about characters.

      In games, I’m writing a story about *you*. Er, not You You, but the General You. (THE WILL HINDMARCH GAME, STARING “GENERAL YOO” AS WILL HINDMARCH! … sorry, been a long day.) Even if the story is “about” the First Big Daddy or Commander Shepherd or fuckin’ Pac-Man, it’s ostensibly about the dude controlling Big Daddy, Shepherd, or Pac. I’m trying to tell the story of an avatar, not the story of a character.

      That’s the hard part.

      Mind you, there seems to be some cognitive dissonance here that I’m suggesting games don’t have stories. They do. But the crafting of those stories — i.e. the purpose of my DIY Days talk — feels like a different construction than you get with “traditional” storytelling. Yes, some of the same parts go into the build: dialogue, character, etc, but they don’t go in the same order, they don’t carry the same weight, they don’t follow the same rules.

      The definitions of “Game” and “Story” I’m willing to leave to the blog post. Your definitions may differ, but I think I answered those. “Effective” is the wormy word, there. On one hand, I don’t mean that. Effective is a term that asks about quality, and I don’t necessarily mean that.

      Except when I do, which is where this gets tricky. Because a lot of the game stories haven’t been effective, yet. Game *plots* are very effective. Situations, characters, lines of dialogue — all very effective. The stories… I’m not so sure. Maybe they are. Maybe I’m being harsh. But it doesn’t feel that way, to me. Thus I’m led to wonder: are game stories not as elegant or effective because creators have been trying to use old tools on a new tech (so to speak)? Are they cramming the circle peg in a square hole by hewing to traditional story construction?

      I’m just trying to get a handle on that.

      — c.

  • Loved this topic.

    But I’m sitll rolling over the idea of “effective story” in my mind, trying to grasp the concept. As I (partially) see it, an effective story is not quite about emotional content, it’s about craftsmanship (or craftspersonship), I mean, how effectively the author was able to bring a number of techniques and resources to bear on a story. Taxi Driver or Ulysses aren’t only great stories, they are well-crafted stories. I’m talking here about versimilitude, suspension of disbelief, point of view, 3-D characters and the works.

    However, notwithstanding claims that characters sometimes have lives of their own, I still think well-crafted stories in a traditional storytelling scene like literature and movies are possible because authors have (or should have) absolute control of the creative process. So, I’m essentially saying stories are effective in so far they are painstakingly (*struggling to find the right word in English*) cut from the marble block, carved and polished by a steady hand that knows where all that effort will lead to.

    When Daniel Dafoe came up the with the novel, he might have been looking for an easy way to entertain bored married women from the bourgeosie. Centuries later, the novel was to be acclaimed as an art form (Effective stories? Not implying Moll Flanders was less effective than, say, Madame Bovary, but we have to admit techinques have improved and diversified a lot). Movies also evolved from “low” entertainment to art. So why can’t games?

    But, the way I see it, games are not traditional storytelling. They are interactive storytelling (or simply storyshowing, or maybe storyexperiencng). Most RPGs I know — effective or not so effective stories are just a byproduct of playability. Most video games I know — well, it’s hard to keep disbelief suspended. However, I think we’re still getting acquainted with a potential art form in the making, and we need to pick out, find out or make up techniques and resources interactive-storytelling-oriented. Reinventing the craft, and ourselves as crafters, we might get to the point stories in gaming won’t be solely byproducts.

    And now I have a headache. Should know this would happen after trying to think in English for an extended length of time.

    Cheerio,

    • I’ll echo: MC Zanini (I hope that’s your DJ name) says things more eloquently than I. Especially this:

      “However, notwithstanding claims that characters sometimes have lives of their own, I still think well-crafted stories in a traditional storytelling scene like literature and movies are possible because authors have (or should have) absolute control of the creative process. So, I’m essentially saying stories are effective in so far they are painstakingly (*struggling to find the right word in English*) cut from the marble block, carved and polished by a steady hand that knows where all that effort will lead to.”

  • MC Zanini – holy crap. What in God’s name is your first language?!?! Your comment was so well-written (not that I have a clue as to what you were talking about, but again – you guys are all way over my head with this topic) that my jaw literally dropped when I realized you were “struggling” to write in English.

    I think I can speak for everyone here when I now proclaim YOU as the smartest dude here, solely for that reason. Seriously. That’s just sic. (as in the slang version, not gross)

  • Chuck – you speakah mah language. You said:

    “Game *plots* are very effective. Situations, characters, lines of dialogue — all very effective. The stories… I’m not so sure. Maybe they are. Maybe I’m being harsh. But it doesn’t feel that way, to me. Thus I’m led to wonder: are game stories not as elegant or effective because creators have been trying to use old tools on a new tech (so to speak)?”

    That puts things in a new light for me. Separating the “story” from the “plot”. I was kind of lumping it all in together, but now I see what you’re getting at (I think). You’re right…I’m not emotionally vested in the story of a game as I am with other forms of media. Do I dig the missions? Sure. Do I think the cartoony warriors in muscle shirts are hot? Yup. Do I get into the movie-esque clips of the plot in between missions? Absolutely.

    BUT, do I need to see the protagonist overcome the obstacles and conquer all? Not really. As much as I enjoy the games as a fun past time, and can even get wrapped up in playing (watching) it for hours, I’m more invested in the challenge to beat the game. NOT go on a journey with the characters, etc.

    When I’m forced to put a great book down in the middle of a chapter, my mind stays with those characters. While I’m doing things in my daily routine I’m still emotionally invested in that story and I can’t wait to pick it back up and see where it takes me. With a game, I turn it off and don’t think about it again until the next time we play. I’m not sure how writers can change that, but it sure would be something, wouldn’t it?

    That’s what you were talking about, right? If not, completely ignore me.

  • I think many of the most effective game stories are those written for a specific protagonist, rather than an open avatar. This is why I’ve called the Splinter Cell and Thief games modes of RPGs, in the sense that to play them for maximum effect you must adopt the role of the main character (a stealthy sort of dude), and that the mechanisms of the game reward players who behave in-character, more or less. These games stories also work (not as high art, maybe, but as capable genre installments) because they are written for their own specific characters, not for generalized avatars with the freedom to do whatever. Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is about Sam Fisher, and while we have some room to define our own Sam Fisher within the context of the game, Fisher’s pertinent character traits and descriptors are established within the game world by a combination of ludic aspects like available actions and narrative aspects like dialogue. But Fisher and Thief‘s Garrett definitely both have their arcs.* Which is to say, their stories are told.

    But it sounds to me like you’re arguing that games a different medium, and they absolutely are. Until we nail down what “effective” means, I’m not sure we can do much but argue across purposes. Are game stories inherently different beasts than movie stories? Absolutely — but I think they still fall on the spectrum of stories even if they’re not the same as traditional passive-audience fare.

    I mean, I guess game stories are maybe about as far removed from storytelling as, say, jokes are, and jokes get their own name, so maybe game-stories deserve their own name, too. But as jokes can be jokes and stories at the same time (without the requirement that they be both), I believe that the individual stories that emerge from game play can simultaneously be game-experiences and stories, too, even if that story is told by a player to himself using the game as an action figure and his skill as a randomizer.

    But I’ve wandered pretty far afield now and have a killer headache, so it’s possible this is all gibberish.

    *(To a point. They are both primarily what Robin Laws would call iconic characters, rather than dramatic characters.)

    • @Will:

      I don’t actually know what point you’re arguing, and further, I kind of feel like you’re not grokking what I’m laying down.

      I’m not arguing that games aren’t stories, or don’t have them. I don’t think they deserve their own name, but I think they deserve special attention when crafting them, attention even further afield from what “traditional” media needs. Films, for example, have certain formulas, formulas that work. Do games? Yes, the individual parts of games and their stories work like any. But to put them together requires special attention (in my mind), and I’m just trying to puzzle out what that attention is.

      Sam Fisher — or any specific protagonist — are always, always, always representative of the player. That’s part of the difference. They create these stories, and the chiefmost consideration is the player. It has to be. Not the passive enjoyment of that player, either. The active involvement of the player in the protagonist’s existence. You don’t get that in *any* other form of storytelling. You try to tell a story in a game the same way you do in a film (which is maybe what game companies have been doing), and you’re fucked from square one. That’s what I’m suspecting, anyway.

      — c.

  • You know what, I just deleted a bunch of stuff that would’ve just made this all messier. If the point is just that special attention is needed to get games to slouch toward storytelling, then I agree that, yes, sure, that’s true.

    Part of that special attention, I think, is understanding that some aspects of gameplay are like negative space in the storytelling. Or a montage — not meant to be related literally, even though the video-game action in question is itself often quite literal. To reduce Halo to just its story, you’d leave out a bunch of literal gunfighting, for sure. You might just say, “Master Chief fucking stormed that Covenant ship, slaying every foe in his path.” You’d cut around stuff you actively devote hours and hours to for play. Gameplay often makes for bad storytelling because it explicitly expands what a story would ordinarily condense — repetition.

    But if you don’t read the gameplay so literally, it doesn’t hinder the storytelling so much. I’m picturing, right now, a montage in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in which Harry’s owl flies from autumn right into winter. That’s filmic language, and it’s not meant to be read literally. It condenses.

    Video games do that backwards, loading up the negative space with exploration and fighting and play — things which may build immersion or deliver amusing exposition, but are terrible in filmic language — but which shouldn’t necessarily be read literally when measuring just the game’s story, because the game isn’t using film lingo in the same way. Even though it has cut scenes and camera angles and all that. So if you measure a game with cinematic instruments, it reads terribly.

    Maybe. Who knows what the fuck I get on about. :)

  • Hijacking this –

    About MC Zanini, she’s the one responsible for getting you White Wolf writers to the hands of the Brazilian gamers… Well, not literally, of course.

    And I *wish* she actually was a DJ/MC, too (as long as it didn’t get in the way of her editing-foo, of course). That’d be fun to watch. :-)

  • Well, Sooner got here ahead of me. Thanks, Sooner. Anyway, I still think an introduction would be worthy.

    In a nutshell, I’m a gal, not a rapper (MC stands for Maria do Carmo) — and, Sooner, I’d be a terrible MC; then again, you’re right, it would be fun to watch — I’m Brazilian, my native language is Portuguese, and it took me at least 40 minutes to write that particular piece of English prose over there. And, yes, all my fancy English words come from reading, translating and editing World of Darkness books. So I guess I owe a lot to Chuck Wendig, Will Hindmarch and Justin Achilli.

    I’m not exactly a video game buff, so that’s why I kept myself from getting too much into this, but, it came to me while I was getting down to work this morning (oh, man, pages and pages of Changeling the Lost to go through) that one of my best RPGaming experiences ever was Matt Wilson’s “Primetime Adventures”. I loved it, the game per se and the gaming session we had. PTA mechanics allows players to get together, braimstorm ideas for a good “TV show”, state in advance what’s going to happen at each particular chapter, block or scene, and then have a lot of fun by letting events unfold and making every effort so they can unfold the way the players stated they would in the very beginning of the session. As J. Michael Straczynski wrote once, finding out how things happened can be as fun as finding out what happened.

    I don’t know, maybe PTA could point to something interesting videogame-ward.

    Cheerio

  • Hi Chuck, I think you’ve got a good point with most video games, but in tabletop RPG’s there lies the potential for them (the stories) to be far different. Games tell stories using different devices than less interactive mediums. These devices impart a different kind of investment on the part of the reader and player.

    For example in a novel or movie, information about the setting must be framed within a plot to keep the reader moving forward. The plot is the ambulation because the reader cannot propel the character himself. However in a video game the character is moved BY the player so information about the setting and story can be presented in a somewhat more static way because it doesn’t need the plot to drive it. This can be seen in games like Fallout 3 where I might spend 2 minutes getting information from NPC’s. Anyone watching that is going to be bored instantly because it’s just information dump, but for me the interaction is keeping me invested. It doesn’t require the same pacing because I can move more than one-way.

    That’s where the value of the medium starts to shine. Investment in the character through the player experiencing him or her occurs. I will argue quite quickly that my Exalted character’s romances were FAR more emotionally powerful for me than the most poignant love story I’ve ever read in a novel or seen on a screen. These stories had pacing, growth, development, conflict, climax (literal and literary ;) and endings… it’s just that they were paced over 2 years, rather than an hour and a half. The stories that came from that game were a product of our personal interactions framed within the internal dramas of the Exalted setting. The fights and dungeon crawls were there too, but they were basically bonding and shared experiences to create the emotional investment necessary to make the real story possible.

    I would argue that as a game designer you’re completely justified in feeling like games aren’t creating true stories like novels and film because you’re designing the game and in most cases injecting a story into an RPG setting is just pretentious character showboating. But in play, the interaction and long term investment, when done right can create real stories that in terms of emotional investment will outshine the best stories ever written.

  • “Sam Fisher — or any specific protagonist — are always, always, always representative of the player. That’s part of the difference. They create these stories, and the chiefmost consideration is the player. It has to be. Not the passive enjoyment of that player, either. The active involvement of the player in the protagonist’s existence.”

    I immediately think of Arthas in Warcraft III slaughtering Stratholme. If you haven’t played, the first arc of the game follows Prince Arthas and his fall to corruption. A lot of the things that you do as Arthas make you cringe and want to say, “No, Arthas! Don’t do it!” even as you direct his little polygonal ass to burn his troops’ ships, slay his friend and ally, or slaughter an entire town so they don’t succumb to the infected grain they (probably) ate and become zombies. There’s a lot of dissonance between player and character, there. It’s also not something that I’ve seen in many games (although Blizzard does it occasionally and well — Death Knight starting area in WoW, for instance). I’d certainly accept that most video game characters are ciphers for the player, but I’d have trouble accepting that as a general and exhaustive rule.

    • Josh —

      Haven’t played, but it sounds pretty dang awesome.

      Call of Duty has a few moments like this.

      I don’t so much mean that the on-screen character is meant to be a cipher for the player — but no matter what you do, you cannot extricate Player from Protagonist. Or, at least, Player from Character On-Screen. That avatar is — loosely, or completely — the player’s puppet. Traditional storytelling doesn’t leave room for this, so it’s one of those considerations that need to come to the surface when you’re designating and designing stories for games, I think.

      — c.

  • Maybe I’m making a mountain of a molehill. Is it that all you mean is “the player controls what content the character experiences and (some of) the choices the character makes, which is different from linear media?”

    • That’s pretty much it, yeah. Which further translates to, “If I’m ‘writing’ a story for this game, this is a new wrinkle.” You don’t have to worry about that complexity in traditional storytelling, hence — it deserves some additional thought into what goes into crafting that experience so it marries with story.

      — c.

  • I’m late to this party because I was, frankly, avoiding the posts until I finished Dragon Age: Origins (yeah, Origins. I’m coming late to that party too.)

    My extended thoughts on this I may shortly make into a blog post (which is more than overdue, right?), but the short version flows thus:

    Chuck, remember when we were writing advice late last year about acknowledging and utilizing the fact that the reader brings a lot of their own shit into a story? Like… fuck, I’m too tired right now to look up the posts, but you know what I’m talking about: using “less is more” with descriptions, so that the reader fills in their own stuff into the verdant spaces you leave for their brain to play. For example.

    My point: when you say:

    “Your only real options as the recipient of the [written] story are: a) Keep listening (reading, watching), b) Quit, c) Change the pace of consumption.”

    My first thought was “Dude, I can find a post *you have written* that flat out disagrees with that statement.”

    Honestly? I don’t think that would really surprise you — you (we) are still getting our head around this.

    Our relative mileage varies in terms of how amped up we get with the stories in games. You wrote:

    “I don’t know that I’m really getting the same emotional urgency and narrative impact as the great stories of our time.”

    And… yeah, that has not been my experience. I have played through Mass Effect 2 four times (so far), and when the Omega 4 sequence of events starts, I never fail to find myself standing in the middle of my office, hopping up and down with excitement and cheering. It has been a long. fucking. time. since a movie got me feeling that good.

    (My wife just finished Mass Effect 1 last week – she spent the last two hours shouting her astonishment at the screen and wrapped it up by saying “that was the best action movie I’ve seen in years.”)

    Dragon Age is… umm… differently satisfying than Mass Effect (stronger in some ways, weaker in others), and my reaction was different, but no less powerful — there seem to be no possible endings to that story (which I just finished up for the first time last night) that don’t leave me feeling a little sad about SOMEthing. If I live, it’s because someone else died, or Something Really Bad Was Done. If I die, well… I found myself saying “but I don’t *want* to go” to the screen.

    ((Maybe, and I’m not even snarking here – I’m serious: Maybe the fucked up console interface makes the thing less enjoyable, or puts you in a more ‘fuck around Halo-style’ mindframe? I dunno. I play all this stuff on the PC, and the game interfaces you mention hating never bother me. Dunno.))

    You know, when I was a kid, I remember reading Tolkein for the first time. Mindblowing, yeah? I plowed through that epic fucking landmass of a story and, when I was done, slumped through about one full Saturday afternoon of Bummed because… well… the story was over, and I didn’t *want* it to be.

    So I went back and read them again. (And again, and again. I think it’s the desire for ‘more of that’ that led to so many very successful Tolkein-esque fantasy yarns over the years.)

    I haven’t done that with a book in a long time. More recently with movies (Avatar. Matrix.The Cutting Edge. (DON’T YOU JUDGE ME.)

    But… man. ME2? Yeah. Dragon Age? As soon as I was done last night, I sure as shit went right back in and made another guy to try it all a different way.

    I mean… Christ. What if you could read Tolkein and have it be a little different every time?

    This read through, Boromir and Gimli both died, and Legolas talked Aragorn into leading Lothlorien troops against Dol Guldor (which is, like, right across the damn river).

    The next time, Aragorn picks Eowyn. Legolas dies at Helm’s Deep.

    The next time, Aragorn picks Legolas.

    Frodo might die on the way. Sam struggles with Gollum and they both fall into the lava.

    Sauron wins.

    I think about what someone writing that kind of story has to be prepared to write — not just a story, but ‘every’ story, and I’m impressed as hell.

    If I judge the game by whether or not I have been given a story in my head to mull over and think about and ponder the implications, then I say that yeah, the game’s are stories.

    If I judge it by whether or not there is real story-creation going on on the part of the person/people creating the thing, then yes. Many times, yes.

    • Doktor Doyce:

      I think we’re going to have to disagree — or, at least, agree that we’re coming at this issue from two different angles. Mass Effect 2 is a game I liked a lot. I don’t know that it’s a story I liked a lot, though — in fact, it’s overall story is largely incomprehensible or silly, so generic I can barely commit much attention to it. And part of me wonders if that’s a necessary thing. What you describe — “Great action movie!” “Cheering and shouting!” are not the earmarks of a good story. They’re marks of a good experience. And ME2 is very much that. It’s a great experience. And it takes special crafting to come up with that level of experience. It’s a dumb story in a rich storyworld — a generic adventure amidst great characters, fascinating situations, and troubling moral quandaries.

      And, to be clear, I don’t consider that a bad thing.

      Now, when you talk about options — Frodo dies, Sauron wins, Eowyn falls down a well and is eaten by piranha — that’s great, and that’s part of the consideration that a *game* designer needs to think about. It’s a different toolset. Hell, it’s a different mindset.

      But, but, but! Tolkien probably would’ve shot himself if he thought that’s what people wanted from his story. A well-crafted story makes all the elements as they happen critical to the piece. Frodo making it all the way is important to the story. Aragorn’s choices matter. They all matter. Everything matters. But in a story where everything is *optional* then nothing can matter, not from the creator-driven, author-described experience.

      That’s a very big difference. It puts a lot of power in the player’s hands, and takes a lot of power away from the author. And *that’s okay* — but it’s an important realization on the road toward creating good game stories.

      — c.

  • I know this is an old article but I hope you hear me out, anyway. I, as an aspiring game designer and a lover of storytelling and being in control, like to look at this from a different perspective. Instead of the game designer and their teams of artists, writers and programmers being the ones telling the story, I believe that with a good game, the creators give the PLAYER a baseline from which THEY can tell THEIR VERSION of the story the way THEY want to. In this effect, yes it is a medium of storyTELLING – the player creates their own story given the tools, background, etc. by the designers in whatever way and flavor they so choose. What makes a good game is Power to the Players, as they say. The player can tell the most ridiculous nonsensical, poorly designed story they want, but in the end, it’s the experience AND the story that THEY wanted out of the game. Great examples of games that do a pretty good job of letting the players stay in charge of their own story are The Sims, The Elder Scrolls Series, World of Warcraft, sandbox-type games, RPGs that don’t shove a story down your throat *coughfinalfantasycough*, etc.

    The PLAYER is the storyteller.

    – love dani

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