Once Upon A Playtime II: Revenge Of The Gamestory

I might actually be more confused than in yesterday’s post. This is probably natural. Some metaphor probably waits at work here — “Well, first you’ve got to go through the darkness to get to the light,” or, “You must first be eaten half to death by angry fire ants before you become the Mighty Ant Lord.”

Let’s see if I can’t crystallize some of my questions (and shaky-footed conclusions).

No Good Examples?

As yet, I didn’t find too many examples of “games with great stories.” And, to be clear, I’m talking about video games or ARGs. I’ll talk more about pen-and-paper roleplaying shortly. I would argue that the Grand Theft Auto series exemplifies probably the most cinematic, filmic storytelling — cutscenes move to missions move to cutscenes. A quilt thus creating a fairly epic crime story. Is it on par with some of the best storytelling out there? Tell me: what’s your favorite story in a video game? Share it, yo.

Pen-And-Paper Roleplaying Sets An Interesting Precedent

“Stories” in pen-and-paper roleplaying games — meaning, the stories created by the designers and not by players — are generally relegated to backstory or to the active conflicts in the world, born from that worldbuilding stuff that Rob Donoghue was talking about yesterday. This isn’t a bad thing, because it shunts the focus of the game onto the players and their stories. This is awesome.

There exists a gap, though, between those low-tech games and the high-tech video games and ARGs. The lo-tech games trump the new stuff, and will until both technology and game design cross paths in a way that really opens up the raw potential of storybuilding freedom.

The closer a “new-tech” game can get to this “old-tech” approach, the more interesting games can become. This is probably worthy of a whole other post (and it’s early, and I’m just getting my coffee on), but this to me is the real power of games — not in telling stories, but in making the telling of stories interesting and fun for the players. Games have gotten close either on purpose or accidentally — the old Ultima games or Fallout 3 (the list doesn’t end here) let you customize your character enough and gives you enough in-world freedom so that you’re effectively “writing your own story.” (One might argue that the Sims series is best at this: gives you a world, gives you the power to create and control robust avatars, and lets you record the visual stories as a result.)

“Storyshowing…”

…Is a horrible term, but it gets to the center of what I’m talking about. Nearly all modes of storytelling offer a fairly passive engagement, even when the audience is engaged. I sit in the theater sets. I have a book in my lap. I bathe in the warm glow of the television. I flip through a comic book on the train.

In all cases, I’m being told a story.

But the players of games are like wormy infants struggling against the car seat — we don’t want to be told a story. We don’t want passivity. We want to bust out of these buckles and drive the car and kick Mommy in the face and ride Daddy like a tauntaun into some dude’s backyard.

Storyshowing gives us a little more action over passivity: the game designers have effectively lit the path and placed landmarks along the way, and we are shown the story when we choose to look. And if we don’t choose to look, then we don’t really get the breadth and depth of the story, and that’s okay. (Same way that in a pen-and-paper roleplaying game the characters ignore Vital Clues and run off and do some Other Shit.)

Good examples of this: anything by Valve, really. Half-Life and Portal, anybody? The story there is largely your own, with the “backstory” relegated to conversations you overhear, graffiti on the wall, events you see unfold. Nobody infodumps. Nobody sits you down and tells you the truth. You can play through the game a few times and get new story tidbits as you go.

This makes me wonder if the “storyworld” (encompassing the setting, the backstory, the characters) is thus more important than the “story.”

The storyworld is what I remember most about a lot of games. The stories — unless we’re talking about the stories or meta-stories I created as a player — less so.

Fail State

Games are either stories punctuated by gameplay or gameplay punctuated by story. Roleplaying games (pnp) have this integrated, generally. The actions I take and fail become part of the story. Video games don’t have this so well integrated — the actions I take and fail often break the story, or end it outright (“I lose”). This outcome condition and the condition of failure in particular are what help to separate game events from story events and what (to me) helps keep the distance between game and story overall. Or, put differently, in video games, failure is rarely interesting. (The Sims again comes to mind as a game that makes failure interesting. I fail in my friendship bid and now I’ve got an enemy. What other video games make failure a part of the story?)

Is It About The Craft?

I’ll call out MC Zanini’s comment, because I found it clear and insightful and speaking to what keeps circling the drain in my brain:

“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.”

This brings that word “effective” back into play, and I still find the word cumbersome yet somehow meaningful. It’s not the stories in games I find particularly effective — by which I mean, the overall story doesn’t usually affect me. Characters, yes. Situations, yes. Dialogue, sure. But the overall thing, maybe not so much. And what that ultimately means is maybe the “overall story,” by which I mean the one the designers want to tell, isn’t that important. And that’s okay. It might even be freeing.

That doesn’t mean the elements of the craft aren’t important (again, characters, situations, dialogue, arcs, emotional beats), but it means that the overall thing you’re making doesn’t need to be quite as directed, quite as “top-down,” quite as perfectly placed and elegant. Games allow for so much randomness that a certain chaos is bred into the system. The story must allow for that chaos.

New Tools, Or Just New Blueprints?

I do think the craft of storytelling in games is one that is different from the craft of storytelling in passive, traditional forms. (And yes, while “writing a comic” is different from “writing a novel,” I’d argue they’re closer together than we think.)

I think that games offer so many special considerations that you’d be a fool not to incorporate those special considerations into your overall process. Chief amongst those special considerations is the player. The player is active. The player is random. The protagonist — even if he’s named Nico Bellic or Batman or Big Daddy — is always the player.

That doesn’t mean we need new tools. The hammer and saw still work. Dialogue still needs to be dialogue. Good characters are still good characters.

But they may fold into the story in different ways. Thus, while new tools are not necessary, new blueprints may be. Just as the film has its “three act structure,” or how TV has its “X-act structure” (X based on the commercial breaks), it’s worth looking at the structure of writing stories for games, too. Will is right that gameplay forms a kind of negative space in the storytelling (and, I’d argue, vice versa) — and that means you need to figure that out, because it affects pacing, it affects emotional beats, it shifts the shape of the arcs and acts. Oh, and by the way –

I know other people have already crossed this ground and have come up with awesome stuff. I’m not saying anything new or interesting, really, I’m just trying to puzzle it out for myself. But if you have links or other info to pass along, hey, please do.

So, What The Foo?

I dunno yet. Again, I’m still noodling. I got a talk to do. And I have some games to write. So this is a formative process, all these elements whirling around my head like angry hornets. High-five to all of your crazy people for dropping mad logic yesterday. Keep dropping it, if you so choose. You’re all far smarter than I am about this stuff, so thanks for contributing your fat bag of genius.

22 comments

  • Since the talk has veered into PnP games territory, i wanted to weigh in.
    Story IS art because it has the power to move the heart of both the players and the ST, it is a colaborrative art like any stage play, and requires a certain amount of Improv in order to even allow player engagement. But it is an Art with a capital “ARRRR” nonetheless.

    I tell you how i know,
    Once upon a time, your Arrogant Correspondent used to run a long running Mage: The Ascencion game. One night, as a means of moving a storyline along, i had the player arrive at the restaurant owned by their primary mentor, an Akashic Brother, by the name of Morry Chang (Cribbed whole from the character played by Mako in the movie “Sidekicks”) My PC (Occasionally my Co-Gm ran games too) was carrying him out of the flames of his burning restaurant, cradling his broken body as the other players began to arrive. Morry had run afoul of David Lo Pan and had tried to stop the Jade Demon from killing my character only to be utterly slain in the process. My character was beside himself with rage, crying tear that caught fire as the rolled down his cheeks.

    Utter bummer to start the game with. Morry had been a steady voice in our game for over a year. No one expected this.
    And i was rewarded with utterly stricken horrified looks from my players when i said.
    “,,,24 hours earlier…”

    That game was a turning point in a lot of ways, And the fact that each interaction with Morry prior to his death was now filled with a significance and weight that wouldn’t have been there otherwise showed me how much they loved this guy and would miss him.
    And to this day, a few of us still get a little misty about that guy and a few other characters over the years.

    Art moves the heart. Games CAN BE Art, if you make the emotional investment.

  • The long and short of it is this: Anything that is created is art. Story telling is an art. I used to play D&D and TMNT. You had bad story tellers and you had great story tellers. I consider myself to be a pretty good story teller. I tell stories far better than I can write. For some reason I can verbally weave a tale, but can’t get that tale to read well on paper.

    Every night I make up some wild and crazy fantasy story to tell my kids before they go to bed. It involves the both of them, my wife and I, and even the family pets and my parents. My wife has tried to do this but comes up short. This isn’t much different from creating a compelling and fun story while playing a PnP game.

    Paint magic with your words. Pete is right…you aim your story for the heart, not the visual mind’s eye. Emotion is what drives a story.

  • I am going to have to get back to this later on, as in theory the wife is soon to be home with the daughter, but I want to pop this is (again) before I head out – it is a shared storytelling experience. You can not lay the story solely on the hands (or at the feat, or in the mind, or up the anus, whatever) of the storyteller/gamemaster. They are in it to experience a story just as much as the players, sometimes.

    • You guys want to talk art, go ahead, I’m happy to watch those comments — me, I don’t care if it’s art. I’m not in this to make art. Other people can decide what art is, or isn’t.

      I want to talk about the craft of storytelling in game design.

      — c.

  • Okay, real fast because I have to go to class.

    Storytelling didn’t start out as a static thing. It didn’t start out as a ‘I write it down and you read it later and experience it.’ Storytelling probably started out a lot more like a TT roleplaying game with a fantastic storyteller changing things as he went along to make the story better for the audience he was telling it too.

    How do I know?

    How do you tell a story to a child? You might read it, sure, but you probably change things. Consider this standard exchange:

    “Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess in a castle.”
    “Was her name Tina?”
    “Sure, a beautiful princess named Tina.”
    “She wore pink and had a dragon named Goldfish.”
    “I, well, that’s not in the book, but okay, she and her dragon named Goldfish…”
    “Oh, oh, and she liked baseball!”
    “….Sure. She liked baseball. What else did she like?”

    That’s what storytelling is, so far as I’m concerned. Maybe video games do that (or strive to do that) better than a novel ever could. Crazy thought, right? But noodle it for a while anyway and see what happens.

    Also, fucking around on a level because you and a friend want to find out if you can sup up your Warthog with a cheat you read about on the internet does not interrupt the narrative because it isn’t a part of the narrative. Just like Elmore Lenord says, a writer has to skip the parts no one reads. With a video game, or even an TT, you don’t have to skip those parts, or you can, up to you. That doesn’t take away from the narrative any more than if the reader of your novel stops to take eat dinner during a chapter, or stops to ponder what happened to the character during that dull dinner with his mom that the writer didn’t put down on the page. (I do that sometimes.)

    Totally tell me what you think.

    • @Filamena:

      I totally love this, and think that it’s very possible gaming gets a lot closer to pure interactive storytelling. I think it bears repeating though that, while what you describe is true as far as a child audience or an improv audience, it is not now (and hasn’t been) traditional storytelling. Thus, the “rules” we have for writing stories remain different from what it takes. Bringing the ability to do what you talk about with Tina is potentially something that could be brought to a game design state. And I like that a lot.

      I do think “fucking around” does interrupt the narrative, though, and I think this lack of authorial control is what really separates games from traditional stories. I don’t say that as a bad thing, but it’s worth considering. From a practical standpoint, the ideal situation is to somehow make that ability to dick around merge seamlessly with the intent of the game’s story. I think the concept of “authorial control” becomes a false one in terms of game design, and game creators maybe shouldn’t attempt to ape writers in terms of that control. If I’m writing a story, I want control over it. I want it to play on multiple levels, and I want to be in control of every one of those levels.

      In a game, I suspect I want no such control. I want to put the control in the hands of the audience, instead.

      — c.

  • My Example:

    This is full of spoilers for one of my favorite games ever, Suikoden V, but I expect no one to ever play it.

    In Suikoden V, you are the prince of the kingdom. Since it’s ruled by queens, you are seen as kind of useless, and no one expects much of you, except your kid sister, the heir apparent, who think’s your awesome in the way of kid sisters. Part of the power of the monarchy comes from “The Sun Rune” which is an atomically powerful magic widget controlled by the queen’s of the bloodline. About 10 years ago, the queen (your mom) used it to devastate a rebelling province, then had dams constructed to keep it in a state of drought to prove a point. This was absolutely overkill, but over the course of the game you get a lot more backstory on what went into it, but the upshot of it is that since then, the queen has had to wear the Sun Rune most of the time in order to keep the nobility in line, and that is not a healthy thing.

    As an aside, your dad, The Queen’s Consort, is awesome. He’s captain of the Queen’s Guard and has a nice backstory, a sense of humor, and is well fleshed out. There are about 8 members of the Queen’s guard, including the personal bodyguards for you and the princess.

    After the game has been going for a while, and things have been established, relationships laid down and such, the shit hits the fan. Much of the castle staff gets poisoned, and assassins attack. Much fighting ensues, and you and your aunt manage to get out with your bodyguard’s help, but it’s really unclear what’s happening or why. Over time you piece together that that princess has been taken by the nobles behind the coup, and the official statement from the bad guys is that the king and queen are dead, killed by your bodyguard (who went back for them) and the princess is safely under their protection.

    So, it’s a Suikoden game, and you proceed to spend time going out, making allies, establishing a base and generally trying to get everything you need together to fix this situation. Your bodyguard is found again, but he doesn’t want to talk about what happened, and you proceed for a while until another member of the queens guard shows up – the princesses bodyguard – and freaks out, because she _saw_ your bodyguard kill the queen.

    This leads you actually finding out what happened, via flashback. The assassins came upon the queen, and your dad proceeded to kick their asses, because he’s awesome, and your bodyguard pitches in. But your dad gets hurt, and the queen flips out, and the Sun Rune goes active. Yellow soap bubbles appear around assassins for a few moments, then they incinerate. So she’s popping them like mad, but they keep coming, and that’s when the power starts getting away from her. She starts to glow and it’s pretty clearly she’s going to go nuclear, and pretty much level the whole place. Your dad shakes her, tries to get her to stop, and in an instinctive reaction she lashes out, and suddenly he’s in a soap bubble.

    There’s a long moment of them both entirely understanding what’s happened. She’s devastated, and he just gives her this little smile that manages to say “It’s all right” and “I Love you” and then he’s dust. Her response is to this is to order your bodyguard to kill her before the power gets loose again (and that’s what the other guard walks in on).

    This was, far and away, the most powerful moment in the game for me. I was invested in these characters, had stories with them, had a strong family dynamic, and this was a total gut punch. But for all that it was the high point, it wasn’t the only strength of the story. See, as things unfolded, what steadily got revealed as an utter lack of bad guys. The enemies in this were reasonable folks who were terrified of the power the queen was using, and her slow disintegration under its weight. And one of the magnificent tragedies that unfolds throughout the game is that one reason all these terrible things had to happen is that no one, not even the people closest to you, thought you could handle what needed to be done. Not in some abstract way – in a very personal sense.

    I loved that game, and it was one of the first that my wife enjoyed _watching_ me play, to the point of being mad when I played without her. Yes, it had all the nonsense trapping and sidequests you can expect from such a game, but those aren’t the things I remember. I remember that little smile, and it still breaks my heart.

    -Rob D.

  • Anyway, that example has very little in the way of player authorship – I’m going to see it one way or another – but it’s meaning is absolutely fleshed out by what I’ve done, who I’ve talked to and how I’ve played the game.

    That leaves me wondering if another strength of games is the ability to separate cause and effect. No one action made that scene powerful for me, but many small ones did, often in ways entirely unrelated to the scene (by building up my investment in the world). Hmm.

  • One thing to think about is that there are a lot of different kinds of stories. I think games do a better job telling some kinds of stories than other kinds. Orson Scott Card discussed fiction in terms of four basic categories, what he called the MICE quotient, standing for Milieu, Idea, Character, Event. All stories have some elements of each, but some of them are almost purely one category: the kind of stories where readers write to the author and say, “Wow, you really made me feel what it was like to live in a 12th Century Mongolian yurt transplanted to the surface of Mars” or “Wow, you really made me feel what it’s like to be a bucktoothed vegan midget curler.”

    I think that games tend to be at their best storytelling wise when they’re trying to tell Milieu stories: what is a city under zombie invasion like? What’s it like to be a ninja assassin? What’s it like to fight off an invasion of brightly-colored blocky alien attack ships? In those kind of stories, sitting and exploring and screwing around *adds to* the effectiveness of the story. Get lost in Rapture? Great! You see all the little touches they added to make the place more realistic.

    On the other hand, I think people playing games get frustrated when the game is telling an Event or Character story: in the former case, players complain about being railroaded. In the latter case, video games focusing on characters often just expose how 2D they are, and tales of personal discovery and evolution don’t work too well when the player (a member of a large community of potential players) is supposed to feel like the protagonist.

    (Fun fact: MICE is also the acronym used by the counter-espionage community to describe motives for spying: Money, Ideology, Coercion, and Ego. Knowing is half the battle!)

  • TheChuck wrote: “I do think “fucking around” does interrupt the narrative, though, and I think this lack of authorial control is what really separates games from traditional stories.”

    See, I dig all the discussion, it’s been enlightening and all. But I think I still don’t get this one particular bit straight – maybe since I’m not an author, but I’m not entirely convinced of that.

    The author writing for a game needs to bear in mind that much of what transpires during that game will be driven by the player, sure (whether the player will create an avatar in the game or embody a previously fleshed out character doesn’t really matter much at this stage).

    But how does it actually translates to less authorial control, at least where the overall story is concerned? I ask this in earnest, as someone who’s not an author.

    If this means that the author can’t just set a narrow path the narrative will take, than the low-tech games are actually doing worse to authorial control – and therefore RPGs would less of a traditional storytelling medium than video games.

    (note that, as you say, I’m not saying this or that is inherently bad or good – just asking myself if I’m getting what you’re trying to say, and then if I can see it the same way or not.)

    Also, is this is about the author writing branching paths in the narrative and not knowing how the end tale will actually be constructed, I can see the hurdle for the writer, but I don’t see it as a loss of authorial control – the author *did write* all possibilities beforehand anyway. The main character (avatar or author-created) may choose to stay with Maria and shun the memory of his dead wife or to let Maria die [*], and therefore the story may end differently… But both paths and endings where written as any other narrative, traditional or not.

    But then again, I guess I’m part of the ‘bad examples’ crowd. Games are games are games, meaning that story in them will only be well-crafted if delivering a well-crafted story to the player is at least one of the main objectives of that game. This pretty much excludes (almost) all first-person shooters from the equation, because the main objective of these games is to put gamers in a position of competition – either against others via multiplayer or against their own standards of efficiency. They’re not just about safely impersonating an action hero or anything, but about testing your skills as a would-be marksman. It’s intrinsic to the gameplay, and there’s not much room for story development if you want to keep that gameplay objective intact.

    I’d say we need to concentrate on games where telling a story not only is a main point, but it’s something the audience they aim to get does want to receive. That is, games for gamers who want to ‘hear’ stories. Things like the Silent Hill series, point-and-click adventures, Myst, Heavy Rain (I’m dying to try this one, but no PS3 yet :P), the Fallout series.

    Otherwise, it sounds to me a lot like saying storytelling in television isn’t on par to traditional storytelling because reality shows receive direct input by the viewer. It’s true… *for the reality shows*.

    Which means I’m saying things like Halo and Call of Duty series actually are the gaming equivalent to Big Brother? Probably, and the thought is amusing. :)

    [*] David Hill should be able to pick that reference :)

  • Loved the metaphor tools/blueprints. I’m inclined to agree with Chuck on this.

    And It reminded me something.

    A long time ago, I was a huge Top Cow’s Witchblade fan (that was before they killed Ian Notthingham and brought him back to life for the umpteenth time). There was this issue, I can’t recall wich one now, Ian invited Sarah Pezzini for a little conversation at Central Park. I think I hadn’t quite understood narrative point of view before reading those three or four pages. At the time I found amazingly crafty the way the writers and the artist managed to go through the entire affair without giving out what Ian really told Sarah. No dialogue. Only captions. And Sarah was calling the shots. She gave us an outline of what Ian said. In her point of view. The only inkling we had that Ian’s intent was a little bit different was the look on his face, his body language (skillfully illustrated by MIchael Turner). These things told us he was desperate trying to save her, while she was reading his words and demeanor as arrogance or, maybe, deviltry.

    Anyway, that particular comic book was sort of an eye-opener for me. “So, this is how comics deal with narrative point of view.” Same tool, different blueprint.

    Today I can easily see how a lot of these traditional storytelling tools have been seamlessly adpated to different media. And I guess how successfully this adaptation is carried out has a lot to do with my appreciation of a work of fiction (skillful use of point of view, for instance, can explain why I loved “The Blair Witch” as a horror flick, while I can’t see “The Haunting” as anything but boring).

    However, when it comes to envisioning a video game where story, interactivity and gameplay fit nicely, and the blueprints we need to do such a thing, I simply can’t see too far. Guess it’s because I don’t have the proper technological background. I’d naively say that games could be awesome storytellers, provided that players could contribute meaninfully to the story. The job of a game writer would be building a meaningful game world, with a set of basic rules capable of generating compelling story seeds. It would be up to the players wether to grow these seeds into trees. But I can’t even start imagining the huge size of the databanks, the amount of memory or programming such a thing would require. Or even if it would require that much.

    Unless, of course, you’d have real-life storytellers running shifts to make it work, adding elements, scenes, settings, characters and plots on the fly. Oh, yeah, that’s why we’re still playing tabletop RPGs.

    Cheerio,

  • The only video games I’ve played with consistent storytelling elements are Final Fantasy Tactics (Playstation 1) and Valkyria Chronicles (Playstation 3).

    They both use the concept of “the story has already been written” and you are being told that story after the fact. Your actions have consequences in these games, but they’re usually story driven. Rather than “you lose,” your choices ripple throughout the rest of the story.

    • This is all very smart.

      I will respond more aptly when I have time and brainspace — just sent off a script, and I’m headmelty.

      BLURG!

      Keep talking, though. This is all good stuff.

      — c.

  • Damn it Chuck, stop posting the articles on days when I am really busy! If I find time I’ll try read the books above (not complaining!) and form something that is slightly informed and epically retarded.

  • - “Rather than “you lose,” your choices ripple throughout the rest of the story.”

    This made me remember: we take the “game over” screen for granted in this media, and therefore cannot help but wonder how this abruptly ends the story being told… But that screen isn’t really required for a game to be a game, and I’d say that realizing this goes a long way when one is set to improve the medium as a storytelling device.

    Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, for example, doesn’t have a game over screen or even condition; you either turn the game off or keep going. The story flows between setting exploration scenes and Nightmare scenes, where the protagonist is transported to another dimension and needs to run from monsters. If he is caught, the monsters try to bring him down, and if you don’t shake them off and keep running to escape the area, the character will simply fall to the ground, beaten… And then the game promptly throws you back to the beginning of that Nightmare scene.

    This seems a minor point but I don’t really think it is. This smooth transition may appear to be a subtle form of reverting the game to the last checkpoint, something that’s integral to many games… But actually there’s a story-driven reason for the character not to be outright killed (sorry, won’t spoil things here). The designers actually *could* have shown us the main character being killed without suspending disbelief – the story-driven reason mentioned would see to that all the same – but to me this lack of a game over screen clearly is an intended feature, one which says outright to the player: “no, the story still goes on, it didn’t end and it won’t just because you got caught. Keep going and you’ll see why”.

    In short, there’s no game over because the story isn’t over – and the story was designed to only be over when you, the player, reaches its end. You can set it aside by turning the game off, but that’s all.

  • I think I’d require better days, a book’s worth of space, and much more time to reply cogently. (As we saw yesterday, I flail.) Suffice to say this post and its comments demonstrate some real brilliance, which I surface just long enough to applaud.

  • Did some re-writing this evening.

    I think everything boils down to the definition of a story. I’m going to throw one out, and we’ll see how it goes. A story is a catalyst for change. That’s my definition.

    Under that definition, I can talk about games. The problem with both computer games and tabletop games is that the GM can only control the story arch for the world. The GM cannot make a player play a character differently, so the emotional changes a character would experience in a novel cannot be easily replicated at the table. Change becomes an exercise in math, where the player raises some stats and adds some skills. This is why, I think, you think that video games and tabletop games do not do a good job of telling a story. The character story archs are random.

  • Ever since I read this post for the first time the other day, I keep coming back to it (and the others related to it). It has gotten into my head, so I figured I’d add my thoughts to the soup.

    First, I think that the “storyworld” seems so important in hindsight because the gamemaster/writer/storyteller has invested so much time and effort into creating a detailed world that “sucks you in.” As Rob Donoghue wrote, “World building is easy.” More importantly, many people find it to be incredibly fun (perhaps because it’s easy?) to build detailed settings/storyworld for their story, which for many gm’s/storytellers takes a backseat and is not nearly as engaging as the storyworld because we get a return corresponding to our investment. So, years later, our players remember the world vivdly, but the story gets lost. In video games, designers often focus on building a huge open world or on environments that are awe inspiring to the players, so that things like entering Rapture for the first time are difficult to forget.

    I’ve been a fan of the Silent Hill series for years, because I find the stories those games tell to be very engaging. At the same time, I’m always frustrated by “scenery blocks” and the extremely linear nature of the games. I want to explore those rubble-choked side corridors and see what’s in that abandoned building over there. Most open world games seem to follow the model above. Lots of investment in storyworld, not so much in actual story. I did find the latest installments in the Grand Theft Auto Series (IV and Episodes from Liberty City) to have pretty good stories for an open world game. Bioshock is a rare game where the story, and learning what was happening/had happened around me (“Who is this Atlas guy anyway?”) distracted me from the somewhat linear nature of the environments (well detailed backscenery can help with that as well, as long as the flow is such that we aren’t reminded that we “can’t get there from here.”

    I also think that your points about the fail state are spot on. Let’s face it, as much as I love video games, I just seem to suck at them. As much as I love the Silent Hill games, a playthrough is going to take me much longer than the average gamer. Knowing this, I have always longed for games that engage the brain more than the reflexes, and where failure doesn’t lead to the frustrating repetition of trying over and over to get through a particular level or past a particular boss, re-spawning endlessly from the same point, having to replay a huge chunk of the game every time, or worse yet, having the game end abruptly because of my lack of hand-eye coordination. I think Heavy Rain is a step in the right direction because “failure” to some extent changes the story instead of ending it or causing it to loop.

    The closer video games can get to allowing the player to influencing the story, ie. becoming more like pnp games, the happier I will be. I don’t know if they will be more effective or more profitable/successful, but I think they will certainly be more engaging. I’m looking forward to Rockstar’s game L.A. Noire, because I think there is an opportunity for an open world game to have an engaging story in addition to a large, detailed setting. I also have high hopes for Funcom’s The Secret World MMORPG.

    That last brings a question to mind. Where do you think MMORPG’s fit into this conundrum? ARE they a place where pnp meets video game? I’m not so sure that’s true, since they come with their own inherent considerations.

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