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.)


…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.