Once Upon A Playtime III: Return To The Gamestory Lagoon!

It’s like a loose tooth, this topic. I can’t stop tonguing it.

I’m getting ready to head off to SimCon (driving five hours to Rochester — whee!), which means this post won’t be super-crazy-holy-shit-long. But seriously, I can’t stop thinking about it. It makes sense; I have to give a talk on this very subject in just over a week, but even without that motivation, it still nags at me.

I have new conclusions and questions to add to the mix. Take them. Breathe them in. Let the airy, academic fog encircle your lungs. Then exhale it. Spit it into my eye if you must.

Oh, and if you need them, the first two parts are here (Part One!) and here (Part Two!). New comments have been added since last you looked, I bet.

Last note: for the most part, I’m going to continue to focus on video games. Tabletop RPGs are really their own animal at present, and do what they do very well (conceptually, not necessarily in each iteration).

The Word “Effective” Can Eat A Dick

Ah. Ah-ha! Ha. I got it. The word “effective” can be shot in the neck. It can bleed out. Spurt, spurt.

The word I seek is “sophisticated.”

Video games, at present, have not told particularly sophisticated stories. They’ve got the standard mythic-pop culture fare down pretty well. They’ve got the “single narrator” thing down (though, Heavy Rain I guess does “multiple perspective,” but perhaps not to the degree of Rashomon). Video games tell one simple story pretty effectively… and it’s usually some variation of “fight enemies to save the princess.”

(Here’s a challenge: prove to me that all stories are some variation of this. Go!)

I’m not saying that video games fail to offer sophistication in design or experience. They plainly do. And some video games strive for internal sophistication: elements of the story that perhaps do more than just scratch the surface (Dragon Age and Mass Effect in terms of character; Bioshock and System Shock in terms of philosophical complexity; Braid in terms of… whatever the fuck is going on there). But as a whole, these are essentially just “princess rescue” stories once more. Sure, in the Bioware games the “princess” is really the “universe” or the “world.” Bioshock 2 and Braid are both almost literal interpretations of “princess rescue,” though both do enough to subvert that in a pretty cool way (I won’t spoil).

The LaBute Factor

This is interesting.

First, I did not know that Neil LaBute worked on Heavy Rain.

Second, I did not know that LaBute sees his play, Wrecks, as somewhat interactive:

“LaBute counts on our desire to alter outcomes in his play Wrecks, a one-hander starring Ed Harris, currently running in LA. Harris walks on stage each night with a basic plot in his head and a clutch of possible routes to the story’s resolution. Which of them he opts for depends on the mood of that particular audience on that night.”

(Though there the interactivity relies more on the actor than LaBute as the original storyteller.)

(And we probably shouldn’t even talk about the Wicker Man remake.)

I look forward to the day video games utilize stories based almost exclusively in human drama. Are there any now? I remember a game, way back when, that I had when I was a kid. It was largely text-based, and you played a person’s life from start to finish — choices you made as a child, as a teen, as an adult, and into death. And it was pretty different every time. That was… what, 20 years ago? (Mind you, I shouldn’t have had that game at that age, since the game featured moderately explicit “sexual decisions.”) That game was only-only-only about human drama. The choices were sophisticated. Ah, but yet again, the game wasn’t about the story the designers were hoping to tell; rather, the game was about me creating a story out of the “story parts” the designers placed in my bucket. It’s like a very advanced version of LEGO-building, except the little colorful blocks are story components.

And That’s What I Keep Coming Back To

The best thing you can do as a “traditional storyteller” is to let your ego have the run of the place. That sounds horrible, I know, but look at it this way: you have a story to tell, and it’s a story only you can tell. That assumes a degree of ego. Not comfortable with it? Too damn bad.

The best thing you can do as an “interactive storyteller” is to put that ego aside. That’s not to say your vision isn’t important, but it’s less your vision of the story and more your vision of what story components to include — you get to choose what LEGO blocks the player gets to build his own version of this story. Sometimes, you might only leave “easy” components in play — “Do I choose to rescue the Little Sisters? Do I use my security bots to fight the Splicers, or do I go all-in with my Plasmids?” Sometimes, you might make the entire game about those components — “Design your face! Give your character wants and needs! Build them a house and loose them on the neighborhood!”

In traditional media, the reader empowers you, the storyteller, to tell your story.

In games, you empower the player to tell a new story.

And in Soviet Russia, the game plays you!

… uhh, sorry.

What I mean is… well, look at Doyce’s post from the other day. Doyce says something interesting (well, he says a lot of interesting things, but I want to focus on this one thing):

‘In the last… I dunno, month? I’ve played through Mass Effect 2 four times, and when the “end game” series 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 time since a movie got me feeling that good. Moreover, I have at least one other character I intend to play through the game (alongside, if not “with” Kate’s play through), and even then I know that, if I wanted, there are at MINIMUM five additional play-throughs I could do to get different end results (at least insofar as concern the characters in the story and how they “end up” at the end of the game.)

You get that last bit, though? It’s not so much the different ways the story could end — I’m a bit too much of a perfectionist to invest too heavily in one of the story outcomes where I completely fail, but I enjoy watching that conclusion on YouTube — but about what happens to the characters.’

First: holy shit, Doyce, you played that game four times? Man, it took me 36 hours on the first playthrough. Even on a second play through at 20 hours, I’d still be investing a minimum of 100+ hours. Dang, dude. You’re equally my hero, and equally a guy who might want to go to a meeting. (Insert smiley face here, I’m just poking fun. Obviously, this is exactly what the game designer hopes — you’ll keep coming back for more, and that means maximum value from the purchase of one video game.)

Second: Doyce is getting a great rise from experience here, but more specifically, he’s very interested in the story he is composing with this game. In a very oblique way, Mass Effect 2 isn’t a game; it’s a language. And Doyce is using that language to tell a story. He’s choosing which words to put where, and how the end will go. Sure, the language is limited, and is more plug-and-play than anything as complex as how the human language or parsed image can tell a story, but as a notion it is pretty sophisticated. And pretty awesome.

And there’s my conclusion.

The traditional storyteller tells his own story.

The interactive storyteller provides the tools and the language for the player to become a storyteller.

Yes, some of the tools are the same — dialogue, character arcs, even themes or moods — but those tools are repurposed to a different task. That’s not a bad thing. It is, in fact, a fucking incredible thing indeed.

24 comments

  • Well, alright, I have two examples of what I would consider sophisticated stories, from two games I played recently. I am expecting a fair amount of flak back from it, but these games both hit on real, human emotion for and invoked a responce from me, for different reasons:

    Uncharted Two: Among Thieves is by no means the typical “save the princess” style game. The story of the first one was directly derivative of old movies like Romancing the Stone, told with a good backdrop and decent gameplay. The second one blew it out of the water; the story is convoluted, and though it uses fairly stereotypical archetypes for the characters, they are so well represented and fit in with the wild adventure story that you buy it, and what they represent. From beginning to end this game had me pushing through the game play (which was excellent) just to find out what happened next.

    The one that really got to me, though, was God of War 3. David Jaffe fanboyism aside, this game rocked my face hardcore and the story is one hell of a revenge tale, which in many ways makes Greek mythology even cooler. Kratos is fairly straightforward as a character goes, until near the end, when everything starts getting questioned. No spoilers, but the scene where K-boy and little chick where next to Big Poppa and there was some stuff said – that really, really got to me. It may be one of the first times I have felt really emotionally invested in a game (even more so that that particular scene in Final Fantasy VII). It was powerfully done… unfortunately, however, the game didn’t have enough of those moments story wise, where you are so invested in Kratos’ story that you feel something. Also, God of War does not assume you are Kratos… from the get go, it is a story about him, not you as the player.

    I don’t think God of War would have worked as a book – the action is a powerful element in it, and it is very rare that an author can capture that feeling of momentum – tension, yes, but not momentum. Sometimes, you just need to see it in real-time. I think it would make an amazing movie, as long as Uwe Boll is nowhere near it, and one that could have a very gripping story.

    Anyway, that’s my incoherent thoughts on part three of this subject. Flame on!

    • I’d argue though that both stories are still the “get through enemies to achieve a goal” story. “Rescue a princess” is really just a replacement term for “find magic item” or “get revenge.”

      Again, I suspect people are going to read my post wrong (which falls on my shoulders more than it does the reader’s, mind, as I could probably make this clearer): I’m not, not, not attacking games. I just think people get their hackles up when GAMES AS ART comes up, or when GAMES AS TRADITIONAL STORY DEVICE comes up.

      Games are games.

      They don’t really tell stories so much as let me, the player, tell a story. Inside the game, this might seem to lack sophistication — what you’re talking about in regards to Uncharted and God of War 3 sounds to me (I haven’t played them) like effective and interesting plots. But (having read up on the games mere moments ago!), I don’t know that “complex plot” is the same as “sophisticated story.”

      And I don’t know that it matters, because the experience — meaning, the story drawn from the gameplay, not the story told *in* the gameplay — can very much be sophisticated.

      My two cents.

      — c.

  • Game stories as language blocks… This is sending me a weird place, so bare with me.

    …So there’s this episode of ST:NG… (Wait, don’t leave yet!) Where they come on a race of people who speak in story. Sort of in punch lines, anyway. Like, instead of telling you, ‘I’m in love with you, but I don’t think it’s going to work out,’ I’d give you a bit of line from Romeo and Juliet. They used bits of shared cultural storytelling, the stories in archatype that everyone already knows, to express ideas.

    Maybe that’s what we’re doing with game design. Because so much of the method has to be easily consumed, programmable, and part of a series of flow charts, the easiest way to go about it is to pick up chunks of stories we all know and understand. “Save the princess.” and “Get revenge on your father.” Are there other chunks of universal storytelling ‘lanugage’ we can borrow to do something new? Probably. (I personally think the ‘boy meets girl’ story isn’t used enough as the core story and that some how has to do with a fear of writing games for women.)

    I guess what I’m saying is, the blocks are already there, already being used, but maybe you need to dust off some other ones from time to time. What about Pigmalian? What about Odepus? Because Beowulf has been done to death.

    (*All or none of this post may make sense. I wrote it on a buss about half sure I’m going to die while worrying about the babies and deciding what I’ll say to Wil Wheaton if I get to meet him.)

  • That flew right up my nacelles, Filamena…. Temba, his arms open (so to speak).

    I think part of what is confusing me about this is that, to me, the examples given are about their story – not the gameplay per se. Every game is going to have a goal-based form of accomplishment, that is what makes it a game, and if I am reading this right, your need for story has to marry that to the action?

    Sorry if I am reading it wrong, I am just not sure what the disconnect is here. By nature of being a game, you’re going to have to do something to get something. Even in Silent Hill 4, where you spend the entire experience locked in your apartment (for the most part), you have to do things to advance the story. To me it is the game equivalent of turning the page; in a book, you read to be taken on the journey with your characters. In a game, you have to do something – rescue the princess, fight off terrorists, flip and stack blocks, guide Shaq on a kung-fu adventure – in order to receive the next bit of story. I don’t really think the game-play needs to be married to the story so completely, no more than the physical presence of the page of a book needs to be – it’s the medium the story is delivered by.

    That does not mean I do not think the action shouldn’t been steeped in the story, it should be. I just don’t think that every button press should matter to the story, but every press should lead you closer to the next point in the story.

    • Rick:

      Confusion here is justified. It’s a weird topic; I’m confused about it daily, though I think I’ve finally got clarity.

      I’ll try to comment more later — I’m bailing now for SimCon, and no telling what manner of Internet Beast I will find when I arrive, some five hours in the future.

      Keep up the convo, people. This is fascinating shiznit.

      — c.

  • Is Alien a “fight the enemies and rescue the princess” story, where “the princess” is Ripley herself? In Italian Job, is the gold the “princess?” If so, then yes, every story fits that pattern. In that every story has a conflict, with a goal at the end. (I’d be fascinated to see the identification of both the “enemies” and the “princess” go further afield. To Kill a Mockingbird? Catcher in the Rye? Brave New World? Lord of the Flies?)

    I think we’re definitely zeroing in on the area where we are going to need some new, or at least refined, vocabulary. The job of an author in a game is more complex than simply tossing a bunch of elements on the table and inviting the player to write their own story. Games come with structure. There are plots and characters that have to be baked into that structure. But, unlike a standard story, the game writer is deliberately leaving gaping holes when he’s done. Holes that the player is intended to fill.

    The trick is incorporating choice. On the one hand, the player must be able to make meaningful choices that have actual consequences. On the other, the necessity of both game-play and development time means that the player has to be channeled to have those choices all lead to a finite (and manageably small) set of results. This is generally done by leaving gigantic breadcrumbs, or by having different choices simply result in different cut-scenes that still take you to the next required play zone.

    As most players aren’t looking to stretch their authorial muscles when playing a video game, this is generally sufficient. However, this balancing act of creating an illusion of choice often ends up with very flat and generic interactions. Coupled with the fact that games tend to lean on the same plots as summer blockbuster action movies, and are generally forced to have central protagonists who are only roughly defined, and you are making soup with a lot of very bland ingredients. Hence, the tendency to paint game stories as being universally bad.

    I’m also going to note (and, I think, agree with you) that tabletop RPGs suffer from a different set of issues, and enjoy a different set of benefits. And, hence, require an altogether different discussion. What a module writer brings to the table is similar to what a video game writer brings, but just different enough to cloud the issues, IMHO.

  • Flavor & immersion matter for storytelling, of course. Without ambiance, you might as well just roll dice. (But hey, craps has its own drama and story, just of a very different nature.)

    But game mechanics play a role in telling the story and setting the scene, too. Look at the classic old PnP RPG Paranoia, for example, or the MMORPG EVE Online. The game design itself says something about the world, the characters that inhabit it, and their relationships to each other.

    In fact, I think sandbox MMORPGs (as opposed to themepark MMORPGs like WoW) have a lot to say in this regard, because in many ways they provide a means to simulate a world and thus allow players to tell their own stories, even in an in-character context. Whereas in most games, even fairly non-linear ones, the players get to choose a story from those the creators already implemented.

  • More later, because I gotta get my kid to school, but:

    ON FIRST READ THROUGH, it seems as though you’ve drawn a line that describes ‘what a game is’ and a line that describes ‘what a story is’, and kind of set them up so that they can’t meet. To whit:

    * Stories are something the author creates, solely. Those consuming it can color their personal experience of that story with their own ‘take’ on it, but they can’t fuck with it.

    * Games are something the creators make, solely. Those consuming it can fuck with it, taking what they want to use and leaving the rest in the bucket.

    Or, more concisely:

    * You can’t fuck with a “real story”.
    * You can fuck with a “real game”.
    * Therefore, give those two statements, it’s logically impossible for a real game to be a real story, or vice versa.

    I’m not sure that those statements are both nested in the post, but on first read it *feels* like they are to me, which means that it feels to me as though you’ve kind of set it up so that there’s no way we can ever solve the equation to the point where S = G … to your satisfaction.

    Maybe. Am I totally fucking wrong? Very possibly. I’ll think more on it later; I was going to post about this today anyway.

  • Put another way, I’m unconvinced that the level of story-piece-fucking-with in, say, Dragon Age, is significantly different from two (or more) authors collaboratively writing a story in which they determined the basic plot outline before beginning. “This has to happen, and this has to happen. Morrigan has to be in this scene at the end, at the very least, and this choice has to be in there about how to win at the end. Here’s a whole lot of other character stuff we can use, or not.”

    “Sophisticated” I’m not quite willing to touch, because it’s subjective: I can only really judge a story as good or bad – to me – in terms of whether or not it changes me in some way, even temporarily.

  • @Doyce – I think you are oversimplifying Chuck’s points, and losing the sense of the thread. I read:
    A story is a series of events related to an audience.
    A sophisticated story imbues that relation with emotional reactions and deeper meanings.
    A traditional story has extensive authorial control (“can’t be fucked with”), and hence can be as sophisticated as the author has the talent to make it.
    A game-based story shares control with the audience (“can be fucked with”). Can such shared control still produce a sophisticated story?

    A story told through a game will never be a traditional story. That much is true, by definition. But the step your simplification missed was that we were trying to get the two types of story to the same level of sophistication, not make them the same thing.

    Also, I strongly disagree that a story revealed through a game faces the same issues as a story produced through collaboration. When two authors collaborate, there is a level of feedback that isn’t present between a game designer and player. Also, the two authors are not each others’ audience. They are working together to produce a story that will be consumed by a wholly separate audience.

  • We’ll have to agree to disagree about the collaborative process, Lugh; for me, the other author(s) are absolutely my first audience and, so far as I think about it, ARE the person or people I’m writing the story to/for.

    A story told through a game can be a traditional story. It would be a bad *game*, probably, but it could be done.

    I compile your first two summation points as: “A sophisticated story is a series of events, related to an audience in such a way as to elicit emotional reactions and deeper meanings.”

    If that’s a fair statement, then I absolutely think there are games that do that – that “make statements” in some kind way.

    I think what may be most interesting about the games we keep using for examples is that end product — the emotions created, the meaning conveyed, the statement made — can be _objectively_ and demonstrably different for each player, whereas in traditional media, there may be differences between each consumer’s take-away, but they are subjective: the facts of what events occurred in the story itself are inarguable.

    I have a funny LotR example where one guy argues that it’s all about rejecting tradition, but another “read” it for it’s strong pro-LGBT message, but I think I’ve hit the comment size buffer. 🙂

  • I’ve been staying out of this conversation in all three parts mostly because I’m continually confused by what is meant by the concept. Given one stance, games will always fail to tell stories, because they’re games. Given another stance, games always construct a narrative by virtue of a beginning/middle/end structure. Every time I think I’ve finally figured out where you’re going with the topic, you put up another post that proves me wrong. Reading the comments just seems to make the issue worse, with constant conflation of RPGs and video games and examples and personal opinions all thrown together into a huge mess.

    Is there a simple, concise explanation for the core assertion (like “games are not good at evoking an emotional response in players” or “games are not as effective as possible in replicating understood narrative structures”)?

    • Goddamn, people. I put my ass on the road for five hours and you folks get a little cranky. I know, I know. When I fade from view, it’s like someone took the heroin away from the addict. I’m your rock. Your mountain. When I’m gone, it’s like… shit, it’s like the *gravity* is gone.

      Okay, that’s probably not the issue.

      The biggest thing you’re bumping your head on is, I’m making these posts as a way of talking through the subject, not as a way to make declarative statements, drop the mic, and wander off stage. The topic confuses me, and so I ramble about it in hopes of making some sense. Some order from chaos.

      Let me attempt to clarify some things, some things I maybe left muddy.

      I do not think games fail to tell stories.

      I do not think games fail to reveal a narrative.

      I am not a game-hater. I love games. I play them, write them, design them, think about them.

      I do not believe that “game” and “story” are two separate entities whose paths cannot cross. I’m not sure how anyone assumes I’m saying that, but I’ll take the blame for my mumbly rambly feeling-around-in-the-dark style of posting.

      I do not doubt that games can provoke an emotional response; I’ve experienced it many-a-time. The end of the first Bioshock *still* gets me (er, on the “I did good!” ending).

      Taking “sophistication” out of it for a second, what I’m trying to discover is this:

      As a person writing a game, what are my considerations? Storytelling is a craft, and so it’s important to think of the pragmatic side, but to get to that pragmatic side, to me it seems necessary to first think abstractly. All the lofty shit of, what is a story, what does it do, what can it do, etc.etc.etc.

      To me, it feels that if you start designing a game story in the exact same way you’d outline the story for a “traditional” telling (book, film, TV, comic), you’re basically hamstringing yourself and removing what it is that makes gaming special. The thing that *at its core* makes gaming special isn’t story. Note I didn’t say “this specific game,” I said, “gaming,” as in, “games in general.” A game is a game is a game. You want that game to tell a story? Great. Perfect. Do so. But don’t think you can just outline a traditional front-to-back narrative and have it suddenly become a good game, or a good game story, in the process.

      From a practical standpoint, it feels to me that the best approach then is to assume you want to basically put “story elements” in place, with the arrangement of those elements being core to the game and its mechanics. No matter what happens, you always have to write for the player(s) in much the same way that traditional storytellers write for the audience, except here the players are active and the audience is passive. The audience is witnessing a story; the player is experiencing a story.

      And, because a game is ostensibly about options and contests, the story the player experiences is different every time, even if the overarching narrative is not. Each playthrough is a snowflake, a fingerprint. Different everytime. You must provide for that as content creator, which is a consideration that traditional storytelling does not warrant (though LaBute offers an exception to that with Wrecks).

      Does this mean that a game’s story isn’t “real?” No. The story is very real. But it’s reality, it’s significance, comes from the player’s experience *in that story* as opposed to *outside that story*. That’s a big difference, and a huge jump in terms of how you craft it. So for me, it becomes about empowering the player.

      I’m not sure where I’m losing the throughline there, but obviously I’m just not being clear. Which concerns me, since I have to talk about this in a week.

      — c.

  • Why do you do this to me? You drop these topics on days when I cannot muster the cogent thought or time to respond for real — this subject is my bread and butter. I, seriously, I can’t even scratch the surface on this today because I’ll be here whittling away on a blog comment for an hour and a half when I should be doing other things.

    But I will hit your topic with my shoulder as I walk past, by saying this: No shit. You’ve arrived at the same conclusion I teach at Shared Worlds and have talked about at Gameplaywright — right down to the same metaphor of Legos and language.

    The trouble is, though, that sophistication is still a loaded word. If you’re going to tangle it up with genre — implying that sophisticated stories are more sophisticated if they’re free of genre elements, and are just human drama, which is a whole other debate — it just gets messier. What is sophistication? It sounds like you mean some kind of complexity, but I’m not sure. But I put that sand in your oyster to see what pearl you grow.

    Though, to be fair, we may not be able to avoid loaded words when talking about narratives or craft like this. We may have to trim some meanings of their baggage just to have the conversation.

    Anyway, seriously, no time.

    • Will:

      Heh. Sorry.

      And I don’t doubt that the LEGO and language thing was something I unconsciously picked up from you in the past.

      Sophistication remains a sticky wicket of a word, but I wanted something that wasn’t “effective” — effective, after all, really indicates good or bad. If something isn’t effective, that’s another way of saying “it doesn’t work.” That’s not what I want to say, I don’t think.

      Sophistication, though — all connotations of hoity-and-toity aside — is something that indicates both complexity and abstraction. The older a medium gets, the more sophisticated the work can become (I think — I mean, if you go back to “cave paintings” and jump forward to “Picasso,” I’d argue you see an increase in sophistication). Chess, as a game, you might say is a more sophisticated game than checkers. It’s not just the complexity, but what is born from that complexity.

      I don’t necessarily think it’s bound up with genre. Finch, for instance, feels like a very sophisticated tale. I’ve read a number of very sophisticated horror novels, too. But, it goes outside of that — Virginia Woolf, or the poetry of T.S. Eliot, and on and on.

      I’ve played sophisticated games, but I don’t know that I’ve played games with sophisticated stories. Maybe I have; possible I’m just not conjuring it yet. Braid comes close, but even there it’s more a play on existing stories and existing games, so the jury’s out. (The jury in my brain, for the record.)

      Maybe that’s the fault of the audience, or the companies producing this stuff. That’s an argument for a whole other time, though. (This rings possible; I actually think that games maybe told more sophisticated stories ten or twenty years ago. Maybe.)

      It’s maybe just that games and their stories aren’t evolved enough yet, though. In ten years, we’ll see something wholly different. I dunno. But that’s part of what I’m attempting to suss out: what are the new tools and blueprints one might need to tell a sophisticated story through the medium of a game? It’s a different animal is what I’m getting at.

      — c.

  • Brief, completely unimportant note about the play time I spent on Mass Effect:

    My wife and I play MMOs. Compared to that (fun, but) sometimes repetitive drudgery, anything from Bioware feels like some kind of holy beast, pared down to nothing but animate muscle and steel bones — something that consists of absolutely nothing but narrative and boss fights. Even when repeated four times. 🙂

    (And I didn’t mean to say that it seemed like you were saying stories and games were two lines that couldn’t meet — it seemed like you set up the criteria for *sophisticated* stories and game-stories as never-the-twain-shall-meet. Didn’t mean to be unclear, and in any case, that was just my impression.)

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