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.