Once Upon A Playtime
So. You terribleminds peeps (teeps? tmeeps? terriblemeeps?) were here for the formative discussions that built to the workshop I gave this past weekend. (Part One, Part Two, and then Part Three.) You can also see Guy’s kick-ass recap of this and the whole event right over here (“Collaboration Is The Killer App“).
If you’re curious what exactly it was that I got up there and said (slash preached), well, hold on to your knickers, because they are about to get firehosed off your body.
Yes, I just said “firehosed.”
Got a problem with that?
Take it up with management.
Once Upon A Time
With plumbob USB in hand (and then in USB slot), I cranked up my clumsily-put-together Powerpoint presentation, and I got right into it.
I started off by saying, essentially, “Shit, this should be easy, right? Storytelling is storytelling.” Nothing fancy about it. It is what it is.
Once upon a time, Jack and Jill went up the hill.
They met Dick and Jane who were pushing some ugly-ass dog in a wagon.
Then they were burninated by Trogdor the Burninator.
Except… uh-oh. Something doesn’t feel right.
Where’s The Game, Mary Jane?
No game there.
Right? At no point does Jack have to kick Dick’s ass with some sweet Kung-Fu moves. Nobody has to platform jump to rescue that fugly-ass wagon dog. At no point is there a Boss Battle against Trogdor.
No game in that story.
And “game” is a pretty important consideration, right? After all, a game without a story functions just fine as a game, thanks for asking. But a game without a game is… mmm, not a game at all. Games are not passive. Games are interactive, collaborative, dynamic. (During the Q&A, I hastily defined a “game” as something that requires contest and option. As in, I can choose how to play, and I am playing against an opponent whether real or abstract. In Monopoly, I can choose which properties to buy [option], and I am trying to beat your ass at the fake money real estate game [contest].)
Throwing “game” into the equation muddies the waters a little.
So, I said, let’s take it back a notch.
Let’s define some terms.
The Apple And The Arrow
I said, we better go ahead and figure out what “story” means in the first damn place. And, if we’re going to raise the specter of “story,” it’s best to further resurrect its old buddy — its compatriot in undead arms — that thing we call “plot.”
Then I popped up an image that had me feeling clever for about 30 seconds until the inevitable reality of soul-crushing self-disappointment sets in:
It’s a little something I call the “Apple & The Arrow.”
The story is everything. Character. Character arcs. Dialogue. Theme. Mood. Setting (or “storyworld”). Conflict. And stuff.
Hence, the story is the apple.
The plot is just the sequence of events. This happened, then that happened, then this other thing happened. People will sometimes say, “That movie had no plot.” They don’t mean that. A guy walks into a room and then throws a mug at a cat, that’s a plot. It’s maybe not a really engaging plot. It is perhaps not very sophisticated, nor does it really make sense in any context. And that’s usually what they mean: “The plot didn’t make sense,” or even more simply, “I did not like that plot.”
The plot is the arrow. It is the thing that punctures the story. With its piercing arrowness, it punctures all the layers, but does not encompass them. Proof that the story lives outside the margins of the plot.
Plot is a thing, too, that has a set pace. Here to here, there to there. Step by step. The sequence of events is paced out to deliver doses of story, like that magical morphine button next to the hospital bed. Turn the page of the book, hit the button. Story delivery. Sweet morphine. Yes.
Games don’t allow for measured pacing, not exactly.
Certainly conflict escalates and moves forward, but really, the player controls the pacing through both choice and ability. The story in Grand Theft Auto is something I can get to whenever I jolly well fucking feel like it. I can dick around for hours, shooting hookers and old people with rockets and slashing cop cars with katanas. The story happens whenever I choose to trigger a story event. This is close to, but not the same thing as, turning the page or hitting pause/play on the DVD, in my mind — in those, I’m simply halting the story. In something like GTA, I’m engaging in the game and manufacturing new story events. In fact, I don’t even need to get to the “main story” if I don’t want to. (Look at Fallout 3, where I literally jumped half the “main story” on accident by wandering the Wasteland and finding Liam “Daddy-Cakes” Neeson trapped in some virtual 1950s simulation; I excised fatty hunks of plot without even meaning to.)
This then deserves a redefinition of “plot” in terms of game.
The plot in a game, then, is the protagonist’s path through the story.
The Leap Of Faith
Here’s where it gets a little fucked up.
Here’s where you need to hang with me.
Here’s where you might disagree with me and throw bricks at my head.
The player is the protagonist.
I’ll let that sink in.
Let me say it again: the player is the protagonist.
Not literally, of course. I am not Niko Bellic, Master Chief, Fat Princess, the Little Monopoly Shoe or Elf Ranger Ivybark Thimblenuts. I’m me. But when I’m playing, there exists a fairly thin membrane between me and the protagonist. The protagonist is an avatar. Perhaps not an avatar I created, but that individual — digital or otherwise — is my representation in the storyworld. In an ARG (alternate reality game), this membrane grows ever-thinner because even though I’m participating in an alternate reality experience, I’m likely doing so as me. I’m the guy solving clues and dialing phone numbers and pulling up websites and tracking down geolocational elements.
(Want to know how blurry the line between “real world” and “game world” can get? Japanese dude marries a video game character.)
In traditional storytelling, the protagonist makes her own decisions. Except, that’s not really true. The protagonist’s decisions are the author’s.
In a game, the protagonist’s decisions are the player’s.
In traditional storytelling, the authorial voice matters. Ego is a key piece. The author must assume in some small or large way that his story is important. The story is the author’s chosen story, the author’s voice.
In a game, that’s not true, then, is it? The ego must go. The story is then the player’s story to own.
Assuming that this is true — or, at least, is an ideal scenario — then the game creator’s job is not to tell his own story, but to empower the player to tell her own story.
But how do we do this?
You empower the player by providing the pieces.
The LEGO Brick Is King
And so we go back to the good old LEGO brick as a point of reference.
LEGO bricks are toys. You use them to build little worlds, and from these toys stories are born.
Each brick is a piece. In terms of narrative, we’re talking “story components,” and story components are things like, oh, I dunno…
Character. Character arcs. Dialogue. Theme. Mood. Setting (or “storyworld”). Conflict. And stuff.
Right. All those things that comprise the larger notion of story are things that break apart to their constituent pieces. Game creators needn’t build the models for the player; they can simply provide the pieces for the player to build the models himself.
“Model” meaning “story,” of course.
And this might be where someone asks, “But what about authorial voice?” Or, in terms of a pre-existing product, what about the voice of the “brand,” the voice of the corporate author?
The authorial or branded voice lurks in the pieces the game creator chooses to include in the game. Think of it how you can go out and buy themed packages of LEGO blocks (which is largely how they’re sold). Batman. Star Wars. Bionicle. Requiem for a Dream. Y’know, the favorites. By choosing what pieces go into the game, you have jammed the stake of authorial voice and intent into fresh earth.
So, ultimately, all this is a ruse.
When we ask, “How do you use games to tell stories?” the answer is, “You don’t.”
You empower the player through player agency to tell their stories.
New stories. Different stories. Unique experiences.
You want examples? I got examples out the hoo-hah.
Pen-and-paper games are potentially the best example. They provide you with all the rules and tools you need as a player (or a group of players) to concoct your own storyworld. Toys come close, but toys don’t necessarily have “game” built in as a condition.
Of course, technology hasn’t yet caught up with the raw storytelling power of a pen-and-paper game yet. MMORPG’s have some element of that, as to MUDs and MUSHes, but even still, it’s not quite the same as the ability to more or less do anything you want.
Video games have come far. Good examples of what I’m talking about include Bioshock 1 & 2, Mass Effect 2, and Sims 3. The latter is obviously the most “open” example — the story component LEGO bricks there are cast far and wide. Not a lot of restrictions, really. Through the Sims series you can play vampires, alien babies, have all kinds of relationships, build all kinds of homes, engage in your own mad cycles of faux-drama. Bioshock and Mass Effect are good examples of where authorial voice still matters, but where the ability to “build” your own story in the story world still counts in a big way. When people talk about ME2, they say things like, “I played the hard-ass ice-queen Shepherd,” or, “I was a total paramour, but ended up losing half my crew at the end.” In Bioshock, you might talk about your plasmid or tonic loadout, or whether or not you chose to kill certain characters, or whether you harvested or saved the Little Sisters.
(And there, by the way, is also the answer to a question I haven’t even asked yet. “What about character arcs?” If we assume the player is the protagonist, and the character arc of a protagonist is often about change [A -> B -> C], how do you enforce change on the player-protagonist? Answer: you don’t. You let them define their own arc. Good? Bad? Powerful? Stealthy? Berserk warrior who learns to love? Kind ninja wizard with a hardening heart? Let the player certify the protagonist’s arc.)
ARGs, you might look to something like The Dark Knight and the Why So Serious campaign. Yes, you still have those traditional pockets of passive story delivery, but you also have community-building, you also have the players contributing their own art and their own story components to the mix, you have them actually helping to steer the ARG in an almost “pop culture grassroots” movement. That’s the case because those story components were laid into the mix like bricks in the foundation. That isn’t an accident.
That’s where I ended the presentation portion and moved onto questions.
I’ll get into those at another point — actually, if you want me to talk about them, I can bop them in comments later in the day. If not, then don’t sweat it. Ask your own. Contribute ideas. This isn’t firm ground; it’s still soft for tilling. I am coming down more and more on the idea that player agency — ownership of the story, democritization of those story components — is pretty critical when it comes to merging game and story. A lot of games get this wrong; they keep a firm wall between game and story, and the player is forced to effectively hop the fence from one to the other. You want them seamless, though, you have to start ceding control to the dude with the — oh, wait, what’s that thing called?
(EDIT: I’d like to thank everybody who attended my mumble-mouthed crashsplosion of a workshop.)