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.

The end.

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.

Problem, though.

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.

Sound familiar?

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.

Egg Samples

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.

Now What?

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?

Oh. Yeah.

The controller.

Boom.

(EDIT: I’d like to thank everybody who attended my mumble-mouthed crashsplosion of a workshop.)

24 comments

  • I would like to know the following things:

    1. Who is responsible for that amazing picture of Trogdor the Burninator? Also, is he all free weights? Fuckers is buff. Really needs a Popeye-style tattoo, though.

    2. I dig your clever picture. It combines three things I like; story, plot, and shooting at people’s heads. Here’s a question – does a game count as a game if it is a measured story event, or is that really just an interactive movie? If the typical progression is so important, doesn’t that make the [option] part of your definition invalidate most games do to needing to exert authorial muscle to drive the story where it needs to go?

    3. I can dig the player as the protagonist, but riddle me this: in a typical story, you tie a character to the setting by means of relationships with other characters and the environment. Unless you create a game for a specific player, that is impossible to do with modern gaming. If a player must “step into” the role of the main character, do the strengths of the protagonist matter as much just showing the series of events, or making a milieu style game? Is a character driven game even possible?

    You know I don’t really agree about the lack of characterization in games – I cite one scene in God of War III where Kratos reached out for Pandora again. That particular part of the scene he didn’t say a word, he just reached for and had this expression – it was really touching, and very moving. That would have been impossible if I hadn’t been caught up in the groundwork and backstory the first three games had told. It was just one of the scenes in a video game that will always stand out to me; I was completely moved.

    I think that we’re still in the early stages of birthing a new form of storytelling, and I really believe that is the way we should look at it. We should absolutely compare the old ways of doing so (prose, radio, tv, etc) and apply what we can – but we can not expect those standard to hold up to the new format. We need to embrace those differences, and find what unique qualities it holds that make it so different (and I think you agree with me on that). Part of this process is going to be discovering how to convey these basic bits in the most engaging way:

    A primary conflict.
    An evolution from beginning to end.
    A sense of relevance and investment on part of the player/viewer.

    I really think if we hit those three things, we’ve made a significant story game.

    • @Rickity-Rock:

      1.) That picture comes courtesy of the Homestar Runner dudes directly, I believe.

      2.) The game vs. experience was one of the questions that came up during the workshop. I think those things are ultimately separate. That’s not a bad thing, mind; I think an interactive experience (or even a passive experience) is a perfectly awesome way to tell a story. A full-bore “game” is a different animal, and perhaps requires some different considerations. Not sure how to answer your second question: can you restate?

      3.) I disagree that it’s impossible. Look at, again, Mass Effect 2: there I have the choice as My Version Of Shepherd to interact with different characters or different environments in my own way. That makes those choices mine, and turns it into a personal, character-driven story. Mass Effect is very much about Shepherd, and yet Shepherd is very much an avatar pieced together from the player’s choices. That, by the way, is awesome. It’s what makes ME2 so successful, I think.

      This doesn’t speak to any lack of characterization in games; I think games can offer excellent opportunities for characterization. I have loved some game characters equally to characters in film or books or comics. GlaDOS? The Little Sisters? Any of your party in Ultima? Floyd from Planetfall (and Stationfall)?

      Characterization is one of those critical components that you can (and perhaps should) include when designing a gamestory. It’s a very important LEGO brick, in my mind.

      — c.

  • I can’t afford real bricks, so you’re going to have to make do with these foam not-quite-real-looking blocks I picked up at Dollarama. Savvy?

    I don’t think that the player is always necessarily the protagonist. They might be the main character, but the two are not always synonymous. Sometimes, they’re very much the antagonist. For instance, I’m running a solo Exalted game for Rick right now (well, not right now. I can’t multitask THAT well) in which his character is most definitely the antagonist in the classic sense — he will bring and enforce change upon his immediate surroundings and those within it, and eventually the entire world. Cos he has that kind of power, being who and what he is. He’s not really the bad guy here, but the antagonist? Oh yeah.

    And at the same time, it’s even more complicated than that, because there are forces playing upon him as well, forcing him into change — though this is less obvious and far slower than the change he’s enforcing upon everyone else. So he’s mostly antagonist, partly protagonist, probably a hero, possibly a villain, Grade-A 100% main character.

    The same can be said with video games. The main character in Dragon Age: Origins? Antagonist, since its their choices and their decisions that force differing responses, attitudes and opinions from their partymates. Part of it is the Director-God effect, since you have the ability to micromanage an entire cadre of people to the point where you decide if they’re even a part of your story — don’t want the dog? Drive him off, or don’t save his ass in the first place. Not interested in a pansexual elf with a slightly annoying accent? Slaughter his ass when he ambushes you — but part of it is the fact that these people would not be in any way effective if your ass wasn’t in charge, telling them to suck it up and stop snivelling over their daddy/mommy/guild/race/religious/lifestyle issues.

    I can’t speak for the Bioshock or Mass Effect franchises, and can’t really talk about the Fallout series too much since someone returned the games before I could play them.

    I dunno, maybe I’m just quibbling and being way too literal. But to me, the terms “protagonist/antagonist”, “hero/villain” and “main/supporting character” are not all that interchangeable. Each has their purpose in a story, in a game, in a plot. I’m not saying that never the twain shall meet, but generally speaking, they’re pretty separate.

    • @Maggie:

      I’d argue that you’re introducing complexities to the argument. The traditional definition of “protagonist,” admittedly a bit simplistic, is “main character.”

      Rick is playing a character that, to him, is the protagonist. In his own story, his character is the main character as a matter of perspective. That doesn’t mean in the overarching story that needs to be true, but one experiences a game from one’s own perspective.

      The main character in Dragon Age: Origins is, by most definitions, the protagonist of that game world, even if she is antagonistic to elements of it.

      Tony Soprano is the protagonist of the show, The Sopranos. He is not that show’s antagonist.

      I’ll agree that “hero/villain” and “good guy/bad guy” are too loose, which is why I don’t rely on them. That implies a subjective sense of morality. I’m interested in objective definitions for story components, and I’m pretty comfortable thinking of protagonist and antagonist as defined as “main character” and “character who opposes main character,” respectively.

      YMMV, of course, but for purposes of this discussion, those are the definitions on which I rely. :)

      — c.

  • Oh, I dunno… I think my original concept was “Antagonistic as fuck, with big fucking weapons”. But you’re totally right, and so is she. The entire “person who changes” and “person/force who causes change” arc between pro/antagonist is the sort of thing that is really more in the middle with -most- characters. My character is most certainly causing a lot of change, but the reason he is doing this is that he has his own antagonist who caused the changes he has to deal with – granted, in probably the most barbaric and brutal way possible – which causes him to be an antagonist. Fun!

    I don’t think that shying away from complexity is really going to serve the conversation well, though. If your looking for sophisticated, engaging, and intricate stories and plots it doesn’t hurt to keep an eye on where the pro/antagonist lies – and I really think we should get past calling the player’s representation in the game either the main character or the protagonist and call it what it is: the viewpoint character.

    In response to my response which is a… anyway. Yeah, I’ve never been big on Homestar Runner. Maggie enlightened me about two seconds after I hit “submit comment”. To better clarify question two, part two (subsection 6J, addendum 4, footnote Orange): Take a game that has a heavy cinematic pressence (the only ones that come to mind at the moment are Heavy Rain, Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties, and those fucking Sega-Cd “games” with Corey Haim). In them, you are less playing a game than moving from one cinematic sequence to another. By the author taking the heavy handed approach, you lose the [option] quality of the game – you have the illusion of it. This isn’t a perfect example for a game, and is using the concept in the extreme to illustrate the point – at what point does a game stop being a game and become an interactive movie?

    And to clarify (again) I am not saying a character-driven game is impossible, I was just asking it as a question. I think there is a lot more difficulty involved in creating a character-driven point, because unlike a book, the disconnect between player/character is very wide. You may have direct control over the viewpoint character’s actions, but you are not necessarily party to what the character (as scripted in a traditional sense) is feeling – there is a sharp lack of intimacy that will separate the audience from the character, much like in a movie.

    Also, boobs.

    • @Rickboobs:

      The issue with applying unconventional definitions to protag/antag in this case is that it introduces *additional* complexity that — as yet — only muddies the waters with tangential arguments. It’s an interesting conversation, mind you, but I’m not yet sure how it relates to “What I Do As A Game Creator.”

      Defining antagonist as “person or force who causes change” is an interesting definition but is not a definition most people would use, I think. It’s a limiting definition, for one (are we suggesting that the main character cannot create change? what about iconic heroes? what about antagonists who oppose change?). Antagonist has long been defined as “opponent,” (it’s the root of the word) and that works especially well when moving toward a discussion of games, because that term has meaning in a game-related context.

      That said, I like “viewpoint character,” a lot, but I’m not really sure why or how that is different from “protagonist.” And on simple economy, I prefer one word to two words. :)

      Other stuff, let’s see:

      Heavy cinematic presence needn’t be something that goes against what I’m talking about. I’ve not played Heavy Rain, but that’s a game with a lot of internal options, right? Each scene can play out a little differently? Player choice matters? The SEGA-CD games are dead for a reason, though — hopping from cinematic experience to game element to cinematic experience is fine, but it fails to take advantage of what makes games awesome. I’m talking about incorporating the game elements and the story elements together; some games keep those things very separate, which is (to me) Not That Awesome.

      I’d argue, too, that character-driven games are actually easier than plot-driven games. I think. I’m not sold on that yet, but given that the character is often the primary vehicle in a game for the experience, I think that there’s a strength there. (And I actually think the disconnect between player and character is very thin indeed — a far thinner membrane than what I experience when reading a book or watching a movie.)

      Also, boobs.

      Also, Homestar Runner is completely awesome.

      Also, your face!

      …what?

      Ahem.

      — c.

  • How about shoes? I got lots of those.

    Or rocks, maybe? I can reach out my living room window and pick up a nice juicy handful of post-thaw rocks.

    Of course, you probably don’t want to go that route, since the dude in the apartment above ours adores a) leaving trash bags on his balcony for the crows and gulls to pick open and b) not cleaning up the mess said split-open trash bags leave around my window.

    The rocks are kinda nasty, actually.

    ANYWAY.

    I find it weird that you think they’re unconventional definitions. Those definitions were given to me by my literature teacher in my senior year (or it might have been my English 1001 prof in university), and they’ve kinda over the years become indelibly defined as such in my head. Protagonist: one who changes in response to the antagonist. Antagonist: one who forces change on the protagonist.

    (Err, remove any snark that may have come across in that statement; it’s completely unintentional.)

    I guess that’s the beautiful thing about language: even definitive terms can be subjective. Even if your interpretation seemingly invalidates my argument, and my interpretation seemingly invalidates yours. :P

    • @Maggie:

      The snark destroyed me! My bowels, voided! Tell… Rick… I love him.

      Okay, no, not so much. :)

      I do think they’re unconventional definitions. I don’t think they’re *bad,* but they’re very nuanced, very academic, and essentially untrue when applied too broadly. I don’t know that any teacher I’ve had has used those definitions, and looking for the definitions of those words doesn’t seem to yield those results — it’s usually “main character,” and “opponent.”

      — c.

  • I think you may be underselling the strength and value of characterization in games — it’s something they can do very well, if only because we spend so much time with (and “in”) key characters. Every choice you make potentially informs your mental image of the character you’re playing, especially if the choice is more faceted than “shoot him in the head or the junk?”

    I think this is why stealth games offer great characterization and shooters, sometimes, do not. Stealth games are often full of choices like “to kill or to spare” rather than “how to kill,” and those choices altogether paint a picture.

    I also think “the player is the protagonist; not literally, but he is” turns out to be a bit confusing. But the player-to-character relationship is unlike any other narrative relationship (e.g., reader-to-character or even writer-to-character), and as long as we’re re-appropriating words from narratology to describe ludological stuff, “protagonist” is as good as anything else (and maybe better).

    What I think it doesn’t throw into enough relief, though, is that the player’s goals and the character’s goals are so often very different. If the player is the protagonist (of what, he asks), why do we bother dressing him up as Sam Fisher or Guy From GTAIV? Why do we dress goals up as being what the character wants at all?

    The player plays the protagonist. Isn’t that relationship rich enough with meaning and power?

    • @Will:

      Oh, dang, the last thing I want to do is infer that games can’t rock the characterization. Quite the opposite: they present characterization opportunities that are not present in other storytelling devices. And it’s exactly that, “every choice you make potentially informs your mental image of the character you’re playing.” That’s where games can really gain characterization ground, by giving up those elements to the player. Ceding some elements of the character to the audience creates a richer and more varied sense of characterization. My version of Shepherd in ME2 is a very different version of someone else’s Shepherd, both from the decisions I make and from the “story” I build out of those decisions on-screen and in my head. That’s awesome. Awesome in the truest sense of the word. Utterly fucking sublime.

      Stealth games do this well. (Though at some point, I’ll make an argument for why I both adored and hated the Thief games. And Splinter Cell. And many other stealth-based games.)

      I’m not making any commentary here about how games fail at anything story- or character-related. I made statements like that earlier, but this isn’t that. The thesis here is simply: Give the player investment and storytelling ability rather than attempting to tell a traditional story; failing to do so means ignoring what makes the “game + story” marriage so cool.

      Now, onto the other subject —

      *goes and looks up ‘ludological’*

      Oh! Game studies. Look at that.

      You may think the argument of “player = protagonist” is too coarse. You’re also wrong. And you smell like rosehips and your goatee stinks of sheep’s milk cheese.

      I joke.

      You’re not wrong, but I’m pretty happy with the notion that the protagonist is, for all intents and purposes, an abstraction of the player (and thus, the player’s wishes).

      It’s like, you know how actors will discuss their characters, but instead of saying, “I think Tony Stark is this guy,” it’s actually Downey Jr saying, “I’m this hedonistic guy…”…? — they own the role by inhabiting it.

      We do the same thing with our game characters. We inhabit them. To say we “play” them is fine enough, I suppose, but very rarely have I played a game in which the protagonist’s goals *in the game* were not my own. No, I don’t want to blow up cars in the real world, but I very much do in Grand Theft Auto. The protag desires in the game of Halo, or Bioshock, or a PNP RPG, or an ARG, all line up with What I Want To Do. And what I want to do is be a part of a story in my own way. Sam Fisher comes part and parcel with certain assumptions, yes, but internally (within the game world) what I want is what he wants. I want to sneak. I don’t want to get caught. I want to pop lights and drop down on a dude in darkness and choke that fucker out. Can you imagine playing a game where every move was something you — as the player — didn’t want to do? How horrible would that be?

      In Portal, entertainment and curiosity aren’t enough to drive me. Suspense and survival are very much part of *my* wishes. I want my character to survive. If my character doesn’t survive? Then the game ends. In a very direct way, I want to *win* — both game and story. Now, those “win conditions” are as particular and varied as the games that offer them, but that’s the core of it. I want that.

      Thus, I do more than “play” the character. I inhabit the character. In my mind, for a time, I am the character.

      Have their been characters where this isn’t true? Sure. And in those games, I rarely feel connected enough to continue. When a protagonist suddenly deviates from my desires and my choices, I get annoyed. Or merely grow disinterested.

      Are we really going to say that characters in games are not meant to appeal to the player’s own innate desires? I think it’s appropriate to use the definition of an “avatar” as an “embodiment” or “manifestation” — that’s what these characters are. Ignoring that in favor of a storyteller’s own ego and character runs a very big risk of alienating the player. At least, to me.

      I’m comfortable enough with this notion, in fact, that going forward, the game design I do will put that precept front and center. The overlap in that Venn diagram is significant enough for me where it’s valuable to approach the game that way; you aren’t just trying to tell the story of an abstract protagonist. You’re trying to line up the game, the story, and the experience with the player’s own wants *relative* to the game-slash-storyworld.

      That maybe doesn’t make sense. Maybe I’m not communicating it properly. But it was something I hadn’t considered before in terms of the story design in games, and it feels spot on.

      Once more, YMMV.

      — c.

  • What I should say, of course, is that it’s ideal for the player and the character to share fictional goals. They should both want to rescue the prince or slay the evil duchess, but more often the player and the character are a Venn diagram with only so much overlap. The player is the more important circle to service — she is the source of agency and activity in play — but you don’t often get the circles the overlap without defining the PC (RPG or no) by his wants and goals, too. Without treating him like the protagonist.

    In Portal, an example of a game with almost no protagonist defined, the protagonist is defined largely in the player’s imagination as the negative space around or opposing GladOS. The player and the protagonist share some of the same goals — to proceed from area to area — but with different motives (survival vs. entertainment/curiosity).

    I think “the player is the protagonist” is too coarse. The protagonist is a chimerical beast, many headed, made of different animal parts.

  • If that’s the case, it’s probable it was my English prof in uni then. He was a bit whacky and liked to make up shit to confuse us with. And also never taught me to not end sentences with prepositions.

    (I just thoroughly confused the fuck out of Rick, by the way.

    “Chuck wanted me to tell you that he loves you.”
    “… Wha… Who… Huh?”
    “Chuck. With the beard. You know.”
    “… You got any context for that?”
    “No, because giving you some wouldn’t amuse me half as much.”)

    • @Maggie:

      I live to confuse!

      And let me just say: I really do think those definitions are interesting. I just don’t think they’re a perfect fit across the board. They *are* cool in that, I’d love to approach the protagonist/antagonist relationship that way in a story and mine the potential there.

      — c.

  • I’ve always felt that the “player as protagonist” approach leads to a more satisfying game experience. I suppose that’s why, as much as I love my computer games, the pen and paper RPG still wins the majority of my time. The place where computer games have traditional lost me is in the ending, “there can be only one” .When you have someone acting as a Game Master (as opposed to a pre-programmed AI) they can react to the decisions the players make, as opposed to the player having to figure out the solution that the author intended.

    With advances in game technology I find that the games are more satisfying now. This has little to do with the sweet graphics (though I’d be lying if i said it had nothing to do with them), but instead comes from the possibility of choices I make as a game player leading me to different potential game endings. It gives the choices I make much more weight (and allows me a greater range of choices as well), which in turns makes me feel much less like I’m just going through the motions to see the cool cinematic.

    Also, it makes me want to replay the game to see what the other endings look like. Today my Shepherd is an uber-goodie-goodie, tomorrow he’ll be ruthlessly efficient. That gives the game more bang for the buck! (and those sweet graphics do make each and every one of those bangs extremely satisfying.)

    • Vicki:

      Word to that. One of the questions in the audience talked about how you could potentially push the medium forward by coming up with more challenging story-based game projects, and it was interesting to think about. Our home computers advanced as fast as they did because of computer games — that constant urge forward to get better graphics and clearer sound. What interests me is now how you might move technology’s advances in the game sphere away from just graphics and more into the processing power required to have emergent intelligence or more complicated story branching/rendering.

      — c.

  • Ideally, the Venn diagram of Player Goals and Character Goals overlap a whole fucking lot. But it’s not like that just is. The player isn’t the protagonist unless the player buys in.

    The kids I work with at Shared Worlds, they talk about how little they care about what goes on in video game stories, to the tune of skipping cut scenes whenever they can. (They also reveal that they care more than they sometimes say they do.) But the point is that the player goal (to drop down out of the shadows and choke a scumbag unconscious) isn’t always the same as the character goal (to protect America, say). For the player, the play is the goal. For the character, it’s often merely a means to an end.

    Consider how many people go on playing, say, Prince of Persia for the running and the jumping, even though they claim not to like the characters. This is evidence of the player of the game not acting as the protagonist of the story, thus revealing the place where they are meaningfully separate.

    This is a fine distinction, but I think it’s an important one. When you’ve got the Venn diagram all lined up, so that the player’s goals and the character’s goals coincide, you’re golden. But that won’t always be the case. If you can make it so that the player is always satisfied, even while the character is potentially set back (or reversal’d, if you like), then you’ve got some of the narrative switchbacks you need to create the storytelling rollercoaster. If you can frustrate the character without frustrating the player, you may have a great game.

    Take Splinter Cell 2, which deemed missions a failure if you tripped a certain number of alarms during play, even if you could otherwise succeed at the mission. The game was saying, “Your goal is to accomplish these missions stealthily.” But that isn’t necessarily the player’s goal — some players want to create as much mayhem as possible. That mayhem and success — murderous assaults and delicate intrusions — were simultaneously viable in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is what makes that a superior game, in that you could play it even if the player goal (e.g., to kill everybody) wasn’t quite in line with the character’s ostensible goal (e.g., to go undetected). (That three-alarm failure rule was so lame they even mocked it in the next game.)

    I understand the argument that the player’s goals thereby necessarily become the character’s goals, but that won’t be true all the time. I’m thinking, for example, of one of the Rainbow Six games, which gave us a level in which we suddenly had to complete a mission all stealthy, and I just plumb didn’t want to do that. Wasn’t why I bought that game. But the character goals diverged like a path in the wood from my own goals, and I think the rest of the game went unplayed.

    This is an argument that player goals and character goals should overlap, but with the informed understanding that they won’t always and that you should have the skill set to keep a player playing even when they are temporarily detached from the character.

    So, I think we largely agree. The difference is that I think saying “the player is the protagonist” undermines the amount of roleplaying that goes on when a player is invested. I think the player should feel like the protagonist, but accept that sometimes the player and the character — who are together the protagonist — is a multi-part thing, not a single thing.

    If what you mean by “the player is the protagonist” is that the player must be satisfied above the character, then we agree. I just don’t like how the rhetoric makes it sound like players automatically will invest. It reads to me like, “actors are the role,” which doesn’t pay sufficient respect to what the actor does — actively engaging with the material. It’s great when an actor embodies a role, but that’s not what just happens.

    Your argument seems to hinge on the fact that you are eager to get invested in characters, and that thus players are, but I’m not sure that’s true. So my argument is that your turn of phrase makes it sound like magic, rather than actual craft, that makes the player adopt the goals of the protagonist.

    If you’re just using “protagonist” to mean, “the guy for whom the game goes,” then I’d argue that’s what player already means. If you’re using protagonism (not a word, apparently) to mean agency, then okay. But agency is pretty well established in ludological talk already, and I’m reading too much into your choice of term.

    (I’m also avoiding the notions of willful antagonism adopted by griefers in multiplayer games, which is a whole other, fascinating discussion.)

  • I only wish there had been more time to discuss it at the workshop! (Yes, I was there, and it was far too short – of course your perspective from the podium may differ from mine. ;D)

    It’s a complicated question. The thing of it is, we are drastically improving the processing speed of the computers, but the graphics folks are greedily eating up all that new processing power for their beautifully rendered backgrounds. Their efforts are giving us far more interactive backgrounds, which does increase the choices we (the players) can make within the games. As important though is driving the writers to give those choices more concrete implications to the end result. Maybe I should lend them my aging collection of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. Ahhh the lasting evidence of my misspent youth. ;)

    Of course, you can’t sit back and blame the writers. (I’m sure you’re glad to hear that) Part of the problem is that the studios showcase the graphics at E3 and on TV (and YouTube, etc) to sell the games. The ongoing popularity of Pen-And-Paper RPG’s proves that it is possible to market games based on story, they just need to figure out how to do it. Perhaps we need White Wolf to start releasing story oriented games for Changeling and Mage.

    Or on second thought, maybe just Changeling. They’d need Skynet to figure out what Mages can do. trust me, I Story Tell for them at the game table. lol

    • @Vicki:

      Wait — you were at DIY Days? Seriously? Why didn’t you come up and introduce yourself?

      And no, blaming the writers wouldn’t help anything. We’re far too grumpy. :) I do think if writers have the advantage to push the medium, then they should. They’re a foundational element, and those kind of pushes seem best when done from the bottom-up rather than the top-down. At least, I suspect.

      — c.

  • Sadly I didn’t get any successes on my DEX+ATHLETICS role to climb over the interconnecting desks on the series of raised platforms at DIY. Fortunately I didn’t get any botches either. It’s never funny when you’re the reason the paramedics get called. ;)

    Of course, the next time you’re in the area you may be stuck listening to tales of crazy Mages and Changelings, and the beauty of the “pact of mutually assured destruction” that can develop between Story Tellers. You have been warned.

    Sometimes I suspect that the writers would be more than willing to write alternate endings for games and greater ranges of character choices (and possibly even sometimes do), but the funds for the necessary programming and additional graphics to support these elements are placed into “fewer & snazzier” graphics instead. I’m hopeful that the increased potential with interactive environments will help some of those elements that previously would have been cut due to programming requirements to be more fully realized.

    • @Vicki:

      I am sad that you did not come and throttle me. If ever we are in the same space, please intro yourself! I long to meet readers.

      I think writers and storytellers are often the ones who are qualified to push boundaries, but are rarely allowed to be the ones to do it. Sad, really.

      It’s why writers should attempt to have some sense of business savvy (a point made by The Dread Pirate LeCharles).

      — c.

  • Chuck, has anyone ever pointed you to Dwarf Fortress and the saga of Boatmurdered? The guy writing that game seems to be all over the Lego Bricks section up there — he’s batshit crazy, but doing some serious thinking on the subject.

    (I apologize if Boatmurdered eats your morning, by the way)

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