This is really an excellent talk by Richard Bartle on the topic of word building.
Intentionality and coherence: asking “WHY?” on a level that’s more than commercialistic or purely player oriented. It’s something you hear shouted on the fringes of game design, but it’s by-far not the prevailing opinion. It’s refreshing to hear this message come from someone as renown as Mr. Bartle.
[also posted on GameCareerGuides]
Do games tell stories?
Sure, text, artwork, voice acting and cut-scenes can all arguably tell or help tell a story, but how can you truly say that the game itself is telling the story? And by the game, I mean the actual system, the units and rules that create the possibility for gameplay. Is gameplay a form of storytelling? Maybe not in most games (to avoid the argument), but if we wanted to conceptualize gameplay as storytelling, how would we do it? And if we wanted to make a game that told its story well, what would it take?
In short, and I’ll go into more detail later in this article, yes: it can be useful to think of gameplay as a medium through which players experience a unique form of storytelling. Maybe you’ve experienced it yourself where for one brief moment everything—the characters, the sounds, the visuals and what you were doing—all seemed to click, and you felt truly engaged in the story being told. It’s something that many gamers have felt at some point, but that no one has yet been able to consistently reproduce. “It” eludes us not because we lack the tools to describe or evaluate it, but because it crosses so many fields and disciplines. Theories of fun and swords and circuitry, research into expressive AI and dreams of Hamlet on the Holodeck all bring us closer to understanding it, but none provide that one true holistic vantage point from which a game designer can envision how to truly tell stories well through gameplay.
A holistic approach to storytelling in games has to consider many literary and filmic concepts like story, plot, character development, cinematography, lighting, audiography and “editing”. But unlike film, a holistic approach must also consider the game mechanics and expressive processes that determine the above (no small feat), all the while recognizing that games are interactive, and have spatial and haptic dimensions. Is it any wonder that a holistic view of storytelling in games has eluded us for so long? The solution isn’t to mash the concepts together and hope for the best. Putting Steven Spielberg, Conrad Hall, Syd Field, Jorge Luis Borges, Chris Crawford, Nobuo Uematsu, and Michael Mateas into a room probably won’t produce anything worthwhile because they have no common framework on which to have a meaningful discussion.
To find that common framework, we have to go up the conceptual tree to find what all of these seemingly disparate disciplines share. And that shared concept is communication. Ultimately, they are all means of getting an idea from person A, across some medium, to person B. But that net might be cast a little too wide for our purposes. Storytelling is a specific form of communication, a form studied for thousands of years by that often misunderstood field of study: narratology (as it’s called today). But I’d like to ignore Aristotle for once and instead shed some light on the modern founders of narratology, the Russian Formalists, who a hundred years ago decided to analyze literature as if the stories it told were complex machines intentionally and purposefully constructed using “devices” or “functions” that serve particular purposes. It’s from this concept that we get the term “plot device”. This approach to understanding storytelling is interesting because today we use complex machines to intentionally and purposefully design and program functions that serve particular purposes in order to tell stories. Somehow, this conceptual similarity has rarely been noticed.
Unfortunately, after years of largely pointless “Ludology vs. Narratology” debates, narratology is seen as a dead horse whose body is periodically dragged out by articles like this one for yet another beating. Except that this article isn’t about using narratology to “understand” games, it’s about giving designers a framework on which they can use all of the tools in their toolkit, not just a few. Narratology is the foundation for a common framework that we can all use to set up and guide the shape and direction of ours stories; game design, cinematography, level design, artificial intelligence, art, sound design, etc., are the tools we use to create a story; and gameplay is the way we as players experience that story. So what is this common framework?
Why is it that a Halo gamer will sit down and read a Halo novel, but likely wouldn’t want to read through a paragraph if it appeared on-screen?
I think the answer is more complicated than “I don’t want to read, I’m playing a game!” It’s not just that they’re different kinds of activities. The goal of both the Halo novels and Halo the game are to entertain you. Watching a movie isn’t the same as reading, but you’ve (I assume) all read the intro to Star Wars: A New Hope, or the subtitles in a foreign film?
Why are we willing to read these?
Because they’re (a) important, and (b) engaging. Text in games is rarely either.
Jonathan Blow first brought up the conflict between story and challenge back in November 2008 at MIGS. Blow describes the problem as a conflict where “the challenge part is trying to hold the player back and keep him from getting to the next segment. But the story part wants you to get to the next part in order to keep going.” As of January 2009, Blow doesn’t seem to be any closer at resolving the issue. I remember when I first heard his argument; I was really taken aback by how blind I was to this obvious yet pervasive conflict. It stumped me, plain and simple. The solution isn’t to tell stories without challenge, or challenge the player without story. That doesn’t really get us anywhere. I’ve been thinking about it recently and I’ve come to the conclusion that instead of trying to tweak story or conflict individually, we need to look at the fundamental assumptions that put challenge and story into conflict in the first place.
Plot in games is almost always set up as a gated experience. The player is presented with a few plot points before a gate is reached, and the plot can’t progress until that gate is unlocked. To unlock a gate you have to successfully complete a gameplay challenge. If you make the challenge too difficult, the player will have to experience the same plot points again and again as they restart the challenge, effectively ruining the game’s storytelling. On the other hand, making the challenge too easy negates the thrill associated with challenge based gameplay. Interestingly, these two approaches mimic two different play styles. Some players play for the story, and when the game gets too hard resort to cheats and walkthroughs to get through it, or they just plain quit. Other players play for the challenge, will be bored unless they are challenged and see the story as fluff or context. There are of course several shades of grey in between—I think I fall in the middle somewhere—but what this divide really does is beg the question: what are we trying to do here? Is the addition of storytelling to games a misplaced fantasy? Should we be purists and acknowledge that what games do best is challenge us and that what other forms of media (film, theatre, comics) do best are tell stories?
I think this is a really easy argument to make, but it isn’t the one we should be making. Like with every innovative idea, it’s always easier to keep doing things the way we have always done it rather than change the way we think about things. Here too it’s the way that we think about story and challenge, our fundamental assumptions, that is keeping us back.
The first fundamental assumption we need to break is seeing story, or story progression, as a reward. This is the core of the story vs. challenge conflict. We create challenges, and we reward our players with story. If the player fails the challenge, then they don’t get their story. If instead the story is detached from the challenge and a supplementary reward is offered, challenge no longer impedes story. Take for example Calamity Annie, a lesbian fast-draw cowboy romance shooter with an old-school retro feel. The challenge is straightforward and amusing. Using your mouse you try to out-draw and kill a list of lone gunmen, and meanwhile an interactive love story is slowly revealed. Taking someone out rewards you with a bounty based on their difficulty, how quickly you drew your gun, and a bonus for disarming them (with a satisfying TING! as their gun flies away). The gameplay is unforgiving. You are given three lives and each new set of gunmen get faster on the draw. If you die, you start all over with a score of 0, but interestingly you can chose to continue the story from where you left it. You can enjoy the challenge while still experiencing an unobstructed plot. This may be all well and good for a freeware game, but this kind of implementation wouldn’t really work well in a AAA title. Plus, it reinforces the disconnect between story and game, which should be avoided.
Simply removing the association between gameplay progression and story progression doesn’t solve, in a satisfying way, the issue of the game stopping when the story wants to keep going. To get past the gameplay progression issue, we need to examine our second fundamental assumption: that the only correct resolution to a challenge is success. Game stories are likely the only stories where everything absolutely always goes the protagonists’ way (in an ideal play through). The reasoning is easy enough to understand. We’re here to entertain our players and ensure that they have fun. Losing is not fun, so losing is never an acceptable resolution. However, this assumption forgets that many of the greatest stories ever told have moments where everything goes wrong for the protagonist. In fact, you can reliably predict that at around the 1 hour 15 minute mark in any Hollywood movie, after everything goes perfectly right for the protagonist(s), everything will suddenly go horribly wrong. As much as I hate this cookie-cutter predictability, Hollywood uses it because it has consistently worked so very well for them in the past. Why would Hollywood, always keen to entertain and please its audience, introduce these negative feelings into all of its stories? Because it creates dramatic tension, it leaves you guessing, it brings you deeper into the experience and makes the final victory (or loss) at the end that much more powerful (if it’s done well, of course).
We as designers need to learn how to integrate failure into our gameplay and stories, and the biggest hurdle to accomplishing this is our third fundamental assumption: failure means death. Death itself is a tricky, hotly debated subject, and I freely admit that I don’t have all the answers; but I do think I can provide some insight by re-jigging the assumption in saying that it’s actually failure means punishment. Designers have been talking for years about not punishing the player to the constant consternation of gamers that love a challenge. I also don’t consider the simple removal of punishment the final solution, obviously, since I think we should let the player fail and feel bad about it (in the right way) to create dramatic tension. The key is in controlling the dramatic experience, which is something we’re not very good at because the tools and know-how aren’t out there yet. Our young industry hasn’t arrived at that point yet, but it’s getting there. It’s easy to imagine…
Imagine a game where, instead of having failure mean death, failure meant alternate, parallel plots and less reward. Imagine a game that could produce a fun experience even when the player fails every challenge while still progressing through the story, and an awesomely fun experience when the player succeeds at every challenge. It would require a masterfully designed game that changes the meaning of failure in the player’s mind. I’ll believe it when I see it is a perfectly acceptable reaction to this idea.
Specific implementations aside, the point of the post is this: If we want to beat the story vs. challenge conflict, we need to upend our fundamental assumptions about them:
- We need to stop considering story as a reward for the successful completion of challenge.
- We need to avoid thinking that success is a challenge’s only correct and acceptable resolution.
- And we need to find a way to avoid or improve on that classic game mechanic: failure means death.
Can it be done? Absolutely. I have some vague ideas, maybe you do too?
Christian Nutt has an interesting article on how Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII has taken a small step forwards in meshing together gameplay and story. The innovative way Crisis Core tells its story with vignettes during battle through the Digital Mind Wave (DMW) system is definitely something to praise, and Christian does a good job of that.
But, I hate to say, it misses the mark on really getting passed the current gameplay/story divide. First, I’ll let Christian do all the work in describing how the DMW system works:
Most of the writing I saw (in reviews) was confined to confusion about the randomness of the DMW — it’s essentially a slot machine. When you hit onto the right combination of numbers you get stat boosts, powerful attacks, or even more impressive monster summons.
It also governs the leveling of your character, his special attacks, and spells. This is the bit people didn’t like: though it wasn’t actually random (since it masks a more-or-less standard experience point system) it appeared random, and that galls players.
As you fight battles, the DMW continuously spins, without your input, in the top left corner of the screen. When it gets close to making a beneficial match, the spinning reels zoom in to take over the entire screen.
Instead of fruit or other typical slot machine items, important characters from the game’s story populate the DMW; when you first encounter those characters in-game, they’re added to your DMW roster.
The DMW is affected by protagonist Zack Fair’s emotional state (hence the quote above.) The more intense his emotion, the higher likelihood there is of a match. When a match is made, that might be it — you just get a bonus.
But sometimes, a (very short) cutscene might play. This cutscene is always a memory Zack has of an important character of the game, and it’s always from Zack’s perspective.
When Zack remembers a particularly strong memory, he’s filled with strength to fight even harder. This is rewarding both from a story perspective and from a gameplay perspective.
I agree with Christian in that this game mechanic is definitely an interesting way for the game to present you with plot. This is a nice step forward. A method of telling story through game mechanics, as opposed to being slapped on top of them or jarringly stuck between the cracks, is always appreciated. But beyond this, what’s really interesting is that this game mechanic procedurally generates a plot in which the main character’s emotions conjure up vignettes of his past experiences which then influence the events of the present.
However, the reason this innovative step forward fails is because the game mechanics themselves are essentially built around a slot-machine-like system. Not only is this bad from a game design perspective, since rules should always be discernible in such a way as to not seem too arbitrary and frustrate the player, but it also implies (unintentionally) that emotions conjure up, like a slot-machine (??), past experiences to influence our daily lives. It’s the randomness and incongruity of the slot-machine mechanic that seems out of place. It grates against our gameplay and story expectations.
The reason Crisis Core doesn’t get past the gameplay/story divide is because, although it has an interesting system that innovatively introduces vignettes through a gameplay mechanic, the DMW system is inherently incoherent with the story being told. Emotions conjuring up the past and influencing the present suggests purpose, order, cause and effect. Randomness unhinges this feeling and makes the mechanic grating and annoying.
This one will be quick. Take a look at this quote from Chris at ihobo.com:
This is the nub of the issue here: a story can make you cry by empathising [sic] with the protagonist (or another character), but a game (when viewed as a formal system) cannot do this. It follows that the only way that a videogame can make you cry is by using narrative tools that have nothing to do with games as formal systems whatsoever. So even though, for instance, many people report that they cried when they played Final Fantasy VII at the fateful scene [...] the moment that actually brought the player to tears was a non-interactive cut scene. It wasn’t the game (in the systems view) that made them cry – it was the story – and there never was a question as to whether stories could make you cry.
I agree and disagree. His examples are true, in so far as the part of the game that makes you cry isn’t an actual, functional part of the game at all. So in his examples it’s never really the game itself that makes you cry. However, this overarching statement is shortsighted in that it doesn’t account for the possibility that a game’s mechanics could themselves be the ones communicating the story. And this is an important distinction.
If it’s safe to say that a movie made you cry because of the way it tells you its story, then it’s also safe to say that if a game’s constituent parts (units and rules) convey a story, then a game can make you cry.
If you want a great example of why a good story isn’t necessary for a game to be fun, take a look at Tom Cross’ opinion piece on Dead Space. I haven’t gotten around to playing Dead Space, but according to Tom, just about everything non-game is “carefully and stylishly unoriginal”. The characters are flat and uninteresting, the plot is completely predictable, and overall the game fails at establishing a truly frightening experience. That being said, Tom loved playing the game.
I think Dead Space is a good argument against laissez-faire story design: the point of view that believes that games don’t need a story, just interesting game mechanics, and that the goal is to have the game act as a vehicle for players to put themselves into a world where they can make their own story. It seems that the designers of Dead Space attempted to create a blank slate protagonist that anyone could relate to, hopefully facilitating the player’s desire to insert themselves into a fantasy world where they can create their own story. The problem is that from a plot perspective, a flat protagonist is uninteresting.
Isaac never speaks, and you never get any indication of his mood, other than that he doesn’t like dying. He wears a mask throughout the game and reacts to little. Apparently, this makes him relatable, because so many of us are demure, voiceless, deep space mechanics who constantly wear masks.
And because the main character is flat, the story that revolves around him lacks any emotional attachment or depth. But the game is fun, it has a good set of core game mechanics. What get Cross worked up is that the gamer in him enjoys the pure game, but because Dead Space makes an attempt at telling a story, his basic human desire for interesting and compelling plot drives him to feel annoyed at the same time. A game doesn’t need story to be fun, but if a game does try to tell a story, the lack of a coherent and interesting plot generates the slightest bit of friction during gameplay. It rubs us the wrong way. A game doesn’t need story to be fun, but if you do want to have a game that tells a story, make sure you implement that story’s plot properly.
The problem with Dead Space, aside from the mediocre effort placed in crafting a story, is that there is no care to implement game mechanics that best tell this story. The story and game mechanics in Dead Space are for the most part completely unrelated. On top of that, the reason the game isn’t as frightening as it could be stems from the fact that the space of possibilities afforded by the game’s mechanics simply don’t have a scare factor to them; they don’t deliver.
I’m not suggesting that every flaw Cross points out is directly related to a flaw in game mechanics and nothing else. But I do want to emphasize that every flaw, in part, does relate to poorly executed game mechanics. I find this last statement odd when considering that those very same game mechanics provide Cross with an “amazingly fun” experience. However, it does makes sense when you consider that games and stories are two completely different things. What makes a game fun and what makes a game tell a good story aren’t necessarily the same. But imagine for a second what would happen if they were the same. This is what coherence is all about.
Overall, though, I think the most fascinating part of Cross’ article is the following chunk of text:
[...] most people are focusing on how the tempo of that movie [Aliens] is similar to Dead Space’s gameplay. They say that this game is like Aliens, with its frantic action and small scares, and less like Alien‘s slow creeping dread.
What “most people” are doing here, without even knowing that they’re doing it, is focusing on how the dynamic plot (telling) created by Dead Space‘s game mechanics (and experienced through gameplay) is much more like the plot (telling) of James Cameron’s Aliens than Ridley Scott’s Alien. Fantastic. It’s good to see people intuitively catching on to this concept.
I was reading an analysis by Daniel Cook over at Gamasutra that at first made me nod in agreement. Games have repetitious themes and often implement them in disjunction with or with disregard for their game mechanics. It’s good to see yet another member of the games industry catch on to this endemic problem and suggest a solution. But then a curious thing happens, Cook goes from talking about literary themes to what I’d rather call genre, but he keeps on calling it “theme”. Piracy in a work isn’t, as Cook assumes, a literary theme like “redemption” or “estrangement”. It’s a theme in the same sense that you can have a costume party with a pirate theme… but that definition doesn’t do us any good here. A literary theme arises from the interplay of plot, setting, character, conflict, and tone. According to Cook:
The theme you select directly influences how you present your initial skills to the user. By saying “pirates,” I turn on a particular schema in the player’s brain and a network of possible behaviors and likely outcomes instantaneously lights up.
“Pirates” here is more of a genre, a mental model for what is expected of the structure and content of the work. It isn’t the same as a story about redemption, something much more intangible and difficult to communicate. But whatever you want to call it, mixing up this “theme” with literary themes only leads to a confused analysis of how themes and games interact. To implement a literary theme, let’s say redemption again, would require well thought out and coherent game mechanics that convey the essence of what it is to be a protagonist experiencing or delivering redemption. There isn’t a simple mental model for the representation of a literary theme, since these are generally aspects of the human condition that have confounded us since the dawn of recorded history.
I mean, okay, this kind of stuff is generally dismissed as quibbling. Getting into arguments about terms and definitions is usually the quickest way to say a whole lot of nothing while annoying the hell out of everyone. But, clearly defined terms are the only way we can have productive conversations. It seems everyone in this industry has their own definition of theme, story, plot and narrative; and we wonder why no one can agree on what it means to have a game that tells a story.
The “eye” or “camera” in video games (essentially the player’s viewpoint) has always been designed pragmatically to allow the player to play the game. Rarely has there been any consideration of what the viewpoint is telling the player about the experience, other than purely game-related facts. If I could make an analogy to film, the camera in video games today is used like it was by filmmakers at the dawn of the 20th century. They say, “here is the scene!”, and really nothing else. Similarly, in games the camera says “here is the game!”, and really nothing else. It wasn’t until the 1950s that different camera angles and the introduction of the jump cut started to be used to tell the story rather than just present the scene.
Corvus has a series of posts on the topic over at Man Bytes Blog. He believes that “by limiting our video games to this presentation, we’re limiting our ability to use the camera as an effective storytelling tool”.
Absolutely. We’ve seen attempts at adding interesting camera angles and even dynamic cut-scenes to games, and where these didn’t destroy gameplay by making the game impossible to play, they certainly did make the presentation of the game more lively, but ultimately their goal is still to show you the game. The only exception is probably the “establishing shots” that some games offer you when entering a new level or being faced with a new foe or puzzle. I believe looking to film for inspiration is a good starting point, like early film looked to theatre. However, it’s important to realize that the presentation of story in a game happens differently. Cut-scenes, dynamic or otherwise, can certainly take advantage of film theory to better tell what they hope to tell, but these aren’t intrinsic parts of a game.
If we want to consider how to revolutionize the use of camera in video games, we must consider them from a systems point of view. How do they function within the game’s system of play, what game mechanics govern their behaviour? By considering cameras as a functional unit, with rules and behaviours that, if coherently designed, can impart mood, atmosphere, character, emotion—that is to say: plot—then, it might be possible to discover our very own version of the “jump cut”, something that revolutionizes the way cameras tell stories in games.
Rubes over at The Monk’s Brew has a few thoughts on the tricky problem of trying to have a realistic protagonist that fits into the story… who is also controlled by an unpredictable player. The problem is of course that all too often a game’s mechanics will allow the playful player to do something ridiculous, something the protagonist would never really do. Should we just make a game and, as Jimmy Maher once said, expect the player “to accept the premise and situation of the story she is in, and to behave in a reasonable manner”?
I don’t think we should ever expect anything of the sort. Let’s face it, there shouldn’t be a right and a wrong way to play a game. If it’s within the limits of the rules, then why shouldn’t the player be expected to do something that conflicts with the story? The answer isn’t, I don’t think, in having sophisticated enough AI to respond to a player’s inanity and keep the fiction going. The work required is just too astronomical.
It may some day be possible, but until then there is a solution that can be implemented in games today. The answer is to have game mechanics that are coherent with the story being told. Instead of having “all player actions [...] interpreted by the game within the context of the character performing the action (his or her personality and relationships) and the situation within the narrative”, the game mechanics can be designed to only allow player actions that are coherent with the story. If every game mechanic is coherent with the story, then any version of the dynamic plot generated when playing the game will be coherent with the story being told. That’s the key.
How do we do this? Well, I’ve mentioned character creation before. Instead of first coming up with the character’s history, personality, or even their name… craft the character based on the function you want them to have in the story. Once you’ve established that, create game mechanics that coherently express this function. It’s easier said than done, which is why you rarely see it. But it isn’t by any means impossible, it just requires some forethought.