August 9th, 2008 - 3:40 pm

Michael Abbott, catching on to this crazy confluence of ideas about games and narrative, has proposed a Narrative manifesto by quoting from some of “the most thoughtful and articulate members of the games community” on this very topic. I applaud the effort, and certainly feel strongly that our anti-status-quo way of looking at things needs a call to arms, but I can’t help but feel that the whole story and games thing is misunderstood. It’s not that the people that Michael chose to quote are wrong. What they say is true, but they miss the larger point, or muddle the concept of narrative in games. Rather than a manifesto for narrative in games, Michael has done a splendid job of collecting the kinds of viewpoints that serve to confuse the issue of narrative and games. Yes, I’m going to disagree with thoughtful and articulate members of the games community that are better known, better liked, better experienced, and hell, probably better dressed than me. I hope you don’t think me pompous.

Patrick Redding and Clint Hocking – Dynamic story architecture

Patrick and Clint are of the opinion that it’s all about the player and that the designer should just get out of the way and stop worrying about crafting a story: “the designer builds a system, but the player authors the story”.

There are hints of truth here, which is what make this viewpoint deceptively convincing. Designers definitely build the system, and players definitely act out their own story, but the key distinction is that the player’s story is constrained and controlled by the system. In that sense, what the player is actually doing is acting out their own plot to a pre-defined story.

The Sims is considered a powerful example of a game that lets players author their own stories. But really, what they create is a version of a specific kind of story: a story about suburban life, friends, love, marriage, getting a job, having a child, etc. The system of The Sims provides the building blocks necessary for a player to create their own version of this story, but they’re limited to the story the system provides. They can’t create a story about a Sim giving up their meaningless, commercialistic life, moving to India, joining an obscure religious sect and living out their dream of an ascetic life… until one day! Carla (from back home) finds you and begs you to please! please come home! … unless that’s an expansion pack I haven’t heard about yet? The reason players can’t write that story is because the building blocks that The Sims provides the player don’t include these potential story events. The “story” of The Sims is pre-defined by the game’s mechanics, by the system’s units and rules.

It’s in this sense that I believe designers have a whole heck of a lot of control over the story experiences of players. Absolutely, interaction and agency allow the player to affect the outcome of the game, and every player will experience a different “story” based on their actions, but all of this will happen within the confines of the system. They’re not really changing the actual story, that’s set by the system, what players do when playing the game is author the plot, or the way the game tells them the story. It’s like this: I can tell you the story of the Lord of the Rings over lunch, I can read it over the course of roughly 1500 pages, or I can watch it over the course of 11 hours and 23 minutes. Each telling omits, adds and even slightly changes the small details of events, but in the end it’s all the same story.

Just because there is an infinite number of prime numbers, we shouldn’t avoid looking for the Riemann zeta function; and just because genetic mutation is inherently unpredictable and chaotic doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue the limits of the theory of evolution.

Games make storytelling more complex since the potential variations on the telling are virtually endless, you might even have a branching story with multiple endings, and the player is inherently unpredictable, but in the end, no matter how you play it, you’re playing the story set up by the game’s mechanics, art, environment, sound and haptics. Once designers realize this distinction, they’ll be in a better place to realize how they can manipulate their game design to better relate a potential story.

Check out parts II and III.

Spake gian mancuso, tagged as: dialectic,logic

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