The Quest for Story in Games, Redux

Over on Tales of The Rampant Coyote, Jay Barnson decided it was time to revisit the problem of stories in games, taking a decidedly pessimistic stance. It generated a great deal of lively, insightful discussion. I’d say he made some reasonable points, summarized nicely in (and by) the section subtly titled, “You’ll Never Find a Game With a Great Story”:

“…the quest for “better story” in video games is doomed for failure. The very criteria and tools we use to judge story is based on linear storytelling which is at odds with nature of our medium. But this dead-end warning sign seems to be lost on most designers and publishers.”

I agree for the most part. It’s a topic that I’ve enjoyed thinking about and discussing since beginning the Vespers project some time ago. Stories in games is a hot topic these days, it seems, with panel discussions at GDC and opinion pieces in the mainstream media, like the op-ed last fall by Daniel Radosh in the NY Times, in which he makes a point similar to the one above:

“Many games now aspire to be ‘cinematic’ above all else. In Halo 3, as in most games, the plot is conveyed largely through short expositional movies that are interspersed throughout the action. These cut scenes undermine the sense of involvement — of play — that is games’ authentic métier…Because game designers rely on the language of cinema, they have not sufficiently developed a new form of storytelling based on the language of video games.”

People love stories — we love experiencing them, and we love telling them. We love books and movies and theater, because they draw us in, entertain, make us feel and care and think. They connect people in these ways. Game developers have always felt that we can do that in games, as well, in a way that better engages the audience, draws them in more closely to the story — presumably because now they participate in its creation, development, and telling.

Sounds nice, but the medium is fundamentally different.

Michael Matteas, of Façade fame, summarized it well in his 2002 dissertation entitled “Interactive Drama, Art and Artificial Intelligence”, in Chapter 2, “Interaction and Narrative”:

“The ephemeral quality of gameplay, the experience of manipulating elements within a responsive, rule-driven world, is still the raison d’être of games, perhaps the primary phenomenological feature that uniquely identifies the computer game as a medium. Where gameplay is all about interactivity, narrative is all about predestination.”

Predestination. Traditional narrative is linear, tightly controlled, deterministic. Interactivity is non-linear, unpredictable, stochastic. By adding interactivity to narrative, we introduce unpredictability to something that is, by design, predetermined. As Jay said in his blog, “In some ways, I think game developers are trying too hard. They are over-applying the rules of linear storytelling to a degree that it distracts from the point of a game – to be interactive. The stories need to be interactive, too.” That’s the fundamental difference, I think. The stories we are typically trying to shoehorn into games are the traditional, linear, deterministic kind.

Some of the things that work so well with traditional narrative don’t lend themselves well to the unpredictable. Many of the strongest moments in literature, movies, and theater are those that are subject to the direction and vision of the artist, and which rely on tightly controlled elements like timing and framing. For instance, timing is critical to so many things in traditional narrative; the pace of the words as they roll off the page, the sequence of camera shots during a movie scene, the timing of comedic and dramatic dialogue. Interactivity can disrupt much of these effects and reduce the impact of the traditional narrative.

As we know, the results of this are games where the player’s role is to gradually reveal portions of a predetermined narrative. The narrative may have multiple, exclusive branches and different endings, but these are all still preprogrammed and predetermined; the actions or choices of the audience merely link together different sections of coded narrative to create a particular path. The result, too often, is still an overall sense of linearity. And while linearity itself is not necessarily undesirable, the interactivity of games gives players the impression that their actions can and should have more of an impact on the resulting narrative. In the end, players often see through this simple mechanic, and sense that the narrative experienced, despite all of their choices and actions, was still predestined.

What I think a lot of people are seeking is the concept, as described by Matteas and others, of emergent or player-constructed narrative, where players fabricate their own narratives, or groups of players engage in the shared social construction of narratives. I think this is what Jay refers to when he speaks of how “the stories need to be interactive, too.” The drawback — and benefit — of this type of design is that it sacrifices predetermination for unpredictability. The former is easier; it’s what writers and designers are used to. The latter is considerably more difficult. Games need to be designed to respond to the input of the player; that’s the nature of interactivity. The more this input is constrained, the less satisfying the interaction is for the player. The more freedom we give to players, the more difficult it is to design the game such that it responds in ways that are coherent and desirable for the resulting narrative. That’s a tough task, and obviously one that we haven’t figured out yet.

Still, I’m not quite as pessimistic as Jay. I think players can have a satisfying and enjoyable experience with games that provide some interaction within the framework of a (mostly) predetermined narrative. I think a number of IF games do this well, as well as some graphical adventure games. I think at least part of the problem we’re seeing is the lack of prioritization of writing in game development; once writing begins to be taken more seriously, I think the quality of the narrative experience in games will improve, even if they remain largely linear experiences.

It remains to be seen what that “new form of storytelling based on the language of video games” will be, and what developers will do to make stories (as opposed to games) more interactive. Is truly emergent narrative an attainable goal? Or better yet, is it really a desirable goal? Is it the answer to better stories in games? I’m not so sure about that.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we only have a vague notion of what it is that we want as gamers.

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