10 August, 2006
Last month there were a few excellent posts discussing the nature of stories in games. The conclusion reached by both was that stories are largely antithetical to games.
Two very well written and thought out essays. Yet, I think they came to the wrong conclusion in that games either don’t fit in game or cannot be a large part in games. And, luckily enough, I have a blog in which I can pontificate why they were wrong!
Why bother with storytelling?
So, let’s focus on some basics first. It’s obviously hard to put storytelling into games given the notable failures all around us, so why do so many people bother? Well, the main reason I can think of is commercial. Lots of people watch movies, read fiction books, and watch TV dramas. All these media have storytelling in them, and people obviously enjoy it. More people watch just about any TV drama on during prime time than will play any particular game of ours. So, there’s an audience out there that wants to enjoy a good story, and game developers (who like solving puzzles) are trying to figure out ways to draw them in.
I think that Danc is also correct in that some of it is wanna-be syndrome. People in the games industry look at other media with a bit of jealousy. They want to be recognized for their talent like Steven Speilburg or Stephen King are. So, you get people trying to write grand stories like they do and failing miserably.
I think it also has to do with the consideration of games as art. One of my personal favorite definitions of art is something that communicates emotion. Other media that are considered as “art” affect emotions primarily through storytelling. It’s easy to give a critical analysis of a movie because you can dig beyond the flashy special effects and big-name actors to evaluate the story behind it and how that affects the emotions of the viewer. You can’t necessarily do the same thing with a game, especially an abstract game like Tetris or Pac-Man. Critical analysis of gameplay is being developed in the halls of academia. So, the shortcut is to tell stories in our games so that the critics can evaluate that. Unfortunately, we tend to come up short in that category because the stories simply aren’t very good.
Let me focus on Tadhg Kelly’s arguments first. In essence, the argument is that the best stories are fragile and complicated whereas the best games are robust and simple. I think the reasoning is sound, but I think Tadhg draws the wrong conclusions. Let me explain.
Universal stories vs. personal stories
I think that for most storytelling-based entertainment, the assertion is mostly correct: the best stories are fragile and complicated beasts. I really enjoy digging into the complex political stories of George R. R. Martin’s wonderful series, A Song of Fire and Ice and think the stories would be diminished if they were simplified. However, I don’t think the stories are necessarily that fragile. [Warning: minor spoilers in the rest of this paragraph.] You could change a few of the details and still have a powerful story. In fact, this is what I love most about the stories: you think you know the “rules” and suddenly a main character dies, or some dead character is back, or some other detail changes the direction of the story. Yet, the change fits within the book: this is a world of deep political intrigue and magic, so it makes sense that “important” people would end up dead during a war or that someone might come back from the grave. So, I will argue that stories are more resilient than the original assertion gives credit.
(Spoiler-free summary: Making wholesale changes to the basic assumptions of a story can make the story much more interesting than otherwise, so stories aren’t necessarily as fragile as asserted.)
I also think that Tadhg Kelly lumps stories into what I would call “universal stories”. These are the stories, like what you find in movies and books, that almost everyone can read and understand. These are the stories that are enhanced by masterful storytelling and attention to complex details. Yet, there is another type of story that is overlooked here: what I call “personal stories”.
What is a “personal story”? It’s any story that matters to you personally. On the other hand, this story may not resonate with other people so well. I think the best example of this type of story is when you get home and tell your family or loved one: “Guess what happened to me!” Perhaps someone cut you off in traffic, or your homework really did get eaten by a dog, or your boss gave you a surprise award at work. To you, this story is fascinating. To people who care about you, they’ll listen to find out what has gotten you excited. To most other people, they might simply not care.
Of course, there are some people that are good at telling this type of story. They know how to make a seemingly mundane screwup at a client dinner seem like a hilarious royal farce. So, it is possible to dress up these types of stories for other people to enjoy, but it takes a certain skill. Or, enough power over other people so that they have to laugh when you tell your story or they get passed over for the next promotion. Likewise, some people are so bad at telling stories that even getting caught in the middle of the most exciting shootout can seem like a bore when they tell it.
Unfortunately, I’m not heading to Gen Con this year. But, as anyone who has been there knows, the worst thing is getting stuck to someone who keeps going on and on about their level 26 Paladin/Monk/1st edition Bard and how they just defeated Tiamat, again, and now their DM has to figure out the collective noun for multiple Tiamats. (“A swarm of Tiamats”? “A horde of Tiamats”?) Obviously this person cares deeply about the character and the adventures, but you think it’s juvenile at best. Of course, you know that your 250 point Elder of the local Tremere Chantry would eat that character alive in a more mature and masterful game of political scheming, but Mr. “Flock of Tiamats” starts to snore as you’re getting to the good part of your latest LARP where you had made the Prince lose serious face at the largest Elysium in the city!
In both these cases each person has a story they care about. This more than a “fiction” as Tadhg Kelly refers to it; it becomes a story when you tell it at the very least. Just because most people find the story boring does not invalidate it: it is very meaningful to me and probably to the other people that participate in the game. Unfortunately, most people share Tadhg’s perception that universal stories are the important ones, and tend to overlook the personal stories.
This discussion may seem familiar to those that read online RPG developer blogs. It is, because this is exactly what many online RPG developers argue about players. Raph Koster and Dave Rickey are probably the most vocal in claiming that each individual’s story is important to them. (Of course, that leads them to the conclusion that user-based content is the way to go; they’re wrong, but that’s a whole other post.)
So, while Tadhg is correct that playing a computer game (or a paper RPG) isn’t going to create the next Schindler’s List, it can create stories that resonate with the individual or group. And, I think this is still valuable to us as game developers as long as we keep this distinction in mind.
Games aren’t simple
I’m also going to disagree with Tadhg when he says:
* But in order for them to become more robust, they must become simpler
I absolutely disagree with this. The recent fashion has been to simplify games in order to achieve “mainstream” appeal and better sales. Obviously overly complicated rules can hamper a game, but simplifying too much can hurt the game just as much. Tic-Tac-Toe is a very simple game with easy-to-follow rules. Yet, I think few serious game developers would go on record as trying to defend it as the most robust game, and therefore the best game. Yes, this is an absurd simplification, but it demonstrates the point. I think, as with most things, the truth lies in the middle: a great game is an elegant mix of simplicity and complexity. The old saw about “easy to learn, hard to master” applies here. And, while a good game is fun and people assume fun is easy, trying to create a great game that follows that old saw is anything but simple. And, before anyone tries to argue sales figures, don’t confuse popularity with quality.
So, even if we accept that stories have to have a complicated structure, I don’t think this means games are incompatible. It means that games have to adopt the structure of stories, or we need to adapt stories to the structure of games. Unfortunately, our collective experience with creating stories is much more established than our experience at creating games, so we tend to try to bolt story onto the game in inelegant ways. If we are truly going to do storytelling in games, we have to approach it from a new angle. More on that below.
Danc’s post is a bit less confrontational. He questions the reasons why people want to include story, mostly concluding that people feel that story is a good idea so they want to develop games (or, in the case of players, want games developed) with a heavy emphasis on story. The one bit I will add to his conclusions is that the publishers aren’t entirely helpless or innocent here: most of them would love to capture a TV (or movie)-sized audience for their next game. Movies and TV are good at this story thing, so they think that might be the secret as well. Of course, all the wannabes agree with this assessment, and away we go!
Really, Danc is on the right path here. The whole game does not necessarily need to be about the story, and it can be added as one element of a game. It takes a good developer to learn how to add story to a game without it getting completely lost or, alternatively, overwhelming the whole game and making the gameplay seem irrelevant. The complaints about Square games becoming “Movies where you occasionally push buttons to move the dialog along” is a sign of perhaps a bit too much story. (And, yes, I know Square sells a metric fuckton of games. Once again let’s not confuse popularity with quality.)
Where I think Danc goes wrong is that he assumes that story can’t be an integral part of the game. He thinks it needs to be a subset of the game, something added in precious small amounts in order to keep the whole game from stinking of story. But, I think that this is true of the current level of storytelling sophistication in the industry, but it is not an absolute truth. Instead of being like blue cheese, I think that story might be more like ketchup. Some people, like me with french fries, can’t get enough of the stuff; you could douse some food in a bottle of ketchup and people would fish it out and eat it with a ketchup-splattering grin. Of course, tastes differ, so not everyone wants story saturating the game. Likewise, not every meal needs a lot of ketchup; putting ketchup on steak is a mortal sin where I grew up, likely to get you shunned by your peers. Similarly, Tetris doesn’t need a deep story to explain why the pieces or and to give you motivation for making lines. I definitely agree with Danc in that not every game must have story, just as every game doesn’t have to have 3D graphics, or have to have any of the other things we put as marketing bullet points on the back of the box.
God of Stories
Let me say that I can’t blame either of these fine game designers for their conclusions. If you look at what has been out there, you will see a lot of things that support the conclusions they’ve made.
Let’s take one of the most recent examples, God of War. This game focused considerable amount of time and effort in telling a quality story in the game. This game even does a much better job that most other games: You don’t feel like you’re watching a movie punctuated by very poorly choreographed fights. In fact, some of the story bits are put right into the gameplay itself. Yet, it still fell a bit short, not to mention it wasn’t a commercial success by most standards. (Although, it was enough of a critical success to get a sequel.)
What went wrong? Well, the first problem is that the story is inflexible. What if I don’t want to be an anti-social tattooed freak with a soft spot for women? Too fucking bad, that’s the role that was picked out for you. What if I want to avoid this very blatant trap? Nope, no good. The script calls for you to walk into the trap like a dumbass, so that’s what you’re going to do. What if I feel that it’s more appropriate for the “hero” to slip into Hades and suffer eternal punishment for his sins? Nope, sorry, that’s not what the game rewards. You’ll get a continue screen and told to keep fighting. It’s how the script was written!
So, yes, you see Tadhg’s complaint right here: the rigid story conflicts with the more fluid nature of an interactive game. One has to win out, and it’s the rigid story structure. Unfortunately, this means that some of your actions are immutable, something that is antithetical to a truly interactive game. But, this does not mean it’s the only possible outcome when you focus on story.
Now, before you think I hated God of War, let me admit that it did do something very right: the story was very good. If it has been a movie, I would have been entertained. This is a great change from the stereotypical, “You are a boy from a humble village and now you will save the world!” type stories you get in other games. I think the developers did a great job establishing the characters and making the whole thing very entertaining. But, the game was limited by the story and did not allow players to do things that would harm the story.
Telling the story right
So, now that I’ve criticized two people that have worked in the industry longer than I have and/or that have worked on bigger games than I have, what is the right way to handle story?
I think Lee Sheldon has said it best: you can’t simply discard to old ways, but you can’t be bound by them either. You have learn from the old ways of storytelling and then go beyond them.
So, what does this mean in practical terms? Well, we shouldn’t just discard centuries of development in the area of storytelling. There are some important lessons about structure, pacing, and content that people have come to expect. Trying to throw out all the rules means you’re going to tell a poor story, and this will just frustrate your player. A crappy story with great gameplay does not make a great game. Likewise, you can’t slavishly follow the rules of other media. Trying to put a rigid story structure into a game will just create a story that falls apart or a game that is too constrained by the story, and this also results in an unfun game. I think these outcomes are what Tadhg has seen in the past and he has come to the conclusion that these are the only possible outcomes.
The baby steps are to do what Danc alluded to in his blog entry: keep story as a small part of the whole. Add in story where it can enhance the central game, but don’t let gameplay become a slave to storytelling. Resist those urges brought in from other media to tell a brilliant story to try to win an award your game will never qualify for.
Moving forward, let storytelling evolve in games. Taking a look at games, the biggest difference between it and other media is interactivity. Any time other media have tried to slap a bit of “interactivity” in, it has failed miserably. Look at the history of “interactive” movies, “interactive” television, or those appalling FMV atrocities that were called games but were really just heavily cut up movies. I think it’s self-evident that you can’t just slam interactivity and storytelling together and expect a good combination out of the result.
I think the best way in the near term to handle interactivity and storytelling is to focus the story in the one place it matters: in the mind of the player. In this age of focus on photorealistic 3D graphics, motion captured animation data, and orchestrated music scores, we tend to forget that the most expressive canvas is the player’s mind. We have impressed people with spectacle, giving everything in literal format. I think storytelling was a bit easier in the days of yore when you didn’t have to worry about high production values. Many old-timers still get a shiver when you mention dark areas and grues, even if the grues weren’t rendered in loving 3D with all the latest buzzwords. In fact, I think the grues are particularly scary because it was left up to the individual to define what a “grue” was, and most people assumed the worst. Other media have similar techniques (it’s called “blood in the gutters” in comic books) for telling the story without making everything explicit on the page (or on the screen).
What happens here? When you aren’t explicit about everything, the player’s mind starts filling in details. Just as in the comic book when one panel is the axe coming down for the swing and the next panel is a cityscape with a scream coming from nowhere, your mind fills in the most gruesome details that would be difficult (if not illegal depending on the year) to show on the page. This ties back to the concept of the “personal story” I mentioned above. Guess what those details that the players are filling in? Yep, that’s their personal story. That’s the bit about how they reacted to the perceived actions presented in the game. That’s what they bore their spouses with after the game is done. That’s what gets their fellow gameplayers excited about the game and wanting to try it out themselves.
I think this is one area where online RPGs are ahead of the pack. We can’t have a completely structured game since we have so many people interacting in unpredictable ways. It’s hard to get people “in the zone” of willing suspension of disbelief, so we put bits of story into the game and let people discover them and piece them together as they wish. We also give them opportunities to form their own stories within the context of the game: the exciting tale about how you were jumped by a monster while fighting another monster comes from having a very dynamic environment. The epic tale of how your guild raided a dungeon and by working together as a team you defeated the boss mob is something you don’t find in any other games other than traditional paper RPGs. Few other media allow this sort of expressive opportunity, and this is something to be taken advantage of. Unfortunately, these strides forward in online RPGs were borne out of necessity rather than from any cleverness on our part. ;)
Finally, I think designers that want to include story in their games need to learn how to tell stories. All too often we see stories in games that are nonsensical or just plain goofy, and not because the designer tried to cram a story into a game and they wouldn’t fit. Sometimes the story is just the work of an obvious novice. Learn how to tell a story in the traditional medias. Take up one of them as a hobby and really learn how to tell a good tale. Then, once you have gotten good at that years later, come back to games and look at it in a fresh perspective. Look at how you can better manage to include story as part of the game instead of making story dominate gameplay or simply bolting story onto a game. Trying to mimic another media without understanding the rules for storytelling will only result in really terrible stories.
What do you think? Are games and stories an impossible match? Or, do you agree with me that we may eventually get to the point where a game with a generous portion of story won’t completely suck as these two designers seem to think?