Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

28 May, 2007

Weekend Design Challenge: Storytelling
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 12:58 AM

I just had an interesting discussion with a friend of mine about storytelling in games. He’s looking to become a screenwriter, but he’s an avid gamer as well. He pointed out that there were only a few things necessary to really improve the quality of stories in games. I agree with him, and figured it would be good to tap into the collective brainpower of my readers to think a bit more about story.

A summary of our conversation and my thoughts after the jump.

This is related to a previous challenge I had, but this has a slightly different focus.

My friend said that there are two things that games really need to do in order to improve upon story. The first is good characterization, and the second is that every scene needs a character-based conflict.

We talked about how cutscenes are used in games, and I pointed out that cutscenes were really just game developers trying to copy techniques from linear media. The biggest problem with stories in games is the interactivity: if you can’t control things like the pacing or even what the characters are doing, it’s harder to tell a story. Cutscenes remedy this in one way: by taking away control and allowing the game developer to tell a traditional, linear story.

The other big issue I brought up is that story doesn’t really sell games. A game might be appreciated for it’s story, but that’s part of a larger whole. If you were to improve the story of a game like Gears of War, would it really sell more units? Is the cost increase justified? For most publishers, the answer is “no”.

So, why don’t we see better stories in games? Do stories improve the games? What are your thoughts?

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  1. First, I’ll just state the obvious and get it out of the way: the importance of the story depends on the specifics of the game. Tetris doesn’t need a story. Hero’s Tale Online 2007 2008… probably a different, er, story.

    For my own favorite style of game, the RPG, I do think a story is important. My personal definition of the genre is, after all, “interactive storytelling”. However, that doesn’t translate very well to the computer-administered realm. A big part of making it work in PnP is listening to what the players are saying and putting pieces in place to let them go the direction they want to go. Computers just aren’t very good at that on their own, and trying to code for it is an express ticket to a padded cell…

    I suspect we don’t see better stories in games because of the sheer amount of work it requires to create an interactive story in the visual medium. To use the example from the previous challenge: creating the destroyed, burning village scene is a whole second set of models and resources… that might never get used.

    And there is also the question of what that event does to the flow of the rest of the game? Was an important contact based in that town? Was that town supposed to allow the player’s group to quickly re-supply between a difficult set of future encounters? The number of different story-paths that needs to be accomodated up front becomes very hefty, very quickly. It can be done, of course, but it’s a _lot_ of work… and it all needs to be done before the first box hits the shelves for sale.

    My two cents…

    Comment by Craig Huber — 28 May, 2007 @ 5:16 AM

  2. I think it largely depends on your player. I love games that I can really get into and appreciate for the story-telling. I’ll even suffer through bad mechanics or dated graphics if the game is good enough. Example: I’m playing through Planescape Torment for the first time (over the last few weekends). Given that the game is years and years old, everything about the game is tedious and outdated (downright painful, in fact) except for the story and the role-playing– but that’s what the game is known and loved for. That hasn’t aged at all.

    This is also why a company like Spidersoft can stay in business and why RPGs from dead console systems sell for many times as much money on the secondary market as platformers or sports games from the same era.

    So I think stories only significantly improve the games when stories are the *point* of the game. Otherwise, yes, they feel tacked-on and extraneous. I’m not sure that this *needs* fixing or should be. Aren’t the point of many games to be just games?

    Comment by Cameron Sorden — 28 May, 2007 @ 12:02 PM

  3. Player input, not the narrative that input may reveal, is the gameplay and the true story. As a gamer, I’ve always perceived cutscenes as a break from the actual game, no matter how compelling they are. The moment you give a player even limited control of a character, no matter how depthfully that character is fleshed out by the setting, that character’s identity is defined in part by the player; and forcing that character to act in a way contrary to the player’s will is a violation of the character’s identity.

    One avenue of integrating narrative into gameplay is the Deus Ex way: anticipating possible player decisions and accomodating those free choices by inventing multiple story tracks. Though I would say the unexplored tracks are not entirely wasted when the game is over, the cost of making more than just a few possible story tracks seems hard to justify unless the game is replayable enough that the players might explore those tracks in a later experience.

    Even so, it would be easy to overlook the potential story desires of many players. Even if you’ve provided the player with more freedom, by offering three potential choices instead of one, the player might still be less satisfied with those three choices than with one. When a game offers the player no freedom in the direction of progression, the player’s expectations do not include that freedom. If you offer the player a little freedom, he is likely to view the choices offered more critically and think of the choices he wishes he had. Being forced into choosing one of three undesirable options can irritate a player more than having no choice at all.

    Another avenue is to steer the player through world-bound reinforcements and sanctions, rather than absolute barriers. Ex: “You can do that; but if you do, you’ll lose these friends and resources.”

    Generally, I think it’s a mistake for game developers to attempt to fix particular and immutable stories into games when those stories involve the player’s character. It makes more sense to steer the player towards settings where they are likely (but not absolutely forced – as by a cutscene) to witness the actions of other characters, and to place the player-character in situations in which he or she must make character-defining choices. If the PC then interacts with NPCs who faced the same choices, the player may thereby be encouraged to view his or her own actions in a particular way.

    Think of it as “soft” storytelling. Rather than forcing the player down a particular road and telling the player how his character feels about all that has happened, use the gameworld to communicate perspectives and discourage the player from uninteresting and/or uncontrolled avenues. Traditional storytelling should not be applied to player-character development, only to peripheral characters.

    Comment by Aaron — 28 May, 2007 @ 12:29 PM

  4. In the MMORPG sense you can’t tell direct stories about player characters, but you still have plenty of room to tell the stories of NPCs and allow players to interact with them.

    For example, a quest to rescue the noble’s daughter from the evil bandits. Sure, you can skimp on story here and say “the key has a 5% chance to drop from A_Bandit_Leader in the bandit hideout”, or you can start the player off with investigating the daughter’s disappearance, then finding the ransom note, then having to try to find clues to where the bandits are, and then the daring rescue mission. You can add in all sorts of detail before, during, and after, so that the storyline of the quest actually raises more questions than it answers. Why did the bandit leader have a list of a few specific noblemen? What was with the wierd idol in the bandit hideout? Why do all the crates of goods in the bandit hideout have the crest of a neighboring city on them?

    Do it right and it really enhances the experience for players – it’s a lot more fun to do a storyline quest than it is to be told to go “kill 12 bandits, get the key, and then open the door to her cell so she can escape”.

    Will it sell more subscriptions? Probably not. But it will help retention if you can back it up with really interesting lore.

    Single-player is easier, at least in part because you don’t actually have to do cut scenes unless you really want to. You can build a very powerful storyline into a game and still make it feel free-form to a degree – the catch again is that the storyline needs to be a backdrop rather than one where the character is a direct protagonist (at least, not until right up at the end when the character saves the world/galaxy/princess/whatever). The concept is that while you’re playing the game, there’s these events going on around you, and eventually you get brought into them more and more.

    Comment by Talaen — 29 May, 2007 @ 7:55 AM

  5. Can stories improve games? Undoubtedly. Bioware games like Baldur’s Gate II and KotOR prove that story-based games can not only be great because of their stories but also be financially lucrative to boot. Other companies have done great stuff with story-based games as well. Deus Ex, Starcraft, Halflife and Psychonauts are three games with outstanding stories.

    Why don’t we see better story in games? Because the very nature of gameplay is one of interactivity, and it can be extremely difficult and costly to balance that interactivity with the need to keep things on ‘the rails’ enough for the story to be lucid. In all of the cases above except Starcraft, the entire design required a commitment to story for just that reason.

    Why don’t we see better story in MMOs? Because it’s a couple of order of magnitude more difficult and expensive than in single player games. Consider how ‘quick and dirty’ a standard WoW quest feels – no dialogue, rarely any animations on the NPC, no VO most of the time. Now consider that WoW is one of the most expensive games ever made, and even with a dev time of two years, the Burning Crusade shipped with some quest lines unfinished until the most recent patch.

    A couple reasons. First is the sheer amount of content that MMO players consume, all of which must be built, QAed and localized. Also, MMO quests must take into account the fact that it’s a multiplayer arena, and must be robust enough to, for example, deal with another player doing the quest ahead of you. Trust me when I say these are non-trivial issues, and require a serious level of commitment from management to take face on.

    All this being said, I’m seriously pro-story in MMOs. Somebody’s going to figure out how to solve these issues. I seriously think whoever that is is going to rule the MMO space when they do.

    Comment by Damion Schubert — 29 May, 2007 @ 12:29 PM

  6. For single-player you can also use the “chapter-driven” approach to stories. If the action of the game takes place in “chapters”, then you can allow the player to do basically whatever he wants in the game and the story doesn’t advance until he completes the requisite objectives to end the chapter. The chapters advancement also determines to an extent what areas are available to the player to explore and play in. KoToR, Oblivion, and a lot of other single-player RPGs and adventure games work this way.

    For MMOs I really think the best way to do it, apart from story-izing quests as much as you can, is to go for an overarching backplot that sort of suffuses the whole world. Players have only limited interaction with this storyline and can’t directly affect it (except, perhaps, at certain carefully planned pivotal events) but they all see it going on and feel the effects of it as time goes on. By doing this it’s possible to tell some really epic stories that enhance the game and help bring the world to life, assuming that you do it right.

    Prerequisites for doing this: A really good in-game scripting engine for setting up events, and a good set of content building tools so that you can have a fairly rapid content development cycle. This puts your content team in the position where they can respond fairly quickly to recent player activities and “strike while the iron is hot”, so to speak.

    Comment by Talaen — 29 May, 2007 @ 1:16 PM

  7. Until such time as we stop considering the “story” to be something separate and distinct from the “game” we’re going to have a very hard time telling better stories.

    Everything in the game must be considered an element of the story, from every game play loop to every item.

    Comment by Corvus — 30 May, 2007 @ 1:30 AM

  8. I just stumbled across some articles on game writing over at Ars Technica:

    Interesting bits. I don’t quite agree with all of it, particularly in the first article where it said, “[A writer] can look at everything from character design to building structure and figure out how it fits with the theme and message of the game.” Or the crack on the same page about a “dry design document.” These issues are actually the job of the lead designer, not the writer; if there is a problem here, it is not that you didn’t include a writer, but that the designer needs more practice or training. The final article, the interview with Susan O’Connor, does a bit to point this out.

    But, these articles do touch on some of the issues here. And, having professionals write part of the second article and interviewed in the third one seemed to make things a bit clearer. It touches on the problems of interactivity, as Damion points out above. Although I have to chuckle at the second article thinking that a console MMORPG would automatically do better. :)

    Some food for thought.

    Comment by Psychochild — 30 May, 2007 @ 4:28 AM

  9. Stories and characters are simply another way to generate emotions. People love games like Tetris but they talk about Final Fantasy, Planescape Torment and Grim Fandango with their friends. A good story is the way to make your game stand out from the crowd and generate word-of-mouth sales.

    To put it another way, the umpteenth quest of “Kill 12 Bandits” will excite Achievers and bore everyone to tears. I am not an anonymous hired mercenary drone here to do your menial tasks. I am a dashing young warrior headed for fame and fortune who may or may not decide to help a princess in distress along my journey. Convince me and I’ll make it worth your while.

    And more to the point, I’ll tell all my friends how much fun I had doing it.

    I thought that the story in Gears of War was very well done. The cutscenes weren’t so long that they held up the gameplay, The scripting did a great job of add humanity to your team-mates and it gave me a reason to run around all these ruins. Compare that to SiN Episodes which was a perfectly acceptable nice-looking FPS that just didn’t sell. Why not? “Poor man’s half-life 2″

    While explosions and virtual killing is fun, players actually enjoy engaging with NPCs like Alyx and Dog.

    Comment by Weefz — 30 May, 2007 @ 5:47 AM

  10. Susan O’Connor on Writing For Games

    [...][via Psychochild’s blog][...]

    Pingback by The Average Gamer — 30 May, 2007 @ 9:11 AM

  11. The story is what involves you in the game. Sure, you can beat the little blue guys a hundred times, and enjoy the fact that your superior strategy won. But it’s a lot more interesting to beat the Atreides with the evil Harkonnen, and cackle maniacally while you do it :)

    A side note on the Deus Ex issue: While multiple storylines certainly do create replayability, and I must have played through Deus Ex a dozen times, they also allow very different types of people to play through the game once, and all enjoy themselves equally. Which, as mentioned, generates word of mouth.

    Comment by Lobosolitario — 31 May, 2007 @ 2:10 PM

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