BLOG – Future Game Story
Interaction has become the broken nose of video games. Narrative storytelling the cosmetic surgery. This series of articles on game story argue that games need to borrow less and invent more.
I believe that there’s room for a discussion about game story, what it means, and what would make it more unique to the medium. Make it leverage the medium. I hope that the award-guzzling juggernauts of today will be the dinosaurs of tomorrow, so we can dig up their narrative bones and discuss their extinction.
There will always be room for interactive fiction, of course. There’s nothing wrong with you if you like a good story told in a compelling way. But the heart of every game should be real-time engagement. Something no other medium can provide!
I hope future video game awards are handed not to games that mimic Hollywood, but to games that take interaction and player experience seriously. I want to put the proverbial disk in its tray and be blown away. Immersed and entertained, but most of all surprised. I don’t want to play “yet another” of anything, ever again.
Just recently, the idea came to me to explain what I really mean when I say game stories suck, and after working on this idea for some time, I realised it’s not quite as simple as “game stories suck.” They do suck, but the reasons are hard to discuss, because most people can’t separate story from plot or narrative from exposition. So instead of just ranting and bashing people’s favourite games – a surefire way to put people on the defensive – I did some digging. At first, I asked a simple question.
What does game story mean?
What’s your favourite game story and why is it your favourite?
Another thing that came out of it was confusion. Answers threw around words like narrative, plot, and story quite recklessly, and many times, the subject matter of the game seemed more relevant to the experience of the game’s quality than the actual story that was told. In other words, someone who really likes high fantasy worlds or zombie survival tends to gravitate towards games in such worlds and remember their stories more fondly.
Additionally, people who liked playing a game remembered the story more fondly than it may have deserved. Even according to themselves. Or people could reminisce and admit that nostalgia was probably getting the better of them, because the best story they could remember was just that – a memory. Often from a game they played as kids.
None of this comes as any real shock, of course. It’s just very interesting that games have been around for some time by now, and there’s still nothing even close to a common jargon or even a consensus on a single word, like story. Unlike film or television, games are very poorly defined even by the people making them. Maybe even especially among the people making them.
In the end, trying to analyse what I heard as objectively as possible, I came up with two separate modes of storytelling in games that seem to dominate how video game storytelling is done today. Each mode has its own set of tools, and most game titles borrow tools from both modes. The biggest difference is where the focus lies.
Part I – Passive Observation
Because it’s so widely used, there are countless tools in the toolbox of story separation, or what’s often known as “cinematic gameplay.” The only thing in common between all these techniques is that they feed the story to the player, while the player can do nothing at all, or very little, to interact with the game. It’s mostly about the designers or writers telling a story to the player.
Because it forces the player to be passive, I call this mode of game storytelling passive observation. The player is forced to observe the game’s story with no influence on the outcome and the player’s avatar in the game is mostly a puppet to that storytelling.
In Part I, I’ll deal with the techniques used in passive observation games, some of which most games rely on today.
Part II – Interactive Observation
What separates this mode from passive observation is that the experience remains largely interactive. Another element is that not all of the story has to be experienced during a single playthrough of the game. The player is often free to opt out or simply bypass bits of story.
In Part II, techniques used in interactive observation games are illustrated, and you can see how the basis for most interactive observation is mechanical and structural repetition.
Part III – Experiential Storytelling
Part III explores what can be learned from the two main modes and how they don’t cope all that well with interaction. It goes on to argue what elements that constitute stories in games and how games could be built to leverage those elements rather than work against them.
It concludes with a ten-point “manifesto” of guidelines to consider when you try to build an experiential story. These guidelines are the punchline of this lengthy rant and a reward for everyone who makes it through to the end!
PART I: PASSIVE OBSERVATION
The first article on future game story deals with narrative, what it really is and why it’s a poor match for interactive media. It’s a dissection of the way we use techniques from film in video games.
Screenplays are written in narrative form, because it closely resembles how scenes are shown to a viewer of the finished film. It makes lots of sense in lots of ways, not least of all to the structure of the production work.
Take a look at the following cult classic, as an illustration. If you don’t recognise it, you can stop reading and return to whichever planet you came from (especially if that planet is LV-426).
You can all confirm that the scene plays out exactly as written. It can do this because film is a linear medium. One frame comes after the other and can be planned, scouted, recorded, post-produced, packaged and sold, all off the pages of the screenplay. This is not to say that the screenplay doesn’t keep changing during filming, but process and product stay linear. The goal is always to reproduce the screenplay in moving pictures.
Films always use this structure, and they entertain us largely because of the narrative nature of their medium.
But many of the tricks used in films have evolved over the course of the last 100 years or so, and have served to make the narrative language of films innate to most of us. We know that a shot of a diner’s exterior followed by people having lunch means we’ve moved inside the diner, or that opposite-angle cuts of people talking is a conversation. We even know that hazy fog effects or sepia tones show distant memories or dreams, and we can discern which from context. We learn all these things by growing up with screen media.
In the same way, if two people have a long argument over whether to bring a gun to an encounter, and the argument is punctuated by one of the characters glancing at the gun locker before the next scene, we know that one of the characters took the gun no matter what. There’s no need for a dialogue line that explains this, because we can read facial expressions and body language. Such things we learn simply by being human.
Furthermore, the reason we yell for victims in the making to turn on the lights, or feel sad when a character’s love interest is killed. It’s all about empathy. We are observing the reactions of real people (the actors), applying our own context, and the result is that we can feel what the characters feel. We can understand what a scene conveys, and we can empathise. Or we laugh and mock the poor acting, if we don’t buy into the empathic message or don’t find it plausible enough.
Screen media also employs tropes that everyone can recognise. The brat, the playboy, the femme fatale, the outcast, the nerd; or spatial tropes, like the suburb, the ranch or even the family sedan. No matter which particular trope that’s used, or how muddled it gets with the rest of the presentation, it’s used for the sake of piggy-backing our expectations and explaining context with a minimum of exposition. Just like glances at gun cupboards, this is all for the sake of empowering the aforementioned empathy and ensuring that the message is picked up by a wider audience.
Of course, the tropes can change down the road, with added depth or even a complete reversal of character as a dramatic plot twist. But techniques for establishing character is something that Hollywood has developed almost to perfection through the years.
These are all simplified examples of why film works best showing and not telling. This is opposed to written fiction, or even the screenplay itself, where everything has to be told directly and in sequence. But all of them use narration out of form.
The point here is that the techniques used to narrate in linear media are empowered by the media. Some of the techniques are entirely cultural, which is why some Asian or Bollywood productions may seem alien to those among us who have consumed Hollywood products since before we could walk. But even with a different set of tropes, the techniques are still the same.
In game land, most story-heavy games use the same narrative techniques as linear media. In fact, many reviewers and gamers use the term narrative to describe a game’s plot. Not to mention that a lot of games are written in screenplay form and consequently enforce an artificial linearity even through production.
But the main difference between games and most other media is interactivity. Things happen when you push a button, swipe your finger or otherwise interact with the game. If you want to tell a linear story this means the player can mess things up by looking in the wrong direction, going to the wrong place, jumping up and down, etc. This makes it really hard to use subtle film techniques.
Because of this reluctance of the player to be a good listener, games that narrate must force the player to listen. The interaction itself becomes a problem, as the methods used haven’t been developed with interaction in mind.
For example, how do you make an establishing shot if the user is picking through the trash rather than looking at the diner sign, and how do you present an engaging conversation if the player is shooting a machine gun into a nearby wall while laughing hysterically?
To solve this, passive observation games employ a large subset of tools that disable interaction, partially or entirely. These tools are what make it possible to narrate.
In A Theory of Fun, Raph Koster refers to this as “frustrated director’s syndrome,” where the makers of the game are trying very hard to make a film and not a game. In marketing speak, this is usually sold as a cinematic experience.
But films are perfectly suited to linear storytelling. Games are not.
PASSIVE OBSERVATION TECHNIQUES
The following are examples of such techniques that you will most likely have come across many times.
Verbal or Written Directions
But when games try to do the same thing, using the same established methods, they must force the player to become a passive observer and can never meet expectations of interaction. It also never has the same effect, sometimes even for technical reasons or due to uncanny valley.
What’s even worse is that players will often treat the story and the game as two entirely separate experiences, arguably because one uses techniques we know from screen media and the other lets you press buttons.
PART II: INTERACTIVE OBSERVATION
The second article on future game story discusses storytelling as a gameplay extension, and how repetitive games become when the two try to mix.
In a puzzle game, we use the mechanics to solve riddles. In a strategy game, the repetition is mechanical but the goals are more long-term and often connected to effects that are emergent based on the interaction rather than consequences of the interaction directly. In the end, all of these examples are still extremely repetitive in the second-to-second interaction.
Repetition is good for psychological reasons. Our brains are wired in such a way that repetition improves our skills and fires our brain’s reward centers. If we can beat the tough challenges, it stimulates us.
Because of this, many games will reuse the same mechanics indefinitely and change the impression of the mechanics along the way, rather than changing or adding new mechanics. New effects, different visual representations, larger explosions, more weapons, and of course: telling new stories. The simpler the gameplay is, the more content can be pushed into the game. You’re still essentially pointing and clicking.
This is what many game developers do today. They build gameplay based on what games have done before – maybe adding some small thing along the way – and then focus most of their effort on narrative. Sometimes, this puts us back at Part I, enforcing passive observation. At other times, gameplay has the front row and the story is then there to find, but it’s up to the player to find it. The player might even miss parts of it, depending on how it’s played, but the start and end points are the only points that are defined. The illusion of choice makes it feel less forced.
This last case is interactive observation. The key element in interactive observation is interaction. But what defines this interaction, beyond repetition?
On the highest level, this is how dictionaries define video games:
This textbook definition is all fine. But people can easily throw in the DVD remote or even just the On/Off switch on a TV set here. A physical interaction that shows you a result on a screen. Granted, they won’t get many friends that way, but it’s a valid contradiction nonetheless.
So to expand the definition of a video game, we can refer to what Sid Meier said, which is probably one of the most widely quoted definitions of video games out there.
Now, in this form – which is the form you’ll most often come across in game design literature – it’s still not much better than before. It can be an interesting choice to press Skip whenever you see Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. That doesn’t really make it a game, because the experience is defined – you’re just choosing to ignore parts of it.
Instead, there’s a wider perspective you can add to this, explained by Andrew Rollings and Dave Morris in their book, Game Architecture and Design:
In an interesting choice:
These three caveats make all the difference.
In game theory, people sometimes talk about dominant strategies, meaning a strategy that’s always superior to all others. Can’t have those, or Sid Meier’s concept of an interesting choice is immediately gone as the dominant strategy would always be picked. You also can’t keep information away from the player in such a way that the game becomes arbitrary and that there’s no way of knowing what difference a choice makes. For example, if you choose the good or the evil branch in a dialogue, you rarely know what the outcome will be until after you see it.
Sid Meier’s definition paired with its wider explanation is what best suits my own image of video games. It also helps get the point across, because it’s almost impossible for the three caveats to coexist with a predefined narrative. If you’re a passive observer, there is very little room for any choices at all. Interesting or otherwise.
To illustrate interactive observation, let’s think of an aquarium for a second. The player is a fish and somewhere in that space there’s a skull and a treasure chest.
The fish can swim anywhere, but will eventually end up at the skull or treasure chest and can never go outside the boundaries of the glass. The story of the skull or the treasure chest will always be the same, just not always in the same order. Those are the things the player is observing. The interaction is then included at every turn in this fiction. The fish will have to avoid sharks, fight against evil sea horses, and visit the peg-legged swordfish to barter for upgraded squarepants.
Whether there’s one or many elements of interaction isn’t important, what’s important is that the focus is not on the story but on what the player is doing in-between rounds of storytelling and that the latter is brought into the mix as a result of player activity. When the player goes to the treasure chest, it’ll feel like a choice and not like someone telling the player to go there.
If you’re playing an open-world game, you can typically explore the world’s bubbles of content the way you see fit. To stroll into a hidden dungeon deep in the woods, or to kill a random stranger for bumping into your car. These things have dynamic consequences in the simulation. The dungeon might be filled with angry wolves once you get there, or your intended victim a gang member that pulls a gun on you or even steals your car. At these times, the experience remains active all the time and you have to deal with the situations with none of the passive tools there to force your hand.
Stealth games often fall into this category as well, as do many puzzle games. In a stealth game, the stage is set and the consequences for raising the alarm are known. How you handle the situation is then up to you. In a puzzle game, the stage is also set, and there is an outcome you must reach in order to solve the puzzle. But how you reach that outcome is up to you.
Later, when you launch a dialogue tree, jump into cutscene, finish the level or solve the puzzle, you’re often thrown back into narration land and you become the observer once more.
INTERACTIVE OBSERVATION TECHNIQUES
The popularity of sandbox games and more open-ended game titles shows that people want to play and they want to experiment. Few of the videos shared by fans ever show story segments, but rather bugs, exploits, emergent effects and easter eggs.
This is not a good mode for meaningful storytelling, however, as it remains firmly grounded in repetition and often requires passive observation techniques to provide any context at all. There’s much more game in an interactive observation game, but the experience of playing the game is still not part of the story.
PART III: EXPERIENTIAL STORY
The last article on future game story talks about ‘story’ as the player’s own unique experience of playing the game. This. Is. Future Game Story!
As a generalization, passive observation games are mostly about the story and interactive observation games are mostly about the gameplay.
But what if games were entirely based on participation? What if, when you played a game, what happened only did so as consequences of your actions as a player, and the only narrative there was would be the one you could retell after playing? The story would be experiential, because it’s unique to your experience and it’s not scripted or directed but entirely based on your interaction with the game. How this could look like is what we’ll discuss in this concluding part of the series.
First, let’s look at the problems we face today. Some of the ways that games are based more on observation than on participation.
Imagine a caricature scene from any military video game ever made.
The point here is that the majority of play time is spent shooting, aiming, crouching and strafing. Most notable out of all these events are the checkpoint reload, throwing a hand grenade and kicking a door open. Those are the only things that break away from the repetition.
Except the narration and direction.
This is why narrative storytelling is used in games in the first place. Games are often so repetitive on their own that the narration is needed to provide context. We don’t question it, because without it we’d have only the repetition.
It’s not always this obvious, of course. Military shooters are easy targets for this kind of argument. But the problem is that games that are based entirely on repetitive mechanics often become really hard to have relevant stories in, and vice versa for games that focus too much on story. This polarity of story versus gameplay is really hurting our products, but remains inherent to the way we build our games. Shooting and bashing things in the head isn’t material for meaningful discourse. In essence, our interaction is too repetitive and our stories are too linear.
In their 2008 GDC postmortem on Portal, Kim Swift and Erik Wolpaw talked about how story and gameplay were integral to the overall presentation of their game. “By itself, the story wouldn’t make much of a novel,” they said; and, “The gameplay on its own would be dry.”
As you hopefully agree, the full impression of the game is definitely not dry, and GLaDOS has entered many hearts as one of the best written characters in video game history. Which brings us to the real punchline of their talk. “The tight integration of our story and gameplay resonated with people.”
It was the combination of story and gameplay – not either – that made Portal. It was the sum total. A notion that story and gameplay are connected and not two entirely separate things. Something that Amnesia-makers Frictional Games seem to agree on.
In an experiential game, story and gameplay aren’t two things – there’s just the game, and the experience of playing it. This is the very foundation: as you play the game, the experience you have is also the story. I won’t argue whether Portal or Amnesia: The Dark Descent achieves this or not, but the points that Wolpaw, Swift and Grip are making is still extremely valid for the purpose of this discussion.
But it’s not only about what you’re doing in the game. A large part of how a game is experienced is derived from the on-screen presentation and the values and morals that it comes with. Every little detail is important for cementing how the player feels while playing.
In a typical shooter, the player’s main means of interaction is the weapon. The designers give you a gun from the first moment, and then push you straight into the heat of battle. In the immediate presentation, there’s no doubt that you’ll have to shoot, and shoot to kill. Combat actions may even be your only means to interact with the game world at all.
On the other hand, a stealth game emphasizes your ability to avoid confrontations. Hiding behind crates or sneaking through the dark, the landscape changes dramatically based entirely on the smallest of details. Even adding the option to holster your weapon provides room for new situations and experiences as compared to the typical first-person shooter.
But it’s not just the player’s alter ego that needs to be thought through. The setting and environment of the game also requires Shandification, allowing players to “cheerfully surrender to every distraction [they] come across.” This is what makes the story experiential. Having it cope with the whims of an experimentally aligned player.
For example, the terrible consequences of being killed paired with the uncertainties of human interaction has made DayZ an experience unlike most other. When my own character was shot and killed as I tried to run away from a group of malevolent players that was one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had in a game. No script, no direction. Just dynamic interaction between players, in a very harsh world of desperate survival.
Similarly, a game like Minecraft, with few inherent goals and no story at all, has attracted a massive following thanks to its open nature and positive outlook on experimentation. Without goals, people invent goals. Without narrative, people find their own stories to tell. A point that Austin Grossman made in an article on game writing:
Not forcing a story is a massive strength for these games. You can trust the collective creativity of millions to innovate on a level that a small team of developers can never accomplish. They’ll make the bugs features, and they’ll invent meaning and significance where none was intended.
But this is not to say that experiential storytelling implies scale. A small limited scenario like a bank robbery (from either end), or a Mexican Standoff, can both provide unique experiences. The goal isn’t necessarily to provide hundreds of hours of game time, it’s to let the player experience something different through nothing but the interaction itself.
Getting pursued by Slenderman in Slender is an experiential story, same as the exploration and player interactions in DayZ. One is a small indie game, the other an expansive open world.
Additionally, experiential storytelling doesn’t require multiplayer. Lucas Pope’s excellent Papers, Please is a dystopian thriller putting you in a border control booth. Your choices in this booth shape your experience in profound ways, making the story of your playthrough derived from whether you comply with authority or risk terrible consequences by doing what’s “right.” But it refrains from having an opinion. It just puts you in those shoes and lets you deal with it.
In some ways, Papers, Please shows how games are an embodiment of the death of the author. Once the game reaches a player, the player’s experience is all that counts. What could easily have been an innocent plot line becomes a trope against women. Murdering innocents a rewarded achievement and an atrocity at the same time. Gay love at once equality and offense. The value of a game is all about the individual experience of playing the game, and this should be embraced. Games are simply not the media for telling stories, and they never will be.
Whether you’re approving an immigrant’s papers in Papers, Please or hiding from malevolent griefers in DayZ doesn’t matter – in both cases, you have to decide for yourself based on your own notions of risk, reward, and entertainment.
To sum things up, an experiential story starts at the controller and then has to permeate every single aspect of the game. From the immediate presentation (are you holding a gun?) to the ability to form your own opinions and make your own choices (should I report this refugee?). But also to have to take the consequences of those choices.
THE EXPERIENTIAL GAME STORY MANIFESTO
If players discover new ways of playing, see what you can do to make those ways more interesting – don’t block them off because they don’t comply with your masterplan.
The following is a set of guidelines for making experiential stories in games. Once you got that prototype in your hands, think about how to expand on it using these guidelines. Use them to slap your wrist whenever you fumble back into narration territory.
The central concepts are consistency and consequences. Let the players learn how to play with the tools you give them, then let them deal with the consequences of what they choose to do.
The Experiential Game Story Manifesto
Same as you’d rarely call a film theatrical, calling a game “cinematic” should feel awkward and unnatural. Games should let players experience things and come back with their own stories to tell.
What it really comes down to is this: to let the player experience her own story, you must abandon the idea of telling one.