Hot on the heels of my post about player characters actually being dolls, I came across a video (via Rock Paper Shotgun) from Game Theory with Scott Steinberg in which he asked about interactive fiction and storytelling in games. Have a look:
This is the marketing story of games and storytelling that developers have told for decades. It’s an aspirational story, but look beyond the highlights to the substance underneath and it doesn’t really stack up.
Many of the struggles that game writers face today have not changed since the early days. Inherent contradictions prevent game storytelling from becoming more than it is, and I’d argue that it has reached the limits of technique. In 30 years of gamemaking there have never been, and likely never will be, any good game stories.
And yet, budding game writers, do not lose hope. Your contribution is more important than ever. Allow me to paint a new picture of your future for you:
Dramaturgy (What Stories Are)
It all starts with the difference between linearity and interactivity. In order for game storytelling to theoretically function, the two need to seem to have some sort of relationship. The theory goes, therefore, that a story is a line of events that happen one after another, whereas a game is a tree, with many branches and choices. Pictorially it might look something like this:
The implication is that the interactive story has the potential to be a much richer experience than the linear one, and that is a powerful idea. The problem is that the metaphor is inaccurate. A more accurate image is this:
While both linear and interactive stories could be said to be object based (as Chris Crawford believes with his Storytron project), what makes a story a story is not the bricks. It’s the arrangement of those bricks into a specific structure which conveys more than the sum of its parts.
Story, as screenwriter William Goldman said, is structure. The basic unit of that structure is the dramatic arc. Stories are usually told in a straightforward A-to-Z fashion, so the dramatic arc is commonly the same as the chronological series of events. In more sophisticated stories, however, we often see chronology that jump back and forth. And yet the structure of the dramatic arc is largely unchanged.
A tale like The Usual Suspects conforms to the dramatic arc just as much as a Sherlock Holmes story, and even an apparently-backwards story like Memento is still a dramatic arc moving forward. The arc provides a framework of plot into which character development, inevitability and the unfolding of the story can happen.
Some stories have more than one arc. A television series like The Shield has many characters engaged in their own arcs. Some are episode-length, others season-length, and arguably one or two last for the entire life of the show. The masterful aspect of storytelling on this scale is the way that arcs are weaved in and out from one another, connected and resolved in unison, and the structure magnifies impact.
The other essential aspect of an impactful story is the inevitable outcome. The audience is powerless, either turning the pages of a book or sitting quietly in a darkened room and watching events unfold on stage or screen. They have empathy for the characters, and want to see to them succeed, but at the same time there is nothing that the audience can do to prevent their fate. This restriction is essential. The audience gives itself to the storyteller, and in exchange he gives them something arresting and impactful with which they can empathise, but not control.
Storysensing Beats Storytelling
It’s essential that control is in the hands of the player. Play is taking action, overcoming obstacles, creating, learning and other activities. In video games it operates via remote control of on-screen dolls, allows us to project into a world and discover it. But it also brings the player’s personality along with it.
Where in a dramatic arc the viewer is watching and empathising with the on-screen heroes and villains, in a game the player does not become that hero. A hero needs context, to be as much a part of the story as the story is a challenge for him to overcome, but players bring their own context. Controlling a doll is like driving a car in that it is simply an extension of the player through a controller, not an actor taking on a role.
Lacking the tools to create an arc, or a central hero to hang that arc from, the game story always ends up as something crude. It lacks pace, any sense of subtlety, needs to take control away from the player to turn his doll into a character for cut-scenes, and ends up trying to telegraph emotions at the player in order to make him feel.
Where story-like elements work really well in games, however, is when they focus on delivering a sense of a story rather than actually telling one. Games like Mass Effect, Max Payne, Grand Theft Auto, Final Fantasy, God of War, Uncharted 2 and so on create a sense of a world in motion. While the doll is at the player’s command, the rest of the world most certainly is not, and in setting challenges for the player to overcome and actions that they can extend, what comes across is the sensation of participation.
Storysensing is not storytelling. In a dramatic arc, the structure, pace and timing matter a great deal for delivering impact, but storysensing is better when focused on enhancing the portrait of the game world. Unlike storytelling, storysensing does not need to be dramatic. It can afford to be loose around the edges as long as those edges are not too apparent to the point that the player is seeing the frame.
Left 4 Dead creates a zombie-infested world and places guns in the player’s hand. Through a combination of co-operative dependent loops, and a game dynamic that deliberately paces out the encounters and objects, the game conveys a world in motion. Add a layer of snappy character dialogue and numina such as posters on walls and other touches, and Left 4 Dead draws the player into its world so completely that he wants to play it again and again.
Storysensing is best when deft rather than deep. Roleplaying and adventure games have tried for decades to use mechanisms like branching dialogue to storytell to the player, but in practise these mechanisms are heavy handed. Mass Effect in particular is an example of a game whose rush to storytell is so replete with redundant detail and branched dialogue that it just becomes tedious. It actively works against the sense of story because it reminds players too often that they are watching a mechanical game system simply go through motions.
What Game Writing Does Well
Writing for games is completely different from writing for stories. Its function is not to drive a narrative forward, but to support the sense of story. Language contributes to whether a game transcends the screen and engages with players on a more human level. But a game writer is not a storyteller. He’s a painter.
Writing serves three functions in games:
1. Establishing character
A game character is a potent weapon in the portraiture of a world. Through the use of characters like Roman, Brucie and many others Liberty City feels more like a world in motion than a bunch of city geometry and cop simulators. Each character is different, seems to add something momentarily funny or insightful to the portrait, and then passes out of view again.
Establishing character is not the same thing as character development. Character development in a dramatic arc is a long and complex process, but in a game it’s completely at odds with what a world needs to achieve. The art of establishing characters is conveying an impression of who they are in totality, because they are just a part of a portrait.
Poorly established or overly-developed characters are examples of bad game writing. Half Life 2 repeatedly insists on taking long pauses to hear what Alyx Vance has to say and feel, and those sections are simply awful. While the intention of the writing is to bring depth to the game, what actually happens is that the game forces the player to listen to what amounts to cheap exposition.
Many games make this mistake. Red Dead Redemption is a recent example of a game that gets so wrapped up in exposition on life in the Old West that it becomes dull. A game character needs to be established with a light touch, so that it’s the player’s choice to like or loathe at their own pace. Take that away, or foist exposition on the player, and intended feelings of sympathy quickly turn to antipathy or boredom.
The other mistake that bad game writing makes is in trying to establish the player’s doll. While it can work to turn the doll into a character temporarily (especially at the start of the game), it doesn’t really work when the player is actually controlling the doll. God of War manages to establish Kratos using a few arresting cut scenes, and the Max Payne games use comic sequences to establish Max. After that, establishment is pushed to one side. Compare this to Halo 3 where the game stops player for ham-fisted brain-woozing moments from Cortana, and the difference is clear.
The worst examples of establishment are when games talk at the player and try to make him feel. Whether trapped in a room with a game character talking to camera, a belaboured cut-scene sequence, or pointless segments of enforced branched dialogue, talking at the player to induce him to feel is just bad writing.
2. Contributing to Numina
The Cake is a Lie.
This graffiti in Portal immediately confirms the player’s suspicion that GlaDOS is not to be trusted. Five simple words, on the periphery of the game for the player to notice or not, and suddenly the game has shifted gear.
In Max Payne 2, the player discovers a voicemail machine, activates it and hears the sound of Max’s own voice talking to a phone-sex line just because he’s lonely. In Deus Ex, while running around in the sewers on a mission, there are several homeless people that have caught the plague and each has a vignette to impart that adds colour to the scene.
These are examples of language-led numina. Advertisers know that little segments of words, snippets and slogans can manage to capture whole emotions immediately. In a sense the writing of numina is the same. Words are an active part of painting out the canvass, but the reason why they work is that they are player-driven.
Discovering numina is a reward in and of itself because it shows that there is more to the game than just actions. They make the world feel alive and establish a voice for the game. Voice appeals to the artistic, non-rational part of the mind and gives a sense of humanity and creation behind the game.
3. Task Assignment (Shuffling the Deck)
An important part of establishing game dynamics, and setting up new and interesting tasks, is to establish that the game world changes. It is in motion rather than just being one static thing, and (like a game of cards, hence the shuffling metaphor) this means that the different elements, characters and challenges in play will change.
Game writing often has a role in setting up missions and changing levels. It can function partially as reward, or simply instructional text. Most commonly this activity actually happens between segments because that is the simplest to implement. However it can also work within segments if handled right. Handled wrong and it can lead to things like annoying buddy sections in the game where the player has to tail around after a character.
Alternatively game writing can take too long to get to task assignment, or it can make the mistake of making the task unclear. Point and click adventures were frequently maddening for being too cryptic, for example, so that the game writing was usually more of a hindrance than a help.
The Delivery of Writing
Writing in games is not all cinematic cut scenes. In many cases, it is seemingly incidental items, but each are still writing nonetheless. They all add to the sense of story. Here are some of the most common ways that writing is delivered:
1. The Cut Scene
Used for trailers and big moments in games, cut scenes are best used infrequently and only for short powerful punches. The best cut scenes are visually arresting, interesting and snappy. Some games go to town with cut-scenes, and they really are some of the worst game writing that you will ever encounter.
Other games keep them short, but use far too many. Roleplaying games commonly place the doll into character mode for every single interaction with another another. Endless snips of dialogue and branched conversations issue forth, so many so that they become expositional and repetitive. Wooden acting by procedurally animated characters in these kinds of scenes does nothing to induce story sense.
A scroll is an artistic reward of game text that you can find in the world which adds back-story. A simple example is in World of Goo, where the world is populated with signs that you can click on. Open them up, and a panel displays some funny text about the level or the game world.
Scrolls are fun, but they need to be paced appropriately. A scroll found in the middle of a fire fight has no time to be funny, while a long and rambling scroll containing no character or insight is just a missed opportunity.
3. User Interface
Visually and linguistically, interfaces add to the subtle awareness of a game world. A famous example of this is the user interface in Starcraft, in which the choice of playing race also changes the interface colours and voices. As you select troops, issue orders and otherwise interact with the game, this subtle reinforcement continues throughout.
User interface can also be more elaborate. Mass Effect maintains a whole library of game information which details all of the races, technologies and history of the galaxy in its user interface. It all creates a tapestry that the player can explore at her leisure and is entirely writing-driven.
4. Alongside Dialogue
Uncharted 2 makes heavy use of alongside dialogue. As Nathan Drake and his friends negotiate the game levels, they have snappy one liners, observations and even just simple alerts like ‘Watch out’.
Alongside dialogue works best when the player doesn’t really have to pay attention to it. Red Dead Redemption make the mistake of tying a lot of character exposition into horse-riding sequences, making them both hard to hear and distracting. Other games make the mistake of having alongside dialogue become repetitive. Fable frequently featured the voice of the player’s sagely mentor advising him to attack in certain ways to increase combat multipliers. Once or twice this is fine, but hearing it 100 times over the course of the whole game is intensely annoying.
Finally, incidentals are elements like radio stations, televisions in the background or passer-by characters making a quick remark about the state of the doll’s clothes. Incidentals activate as the player walks around the world without any action from the player himself. They are completely unconnected to anything that the player has to do, don’t need to be discovered, and just randomly happen.
As with alongside dialogue, they can add a lot of colour to a game but also risk invoking antipathy if they are repetitive. Incidentals should also avoid being used for gameplay-relevant information because the player may not notice them.
After 30 years of trying, with hundreds of books and white papers having been written on the subject, and the same marketing story saying the same thing about getting better at storytelling continuing to do the same rounds, I think it’s fair to say that games as a storytelling medium doesn’t really hang together.
Considered as a world in motion, like a painting with a sense of story but with a deliberately light touch, yields a better framework for understanding. It is not the case that writing has no place in games. Very far from it in fact, but its place is a portrait-filling rather than a storytelling one.
Videogames are not, in turns out, a storytelling art. They have tried very hard to be, and their reasons for trying are noble, but the results are always ham-fisted. There are no good game stories because game stories don’t really matter. What matters is the game world, in all of its glorious detail.
In writing my book, I mean to break you out of your old mode of thinking that games and stories must converge, because I think that’s a fight that you will always lose. When we learn to describe our own art in our own way and realise what actually does work, then we will finally move forward.