Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Not a story!

Patrick says:

"in any form of interactive entertainment you've got the system (rules) and resulting discourses (which can be remembered as stories)."

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Play a game.

As you learn how to shoot zombies, are you "telling yourself a story" or "remembering a story"? As you zoom through a race course, are you "discoursing"? No. You're using a much deeper part of your brain - one which doesn't use language or, in fact, linguistic idealization. It is simply, and deeply, about pattern analysis.

Can you make a game which is about telling stories? Sure - Baron Munchausen is such a game. Can you make a game which has unreliable rules? Sure - Lemma is such a game.

But there is a fundamental difference between experiencing a story - even an interactive one - and experiencing a game. The story starts and stays idealized and rule-less. More accurately, the rules are a mish-mash of whatever rules the author(s) have in their brains, and fade in and out as mood demands. It is not about manipulating a pattern using rules so much as manipulating a tide of vague pattern-like preferences using a lack of rules. That doesn't make it inferior, but it does make it different from a game.

A game has a concrete set of rules and the player's jollies come from manipulating them. It's a wholly different method of pattern analysis. It's non-linguistic, non-memetic, non-aesthetic. Even if it is represented by language, aesthetics, or memes, the actual pattern recognition - what to do when - is not.

For example, "I can make Suzie fall in love with Jack" is a story, but the actual knowledge of how that can be accomplished - and the fact that it can be accomplished - is not a story. The story, in this particular case, results from having learned the rules of the engine... a process and knowledge which is not a story, although the actual act of learning may be considered one.

Without patterns of rules governing your progression you allow the player to do anything. There's nothing wrong with that, but it is now officially a tool, enabling the user to make whatever he wishes within the capabilities of the tool.

A TimeSplitter's gameplay session isn't "remembered" as a "story". It's "remembered" at a deep level, in terms of how to move, how to shoot, what weapons work against which enemies, the layout of the level. These are often not even "conscious" memories, certainly not "stories".

Sure, you may remember gameplay fragments which you could stretch the definition of "story" to cover, like "damn it, those invisible guys are so irritatingly difficult!" or "I just killed two zombies with the head of another zombie!" But these are exceptions.

What many people - evidently including Patrick - are arguing is that these exceptions are inherently better and more entertaining than the rest of the game, so the whole game ought to be made of them. This is, unfortunately, both wrong and impossible.

It's impossible because "cool" is always cool relative to something. If every throw of a zombie head kills two zombies, it's only cool when it kills four zombies.

It's also wrong, for much the same reason: in order for a player to manipulate the pattern, there needs to be a great deal of that pattern in all sorts of states, so he can learn. The player learns to shoot. Then, instead of simply wanting to hit, he wants to get all head-shots. Then, instead of wanting simply head-shots, he wants to get entirely wall-bounce head-shots. The progression towards this goal is the fun of the game. Simply skipping to the wall-bounce head-shots defeats the purpose.

It doesn't defeat the purpose in a story sense. It could be an awesome story moment. But it defeats the purpose in a gameplay sense. If every shot miraculously kills everything in this absurd way, there's no gameplay in that. Unless you count watching them explode in various ways as "gameplay".

A story world is a questionable situation, because nobody's really made one. How much is it a story creation tool? How much is it a game? Does it have concrete rules, or does it let you go and do whatever you want?

Obviously, there's a messy situation in the middle, where it's a game until the player decides he wants to override it or ignore the rules. However, at a core level, the distinction remains: it is a game so long as the rules are followed and the pattern manipulated according to them.

That is the difference! I hope I'm being clear, here: a story is an idealized example. The joy of a game is in the concrete. It's on a wholly different level.


Corvus said...

If you equate story with myth and accept that myth is metaphor, than using that deeper, symbol based, portion of your brain can be expressed as experiencing a story.

If you equate story with narration (particularly if you're limiting narration to a linear form), than you're absolutely correct.

Of course, for my own purposes, I have defined story to be roughly synonymous with fabula and make a distinction between dynamic and static narrative elements within a game.

Craig Perko said...

Well, sure, if you expand story to mean "any kind of information processed in any way", then obviously gameplay is a story. And so is eating lunch.

But that kind of renders "story" a uselessly vague word, don't you think?

Static vs dynamic "narrative" elements is a good dissection to make, but I would (and, in fact, do) divide it into three: static, dynamic free, and dynamic concrete.

"Dynamic free" is something which allows players to inject anything they want into the game. For example, something which lets you program a doohickey or import a picture. These provide a very different experience from "dynamic concrete", where the player is limited to expressing himself using in-game patterns defined by the designer.

Really, that's what the argument I'm trying to get across is all about.

Jeff said...

I have a really long post about rules, dynamics, asthetics etc., but for now I think corvus has the right idea.

I also need to respond to this though:

Craig Said:
"But that kind of renders "story" a uselessly vague word, don't you think?"

Story really is a uselessly vague word, the same way interactive is uselessly vauge. It's not that it's really uselessly vague, it just applies to so much and carries so much context with it that using it in critical discussion is near impossible. When I say story, I'm referring to events that have happened (the fabula if you will), and the story of a game is really what can occur through the whole game at its aethetic level, not the cut-scenes that occur between actions, but all actions take as a whole.

For many others, unfortunately, the story is the embedded narrative portions of the game. For others, it must imply the linear embedded portions of the game, and nothing else.

Generally, it's just a hard word to throw around. I'll probably revise my post on story and get it on my blog sometime tonight or tomarrow. Until then... courage.

Craig Perko said...

Jeff, I agree, but I think it's dangerous to call what happened in the play of a game a "story". What happened was the learning of a skill. The mastery of a pattern.

If you learn to shoot a gun, the act of learning can be called a story. But the fact that you can actually hit a target from further away than before is not a story. It is a skill. It is a concrete improvement.

Gameplay is about that improvement. The fact that you can represent what happened as a story is largely irrelevant to the gameplay, aside from making aesthetic decisions.

I don't know if I'm just not being clear, but I see a detail - an important detail - that nobody else seems inclined to notice: even if you represent gameplay as a story, it is more than that story represents. It is a package of skills you are actually learning.

Craig Perko said...

BTW, Jeff, I'll be reading whatever you post, and I'm looking forward to it. So far, most of your posts have been excellent, and I just wish there were more of them.

Corvus said...

'I think it's dangerous to call what happened in the play of a game a "story".'

I'd call what happened in the play of a game the "narrative".

I'd call the gaps filled in by the player's desire for continuity (emotional, experiential, or both) the "story".

I think one of the issues in trying to define these terms as they relate to 'games' or 'interactive narratives' is that we're all bringing various, and probably unnecessary, lexicological baggage to the discussion.

While I agree that none of the storytelling terms, as used for traditional narratives, quite fit the game designers toolkit, the texture they represent make them very useful to my process.

Craig Perko said...

Well, my problem with that kind of thinking is that it's based on looking back. It is based around the idea that, when you're done playing, you look back on what you did as a story.

My comment is that you're PLAYING the game, not HAVING PLAYED the game. The difference is that one is based around learning skills and tweaking patterns in the game while the other is based around fitting what you already finished doing into a larger, out-of-game framework.

There's certainly room for both. Simply including zombies does a bit of each. But the actual gameplay - the actual virtual act of shooting a zombie, or racing a car - is not about telling a story. It's about tweaking a pattern. It's like solving for the integral of 4X to the pi power. It's not a story, it's pattern work.

Mory said...

I don't see why gameplay can't be seen in terms of a story. But it must be emphasized that experiencing a story is very different from being told a story. The differences you point out between storytelling and gameplaying can be explained, I think, by this point.

Craig Perko said...

Mory: Yes, exactly. Except I'm saying that you're not even really experiencing a story. Well, you are, but it's irrelevant. It's about learning the pattern.

Mory said...

Well, sure, in the same sense that the characters of any story find it irrelevant to think of their situation as a story. They're just trying to get ahead in life, and learn, etc. That doesn't make the series of events they take part in any less of a story.

Patrick Dugan said...

I think the play of an still operates on the same pattern level that other games are based on, but it also demands an additional layer of memetic/symbolic thought. This requires the player's pattern learning to incorportate the very stuff of the story, in various recombinations. Its the deeper pattern experienced through re-plays that really evokes the themes in a way no other medium can. So thats what interactive storytelling requires, staging that meta-level of learning that resonates with the individual's cerebral and associative mind, in addition to the motor oriented part.

I guess I'm saying gameplay is not not a story.

In order to sculpt this more complex sort of cognitive experience, we're going to need a langauge of dynamics that can correlate with memetic symbols and describe the interrelationality of the elemental memes. With such an approach, we could describe systemic properties from story dynamics to mathematical principles to procedural simulations modeled after creative non-fiction and factual data.

Story dynamics are basically social dynamics, and require an array of qualfiers correlating to social symbolic complexes, such as myths, traditions, families, governments, gangs and corporatations, whatever social reality you want to model.

Math principles require math, this is the part where we've already seen lots of progress.

Non-fiction type stuff (like The McDonald's Videogame) use the interplay of both, as I'm sure to many games. In most games case, the "storyline" is a frail spine of social symbols (which includes langauge, though sublte things like tone and demanor play a larger and untapped role) that unites all the physics and mazes into some all the players can agree who Koopa was. The McDonalds Game included social symbolic dynamics, such as advertising and shady "PR", and had it effect the math involving the one big number, your bank account balance.

Interactive Storytelling is a different bag I guess, but only in that its cognitive demands are more complex and aesthetic rewards start to play a much bigger role, facilitated by more paidic symbolic spaces. Math still plays a fairly big role, in least in one engine I've seen. Craig's comment about stories having a hodgepodge of rules that shift by mood and context is actually a good description of how the tron operates, you implement a bunch of formulae to define how people react to things, with the dynamics involving their relationships, personality, emotions or uncertainties. From this selection you can deck out your verb and Actor set with all kinds of configurability and dramatic nuance. The verbs you can utilize at any time are constrained, making agency inconsistent, however good design enables a greater sense of consistency and thats where the thematic appreciation comes in.

Playing games is fun, but I'd rather be making art than be making disposable video crack.

Not that I think HMH is of that composition, I see your current project, Craig, as another approach to interactive storytelling, one that is more macro-context focused than character focused.

My take on what Corvus is doing is trying to create a compelling fantasy ontology, and then encourage other people to facilitate role-playing on-par with gaming with a good GM, but re-usably and for more people. I see him as pursueing player-created content as an approach, which actually kind of makes me tremble thinking about it. Thers a lot of potential in that.

Right now I'm vested between two possible platforms, one is Storytron, as described above, which is actually fairly dynamic-closed, and Siri's engine for Utopia, which has more wide ranging social dynamics (simulated population of 1000 people, all of whom you can talk to). Like Reimann's Hypothesis, Interactive Storytelling has a lot of possible angles of attack. What we'd all agree are "games" could probably classify as IS on some counts, Psychonauts and Shadow of the Collosus come to mind.

Theres no absolute barrier, patternr recognition is a fuzzy zone.

Craig Perko said...

Mory: Yes, but it's the living the game that's what is so much fun. The story of the gameplay is so close to irrelevant it's better to put a real story there and let the gameplay work independently.

The fact that you can represent gameplay as a story doesn't mean that gameplay is a story, any more than practicing kung fu is a story, or going to work every day is a story.

You can build a story out of these events, but the experiencing of those events is enjoyed independently of its state as a story.

Patrick: I'm sorry, that's just too long and dense for me to make heads or tails out of. However, if the gist is something about symbolic identification being critical to pattern recognition, that's not true. Sure, you need to be able to tell things apart. But whether they're four different flavors of zombie or four different flavors of street lamp is irrelevant to the actual play of the game.

The actual pattern may be learned faster or with more zest if the aesthetics match and are pleasing, but that doesn't change the nature of the learning. Just its speed.

Patrick Dugan said...

Symbol and Pattern are two dualistically opposed cognitive styles, but IS would use more of a balance than Timesplitters. The fact that you're continually referring to zombies as your example is indicative of the difference in our approaches to this. If there are any zombies in a storyworld I build, they're going to be characters themselves. Thats what adds that symbolic social challenge, the characters.

Craig Perko said...

Which options produce which results? Are those results good or bad?

It doesn't matter whether the player is talking about the perfect way to shoot a zombie, the ideal configuration for a party, or how to get one of the characters to fall in love with another character.

The core is the same. It's all about the pattern. It doesn't matter whether you're talking about zombies or love affairs.

That said, yes, aesthetics matter a lot. They are just not part of the core pattern recognition process.

Mory said...

"You can build a story out of these events, but the experiencing of those events is enjoyed independently of its state as a story."

I disagree. If the game designer has crafted a good story, and the player experiences it rather than being told it, it will elevate the experience of playing the game from "harmless fun" to "great art". I've learned as much from studying The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and the way it makes the player the main character in a very emotional story.

Craig Perko said...

Mory: Arrrrrrgh.

You can and should experience a story! Stories have a phenominal amount of power! They drive gameplay! Gameplay wanders around randomly and unenthusiastically without them!

Yes, you do experience stories. Yes, that's good.

No, it's not actually part of the gameplay.

For example, I couldn't play Ocarina of Time, because it was so annoyingly LONG. The gameplay was dull and eternal.

The actual aesthetics and story were great, but the gameplay wasn't in tune with my needs.

The story and aesthetics from the Ocarina of Time could also have been applied to any other kind of gameplay - from classic adventure to first-person-shooter.

Sure, some work better than others, and pieces of the plot and aesthetics are optimized for Link's "adventure platformer" style, but you could easily re-optimize the story for, say, an RPG-style game.

This doesn't mean the story is inferior, or that the aesthetics are worthless. It simply means that they are, aside from optimization, separate from gameplay.

Mory said...

Nice theory. My observation has shown otherwise, but we obviously won't ever agree on this.

Craig Perko said...

Probably not, but at least we gave it a try.