Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Stories vs. Gameplay

Lots of people - perhaps the majority of would-be game designers - think that gameplay is (or should be) reduced down to "telling a story" in the player's mind. This is seen as some kind of way to reconcile the "ludic" and "narrative" camps. Unfortunately, it's wrong.

Before you get me wrong: games can and usually do have stories. These stories add a lot to the game. They can even control the gameplay. But they are not, in and of themselves, gameplay. Gameplay is the stuff that happens between cutscenes, remember?

Now, gameplay and story. Story is an idealized example in an idealized world. Gameplay is a concrete example in a concrete world.

In a story, the full rules are never spelled out or even internally represented. The story itself is not governed by strict metaphysics of progression or content. This is because we want to be able to say things like, "she killed the dragon" without mentioning the eighty thousand tons of dragon shit over in the corner. We want to skip the bad stuff in favor of the good stuff. Hence, idealized.

In gameplay, the experience is governed by concrete rules which, even if not explicitly explained, are implicitly ingrained. IE, you cannot simply make a grenade go winging off into the sky and blow up the sun - unless the game's rules specifically allow for it.

You can still get some impressive stuff from gameplay. But you also get stuck with the eighty thousands tons of dragon shit. For every moment where you kill two zombies by throwing another zombie's head at them, there are a hundred moments where you are simply shotgunning yet another zombie.

Some designers seek to minimize this. They want every moment to be new and unique. They want to write a story that the player plays through.

That's not a game.

These designers totally misunderstand the nature of "gameplay". Gameplay is when you're given a set of rules and allowed to navigate them. There are inherent rewards and punishments as you navigate, and the power of gameplay lies in the way a player seeks to do his best.

Sure, TimeSplitters 2 had roughly a zillion zombies in it. Hell, it had three challenges which were nothing more than shooting and/or punching as many zombies as possible. As a story, it would be quite dull. You'd edit it all out and turn it into an action-packed thirty-second fight scene which plays nothing like the game ever did.

But the game is fun. It's entertaining. It's stressful. That's because the player is navigating the rules to the best of his or her ability - not simply making up or listening to an idealized version.

The strength of gameplay lies in that territory. It's not about making a story. If it is about making a story, you've made a tool, not a game. Nothing wrong with that. The Sims was part game, part tool.

But in order to get the game, you've got to let the player make concrete examples in a concrete world. You've got to give them the rules and let them dance with those rules. That's what a game is: dancing rules. Those rules stand on their own, and are not about stories.

In fact, the deeper you go, the more it appears stories are about them.


Patrick Dugan said...

I agree with the last sentance.

The idea of interactive storytelling isn't to provie interactive storys, this is a misnomer that comes from lack of understanding. The idea of interactive storytelling is to provide a storytelling process that is interactive, embodying the rules that at a deep level do constrain and govern the discourses we call stories.

Maybe a better way to describe interactive storytelling is socially challengine gameplay.

So, in an IS engine the rules that create the gameplay (or storyplay, whatever) embody things like the characters and their relationships and the verbs they have the enable that interrelationality and compose the discourse, and the metaplot, which is what the individual storyworld author brings to the table, is the equivilant of the "storyline", except its more of a storyline in the sense that Naked Lunch had a storyline, than in the sense that Harry Potter has a storyline. In other words, metaplot is a post-structural storyling governing as system designed to produce discourses that look like plots and play like plots.

Don't get confused however, that these gameplay paths (or plots) will look like the sort of plots we see in books or movies, they'll likely be less idealized, having periods of relief that could be seen as boring, but really provide a unique strenght in giving the user agency and a sense of the fictive "everyday", which most linear stories omit.

When it comes down to it, interactive storytelling is probably more marketable and distinctive than "socially challenging game", maybe not, but most people who use the term use it primarily for that reason.

Craig Perko said...

I'm not talking about interactive storytelling. That's another bag of fruit.

I'm talking about the people who think that gameplay is fun because it is a story.

Patrick Dugan said...

My point was that it really isn't another bag of fruit, in any form of interactive entertainment you've got the system (rules) and resulting discourses (which can be remembered as stories). In Timesplitters of Storytron, you've got this same basic principle, and actually your point holds true for both. The fun of Timesplitters is managing ammo, shooting things and conquering levels, the fun of a storyworld is using social and lateral thought to disseminate information, try to influence Actors in desired ways, and I guess a bit of management as well.

Both games and storyworlds have mechanics and dynamics, the only meaningful distinction betweent them is in aesthetics, and thus what markets they might appeal to. I think storyworlds will tend to have stronger aesthetics because the discourses they produce will look more like stories than a Timesplitters session, and I think its these memories interpreted by the user as narrative that can leave the more lasting impressions, and thus leave a stronger artistic and cultural imprint.

Of course, the example you use was of a good action sequence, and what I'm thinking of has more to do with semblances of dramatic structure that might tend to emerge from a storyworld, or social game - as I said before the distinctions of "game" and "storyworld" are just semantic, they're really the same medium. Play loops and all that apply to both.

Craig Perko said...

Replied via new post. :)