Sunday, July 23, 2006

Ze Story Snobs, Redux

Lost Garden just posted an extremely long essay on the (over)use of stories in games. I suppose I shouldn't complain about length, as someone who wrote a seventeen page review of a bad movie.

Much of what Danc...

Danc? Hrm. If I have that name wrong, I'll fix it upon request.

Some of what Danc says is, to me, correct. But he's missing some pretty important aspects of what a story gives you, at least in a single player game.

A story really isn't just "another kind of reward". A story establishes a pattern of expectation that allows the player to invest more heavily in the universe. It also allows you to gracefully set mission objectives.

In Gun Shy, I put in a story. The story was... painfully simple. But it allowed me to establish a universe, explain the variations from character to character and level to level, and put in a reasonable progression. Extremely efficiently!

It also allowed me to bind the players to otherwise faceless little characters. Sure, I won't claim you're going to cry for them, but at least you'll feel some faint hint of emotion.

Anyone who thinks I put the story in there because I really wanted to have a good story in the game is sorely mistaken, and it shows that a story is very different from a simple gameplay reward.

A story is a way to efficiently and effectively set up the world, get the player to emotionally invest in it, and vary the gameplay in fun and transparent ways.

Sure, not every game benefits from a story. But even the games which used to not contain stories are starting to realize that a touch of humanity to their systemic manipulations will make some players enjoy the game more. Even word games and TIM games are starting to include stories.

Poor ones, like my Gun Shy story.

Their purpose isn't to reward or corral, although they can be used that way. Their purpose is to pull the player in, to make the game both more interesting and more transparent. Stories make the feedback juicer, the urge to continue stronger, the variation more interesting, and the tension tensionier.

Now, you might be fine without a story. But it's a very, very powerful tool, and I have encountered very few single-player games that would have been better without one.

Multiplayer games?

Totally different story.



Patrick Dugan said...


Textual Harassment said...

Gun Shy did not have a story. It had a series of scenarios mixed with some tutorial.

A good story, like a good game, must serve its own ends. It's when the needs of the story compromise those of the game that it becomes a problem.

And that's the whole point. As an artist, where do your priorities lie? Want to tell a tale? Use the medium that's suited to it. It's simple, really.

Craig Perko said...

Ah, of course. If we define "story" carefully enough, then we can get rid of all those pesky disagreeing data.

Gun Shy had a story: four people land on a planet. They are attacked by aliens and separated. A new guy lands and helps them fight back and recover. Hell, it even has plot twists.

It's not a good story, but it is, by any reasonable definition, a story.

I disagree with your second paragraph as well, and the implications of your third paragraph. Games - interactive media - are a fine media for stories. It unlocks all kinds of astonishing potentials - replay value, comparative play, direct agency...

Bah! I don't think I've ever disagreed with you more, Textual.

Patrick Dugan said...

I think the word "scenario" is useful, because the kind of story that is conduvice to interactivity is the post-structural kind, like a framework for improvisational acting. Your rules are constraints, your fiction justifies and/or explains these constraints, and in the process makes implications about the constrained discourse.

Like I posted recently, you can have the Enclave be destoryed everytime and still have meaningful variation in the result of the discourse.

Another way I like to think of it is of the evolution of the universe itself, from the laws of physics up. The laws couldn't be tweaked much without ruining all cool dynamics, but within that constrain is a hell of a lot of room. A storyworld is like that on a smaller scale, you can have the Master be killed everytime, but what happens to the minions will vary.

Its amazing how much this topic rattles people, Tadgh posted on it recently. All the more reason for us to get a proto out as soon as possibe.

Textual Harassment said...

I'm using story as defined (implicitly) in the article as a production meant to relate an event. The content is concerned with what happens, not what *can* happen. I'm not playing semantics so much as I am arguing intent.

I wrote "Gun Shy did not have a story" but I wish I had said "Gun Shy *was* not a story"

From the player's point of view that's true. You, as a designer, could have written reams of fiction to back up your universe, but it's obvious to the player that the plot exists to serve the design.

There may be that elusive title that manages to integrate narrative and play in a holistic way, but in the vast majority, one facet comes first, and it shows. When I say Gun shy was not a story that's what I mean. The plot was subservient.

Danc said...

Setting up scenarios I'd plunk under the category of 'enabling rewards.' They generally give you a clue on what you need to do next if you boil them down to a mechanical level.

The waving of a magic story wand to smooth over why the player is in a new scenario is an interesting technique. If you accept the idea that the player is attempting to make sense of the game, then story acts as a cheap form of handwaving. "And then something happens that...takes away all your weapons! Don't worry about why it happened."

I personally find the appearance of the plot god to be a bit of a cheat. But other folks like it, so I can't complain. :-)

And you are correct. The essay is way too long. Somewhere along the line I've lost my ability to be brief.

take care

(Yep, "Danc." Pronounced Dank, except with a C. Long story. :-)

Patrick Dugan said...

I think everyone can benifit, no matter what genre (traditional or groundbreaking) you're working in, from putting less emphasis on plot and more on character.

Craig Perko said...

Re: Textual. Ahhh. But to argue that the story is subservient to the game is to say that the game is, itself, not a story-like experience.

I suppose you can dance that dance, but I find things go smoother for me if story and game are inextricably linked. They do produce only one experience: like a peanut butter cup. :D

Danc: While I don't disagree, saying that efficiently setting up scenarios and gameplay variations is a "reward" is sort of like saying that a car is a "device".

While true, it misses the point. A story isn't just rewarding the player right now. It's setting up so that each reward in the future is more powerful. After a while, in a good story, you set up rewards that are only the briefest touches... but, to the player, they're just as important as a cool new weapon or an interesting new level.

Furthermore, they don't run out. How many variations does your core game mechanic support? Not as many as an unbounded story, I would bet. And it's cheap!

Hell, coding in Aeris to die didn't cost much money at all. How many gameplay-related rewards would it have taken to make players hate Sephiroth that much?

I'm talking efficiency!

(And, obviously, a good story doesn't give the feeling of "here comes the plot god! Wooo!" A good game story serves to enhance, not replace, play rewards.)

Anyhow, I'm glad you didn't take my essay too harsh.

Patrick: Yes, that's insightful. Characters are, at least in the first few hours, much more important than plot.

I kind of covered that in my key post, remember?

Patrick Dugan said...

For sure, I wasn't saying it expressly for your benifit, since I know you get it.

Textual Harassment said...

Craig: I consider gameplay no more a story-like experience than I do my very life. A story is something someone relates to me, not something I do.

I agree with you on the power of story to enhance the player's mood, but all too often the two elements are not prepared to work together--more like a jar of peanuts next to a block of baker's chocolate.

Danc: I think that's just a matter of control. You can just as easily say "In this level you start with no weapons", but that has the same problem in that you are trying the player's patience.

While a good writer should have no problem preserving immersion through a number of scenarios, it's a matter of priority. Designing your game solely in terms of what "makes sense" is a dangerous trap.

Patrick: I feel the same way about character, but I always thought that was just my preference. I'll gladly watch a movie in which nothing happens, but it happens to interesting people.