Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Story Isn’t Cheating

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 3, 2011

Hey, it’s been a whole four weeks since the last argument about narrative vs. gameplay, so it’s time for another brawl! Craig Stern of Sinister Design weighs in with this article on the inclusion of narrative (and attractive graphics, sound, etc) in games:

Against Narrow Game Design

Apparently I’ve not been paying attention to the right indies, as the push nowadays appears to be to turn the dial all the way over in the direction of gameplay, all but ignoring narrative, graphics, etc. Maybe I should hang out on the TIGSource forums more or something (heh, actually, I probably should…). My opinion still hasn’t changed much over the years. I still feel that interactivity runs counter to good (traditional) storytelling.

As something of a metaphor, consider a basketball game. A dramatic, exciting ball game is going to be a tight game, with frequent scores on both sides, with neither team ever achieving a wide lead. As a player, however, your goal is not to provide a dramatic game for the audience. Your goal is to defeat the opposing team. If you had your way, the game would be pretty dang boring.

Good storytelling is the same way. A good story has numerous twists and bends, with a flawed protagonist making mistakes, suffering setbacks, and taking a beating, right up until the climax where he pulls off a victory when all hope seems lost. Maybe not the kind of victory he was originally intending (in fact, in the best stories, usually not), maybe not even a victory he survives, but a victory nonetheless.

However, in a game, the player is motivated to min-max his or her way all the way to the end. Why accept a setback when you can just re-load?  The needs of playing-a-game will generally run contrary to the needs of telling-a-story.

There are three ways around this problem that I can think of. The first is by far the easiest, and the path most taken: Break the interactivity and force the story, through the use of cut-scenes or whatever else is required.

Another, far more rarely employed, is to have the mechanics serve the needs of a dramatic story. Going back to the basketball analogy: When I was very young and first learning the rules of basketball as a second-grader, I was never told about the three-point shot. That’s because – while it existed – it had not been adopted by the major leagues. That happened shortly thereafter, and there’s little doubt it has led to a more exciting, dramatic sport, as it encourages a greater amount of risk-taking for a greater potential reward.

This can be applied to narrative development, too. The rules can encourage a style of play that fits the general rules of dramatic storytelling. Maybe walking into an obvious ambush grants you a power-up that you can use later to defeat the boss. Allowing said boss to finish his monologue before you start attacking him is worth another. This is an area that really fascinates me.

A third approach is harder still, but it may be something along the lines of what many indie voices are advocating: have the game work with the player and his choices to create his own story. Computers are really bad being creative and intelligent and actually creating a compelling story around the players actions. But they can follow some interesting rules and patterns to help the player perceive story and drama. My canonical example is The Sims, which created very familiar situations with enough abstraction for the player to see narrative even where none existed. The Left 4 Dead series takes a completely different approach, using an AI manager to build the scenario in front of the players by its own algorithm to maintain an interesting pacing. An indie example I was recently introduced to is Blue Lacuna, perhaps the world’s largest and most advanced work of interactive fiction (aka “text adventure”). While it is filled with enormous textual detail, certain aspects of the game are left open-ended enough for you to project your own story into it.

But in spite of my reservations concerning the mixing of narrative and story, it’s still a worthy goal (if possibly never fully achievable). I believe chaining ourselves to the forms of traditional, linear, non-interactive storytelling is a doomed venture. And I think those who try to judge video game narrative by the yardstick of traditional storytelling media are going to be forever disappointed.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t liberally borrow from that familiar territory, and use some combination of the above three tricks to enrich our games.

Or, as Craig states, “Rather than a puritanical insistence on using only one tool in the game designer’s toolbox, we get an intelligent application of each tool as it is needed in order to craft a compelling experience that successfully delivers a message about our lives and the world we live in.

I do enjoy some fairly abstract, story-free or story-light games. I also enjoy retrogaming and indie games with far less than cutting-edge graphics, sound, and design. I put gameplay on a pedestal above other factors. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy those other factors.

In fact, especially when it comes to RPGs, it’s the context that really makes the difference to me.  It’s true – there are quite a few game franchises out there that are dependent upon context to cover for uninteresting gameplay, and in that respect, they are using these other factors as a crutch.  But if you were to take any of my favorite RPGs and remove all context, so that they are pure exercises of probability (as has kinda been done in Sophie Houlden’s Linear RPG, and in the Really Really Random RPG), the games will get old pretty quickly. The whole concept of exploration – something I love about RPGs – only holds meaning given a compelling context largely driven by *dum dum DUM!* narrative. I have to care about the world and the people.

I should note that Sophie’s RPG does have a silly little story to it, but the way it is presented deliberately divorces it from the gameplay.  Well, maybe I shouldn’t attribute deliberation to it, but it certainly deconstructs typical RPG design to illustrate how story often gets slapped on top of  gameplay (approach #1, above) rather than being integrated into it.

In the early days of cinema, movie makers assumed that since movies were similar to stage performance, and treated them as such – simple recordings of a stage play. It took a little while for film makers to figure out that the new medium required its own visual vocabulary, and brand new techniques.  It did have to re-invent itself to match the medium. But that didn’t mean that everything that had been learned in centuries of stage performances had to be thrown out. I think this parallels the art of video games quite well. So many publishers have tried so hard to ape Hollywood, which treats interactivity as a weakness rather than a strength (or, at best, a “supplement”).

I think Craig is correct, though I do feel that the indies who are eschewing narrative are perhaps helping to reverse a trend that has gone too far in one direction. But they aren’t just cheats or gimmicks or manipulations, even though we too often see them used as such that way. There’s a happy balance that can be achieved there even as we strike off in new directions to explore the potential of what games really can be.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 11 Comments to Read

  • Juuso said,

    Fine post but remember that basketball can have many goals. Having fun with buddies, trying score from midfield, tackling people badly and such. It is not just about “winning”

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    The one thing a game absolutely should not do is force the player to experience the story as the author envisioned it. If you’re considering that, you probably want to make a movie, not a game. Do give the player all the elements — NPCs, events, encounters — that would form an ideal story if stringed together the right way. Do nudge the player in the right direction at every step. But don’t force them.

    Shameless plug: http://notimetoplay.org/2010/12/22/of-games-and-stories/

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    Your basketball metaphor is interesting, but I think Juuso and Felix above have the right of it: to enjoy a story you can’t have the “sports player” mentality. If your only goal is to conquer the challenge, then of course the story is going to get lost. It’s like watching a movie in fast forward then bragging that you watched it in less time than almost anyone else.

    The big problem, in my opinion, is that many designers try to force linear storytelling to fit within games. So we get cutscenes that rob control from the character, etc. I think the important thing is to let the player experience the story rather than forcing them to watch the story. Accept that they might not get the optimal experience, but make it so that they might want to go dive into the game again to see different things.

    I know, sounds great, but definitely easier said than done.

  • Typhon said,

    Try casting it in terms of setting and development of the setting, rather than ‘narrative’. I think it works much better.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I think one of the most interesting games I’ve played as far as storytelling goes is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.

    It tells a story that literally could not be told in a non-interactive medium, and exemplifies what games should be doing to define their own “storytelling vocabulary”.

    The story appears fairly linear, with a father searching for his lost daughter in a blizzard following a car crash. (She is missing when he regains consciousness.) It is a gripping enough story in its own right, but made even more poignant if the player is themselves a parent and can empathize with the feeling of panic their character is experiencing.

    Interspersed with the normal 3rd person exploration segments are first person scenes that find the player in therapy, dealing with feelings of loss and anger sometime in the future. The dread these scenes instill in the player (or at least me) is palpable, as it creates a gnawing sensation that your search for this little girl is going to end badly.

    The game and its narrative change based on your actions. NOT your character’s actions. YOUR actions. The game keeps up with all kinds of things, like how fast you respond to cries for help, what do you pay attention to? Do you remain focused on finding your daughter, or do you frequently stop to gaze at pictures on the wall? Do you pay equal amounts of attention to all the pictures? Or just the ones with pretty girls in them? Or perhaps you like looking at ads for liquor the most?

    All these things, and psychological tests given in the first person segments, subtly alter the game and story. Answering machine messages may be different, a building inaccessible the first time you played through can be entered. NPCs change appearance and attitude. Everything in the game starts to be thematically skewed in a certain direction, etc.

    One notably impressive effect is being asked to draw and color your idea of a happy family in therapy. The game pays attention to how fast you draw and color, what your color choices are, if you stayed in the lines, or if you refused the activity completely. Later you meet a family, and they correspond to what you drew and colored, and their personalities can be influenced by what the game perceived your emotions to be when you colored the picture . . . .

    I won’t spoil the story or the (multiple) ending, but it moved me to tears (something few stories do in any medium), and made me look at my OWN personality critically. Each time I play through the game, I discover more and more nuance to the story and more interpretations. Suffice it to say, I’ve not found another game that tells so linear a story, yet feels entirely shaped by my own choices.

    As a final aside, I believe it helps that the game can be completed in 4-5 hours, inviting multiple playthroughs and maintaining breathless tension and pacing.

    I’ll quit geeking-out now. I just want more games to shape narrative and gameplay not based off of what the players DO, but WHY they did it, and the emotion or personality traits they are unwitting expressing by DOING what they DID in the WAY they DID them.

    Can you envision narratives that become more violent or faster paced when the game detects that the player is angry and impatient? Or a narrative that becomes slow and cerebral because the game identified that the player likes to frequently stop and thoughtfully examine clues and the environment, and never skips dialogue, and exhausts conversation options with every NPC they encounter? AI director indeed.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Now I really want to play Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.

    It sounds to me like that’s kind of a prototype of what I hope games will be when they grow up. The narrative will certainly be there – the storytelling – and it will draw from traditional techniques. But it won’t be trying quite so hard to tell a single linear story like some kind of mini-movie that you have to earn, scene-by-scene, through winning action sequences.

  • Calibrator said,

    I think those “A.I.” game concepts are incredibly interesting, fascinating even.
    But like all interesting (new) things a possible downside exists, too:
    The behaviour of such a game may *appear* pretty random – if the player can’t link “how he does things” (in contrast to “what he does”) to the outcome the game presents.
    It could very well be the worst ending of the game – even of the player had good intentions – which results in a negativ experience overall.
    Silly example (not a spoiler, just to illustrate the point): “Why did my daughter die? I guess I looked too long at those liquor ads – but I only wanted to have a look at the amazing texture and art quality!”

    Still, a game that adapts to the player in certain aspects, especially the difficulty level may be one of the standards of the future.

  • How Do You Roleplay in a CRPG? said,

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  • LateWhiteRabbit said,


    You make a good point. Something like what Shattered Memories does could go terribly wrong, like in your example.

    Shattered Memories never falls into that trap though, mainly because the story never ACTUALLY changes, as least not all the major beats and plot points. However, the tone, theme, reason, and motivation for the story can all change.

    A pseudo example, not from the game: Let’s say you save a woman. Every game, you always save her, you have to. But WHY did you save her? Are you just altruistic like that? Is it because you hoped to be rewarded with sex? Is it because there where witnesses and you wanted to appear to do the right thing, when in reality you didn’t care? Did you only save her to further your own selfish goals, etc?

    Now, in Shattered Memories, you never REALLY make any of these concrete decisions. The game decides for you, based on its determination of your personality and motivations up to that point. I.e. you never knew that there could be an alternative.

    It is almost like watching a movie that is being filmed as you sit and watch, with the director staring at your face and analyzing your body-language and expression/ interest in any given scene. Paying attention to what you focus on the most, and then filming the next scenes all based off of that.

    What amazed me about Shattered Memories is that I knew it had multiple endings and changes throughout the story, so I immediately replayed it after my first game and DID everything in the opposite way than I had the first time around.

    Almost nothing changed. Same ending. O_o

    I then replayed with a different ATTITUDE and did the same things, and everything was different. Holy crap!

    The game is a pretty interesting meta twist on the Silent Hill franchise. In every Silent Hill game, we play a character trapped in the titular town who has the environment/story/monsters/torment all shaped to their particular personality, sins, and hangups.

    In Shattered Memories, for the first time Silent Hill is changing and presenting as a dark reflection of NOT the character’s personality and sins, but the PLAYER’S.

    Is it perfect? No. Is it a magnificent step in narrative storytelling that is unique to games as a medium? Absolutely.

    Definitely check it out, Jay. It’s available both on the Wii and the PS2, and is absurdly cheap on both platforms. (It was $25 new on release day on the PS2.) And be sure to play it through multiple times. The story is a sucker punch of awesome on a single playthrough, but really shines on repeats.

  • McTeddy said,

    I’ll third/fourth/whatever Silent Memories being one heck of an experience, though I did only play it once. I realized that the story I experienced was MY story and felt wrong about pretending to do other things to get another ending.

    What really amazed me was that it didn’t have major decisions. There was no… “Kill him!”, “Spare Him!”, moments that defined how things would turn out. Instead, it was the moments where I stopped to examine the picture of the bikini model that told them how to tailor the story.

    By the time I was half way through the game, they knew who I was a what bothered me. While nothing ever scared me in the game… it did unnerve me, and it did make me sad. They determined that I had guilt issues and next thing I know they are making me fail people… and I hurt… the dagnabbin’ game worked in the way that was best to affect me.

    It was the little things… the way they drew me towards every bloody mess with my daughters teddy bear or roses because they knew my soft spots. The changes were subtle… and that is what made my Shattered Memories experience special. It was mine.

    That said… it makes me sad that I am so easy to read 🙂

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