Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 7, 2011
I’m off in Thailand for the next two weeks, which makes a great opportunity for guest posts. Today’s post is near and dear to my heart, about storytelling and games. Author Paul Spooner of http://www.peripheralarbor.com talks about why stories seem stupid in modern games, and where the real problem may lay…
Traditional storytelling has no place in games.
Tall order? Okay, here goes. Why are a lot of “story games” these days just Simon Says with cutscenes? Why is a good DM more engaging than fully animated AAA graphics? Why do we keep getting so many stupid stories in otherwise well executed games? The answer lies in the nature of storytelling and games.
Stories are all about interesting characters in engaging situations; Games are all about the player, in an interactive environment. Stories are all about arc, symbolism, and witty dialog; Games are all about mechanics, interface, and brilliant interactions. A story is about what the storyteller wants you to hear; A game is about what the player can do. Stories are static; Games are dynamic. “But stories speak to us across the ages!” you cry. Yes, I love stories as well, but the Lord of the Rings is the same whether I read it or you read it. Our reaction is different, but the story is the same. The same thing happens, and that is what we are concerned with.
The story is what happens. The game is also what happens. The writer decides action in the story, but the player decides action in the game. Most games allow these to overlap. This is difficult because the story must encompass all possible player actions and motivations. This is important!
The story must encompass all possible player actions and motivations!
The player and the story must always be in complete harmony. The problem occurs when the game developer writes a story in conflict with the player. If they conflict then either the story wins or the player wins. If the story wins the player is no longer playing. It’s not a game anymore, just a movie, or even a book. If the player wins, then the story makes no sense. It’s not a story anymore, just a stupid sequence of disconnected actions. When they disagree the player either derails the story, or the story derails the play.
Many good games get around this by simplifying gameplay or story. If player action is restricted (FPS style) to simple actions like killing, then the story can be complex (and even fairly linear). If player action is broad (Sandbox style) then the story must be elementary (and extremely bifurcated). This struggle between narrative and player agency is why many older games feel so much more immersive. The story and mechanics are so absolutely simple that the game has no chance to conflict with the story. “But we want games to be more meaningful!” you protest. Indeed, I do as well, but to impart meaning we must make games great at being games. Games will never be meaningful games if we try to make them books or movies.
“But what about RPGs! There the player can tell their own story!” Quite so, I’m glad you brought it up. In a good pen and paper RPG, the DM tells a story to the players, and the players tell a story to the DM. The DM engineers an arc, inserts symbolism, and comes up with witty dialog. The players use the game mechanics, interface (Voice activated usually; Advanced!), and creativity to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals. A bad DM will “railroad” the players to tell the story he wants. Bad players will act out of character and ruin the story. But even at its worst a real life pen and paper RPG is more interactive and narratively cohesive than all but the best computer games. At its best, no computer games come close.
This is because the DM is creative, and can adapt the actions of the world to the actions of the player. A DM can tell a story around the players actions, not in spite of them. In order to achieve excellent story and excellent gameplay, we must invent artificial creativity. We must teach the computer how to tell a good story. A static story will always restrict player actions. Limited mechanics will always frustrate players. Until we have procedural storytelling, games will always have simple stories or limited player agency, if not both.
The “role playing game” in the true sense is, indeed, the way forward for storytelling in computer games. However, we must always recall that most people are not good storytellers. Either we must allow the player to write their own (probably terrible) story, or we must give up the illusion of player agency and force the player act out a “good” story. We must choose between the two. Either way, games can not tell stories the way we have known them. Traditional static storytelling in an interactive game is simply out of place.
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