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Guest Post: Storytelling and Games

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.


Filed Under: Design, Guest Posts - Comments: 11 Comments to Read



  • Jam said,

    Very much enjoyed this guest post. I think most of us realize how superior an “engine” a human being is from a story perspective, but I particularly enjoyed how you made me question the difference between a true “game” and a “story” with merely the semblance of interaction … I’m playing The Witcher at the moment, and it really is more of a story with game elements …

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Well written, Paul. I agree whole-heartedly.

    This recently came up when I “played” through Telltale Game’s Jurassic Park. I put played in quotation marks because I cannot in good conscious call it a game.

    I loved the story, the characters, the visuals were good, the voice acting great, etc. but it wasn’t really a game. The entire “game” was a series of quick-time-events or QTEs, with about 4-5 puzzles over 6-7 hours. It is almost wrong to call them puzzles either, as they were disturbingly easy. Difficulty was reversed for the QTEs however. Most were long sequences with no indication of what the next button would be, with a single failure forcing you to start a sequence over. The reaction times required were maddeningly short as well. These prevented you from taking in some of the most impressive action scenes or set pieces in the “game” as you are forced to stare at a tiny area of the screen, waiting like a wired lab rat to mash the correct button that pops up, never knowing when it may do so. I’ve gotten more gameplay out of the crossword section of the newspaper.

    The whole thing is a horrible situation, exactly because of the conflict you discuss between gameplay and story. As a story Jurassic Park the Game is better than Jurassic Park 3, and maybe even Jurassic Park 2 if I am feeling particularly generous. As a movie, a TV mini-series, a comic, or a novel, it would have made an impressive addition to Jurassic Park franchise. But they made it a game instead – except it isn’t one, not really.

    You have no agency over the story besides getting a couple different lines of dialogue from NPCs, or one of three different endings, all decided by a choice in the last 3 minutes of the game.

    Too many game developers are acting like bad DMs “rail-roading” the story down their players’ throats.

    If you want to make a movie – DO SO. If you want to tell a gripping and nuanced story, wrote a book. But if you want to make a game, it better have gameplay, and no, having the player “hit the button to not die” is NOT gameplay.

    And if you give choices to the player, they’d better DO something. There is an old philosophy debate that asks: “If God is omniscient, does free will really exist?” This is brought into play with game developers when they know where and when you’ll be in the game, even though they seemingly give you choices, because all those choices were false.

    - Pick a door, left or right? Doesn’t matter, they lead to the same place.

    or

    - Here’s a choice, but every answer but one will kill you. (So, not a choice.)

    Anyway, thanks for the article. A lot of modern game developers should have this stuff Sharpied backwards on their foreheads.

  • mikejkelley said,

    Good stuff! But, I believe it concludes with something of a false dichotomy. IMHO there are quite a few sandbox games whose storylines transcend the mere “illusion of player agency.”

  • Jim said,

    I am curious why UnEpic wasn’t announced here. I usually visit your blog to read on new indie games. I was surprised when an online friend emailed me about it. Its really nice old school rpg/platform game. You should give it a try!

  • Magiks said,

    Dark/Demon’s Souls are two great examples of this

  • Xenovore said,

    I think the Elder Scrolls and Fallout 3 games do it best: There’s story in these games, but it’s not shoved in your face all the time with cut-scenes and you rarely feel railroaded. (Indeed for the most part you can completely ignore the story if you so choose.) Optimally — as in these games — the story should be presented in the world, via NPCs, books, notes, PDAs, visions, signs, etc.

    Other games that got it right:
    * Half-Life 1, 2, etc.: Story is presented in-world with NPC dialogue and actions, not via cut-scenes.

    * Portal 1 & 2: Need I say more? =)

    * Farcry 2: Some cut-scenery, but it’s in-world and makes sense, since they usually happen when your character is incapacitated. (And as far as sandbox games go, it’s good; most of the time it feels like you can do what you want.)

    * Mirror’s Edge: The story is told with cut-scenes, but they are only in between levels, so they never interrupt the actual game-play.

    Games that got it completely wrong: any of the Final Fantasy games.

  • jwmeep said,

    This fits Jay’s views perfectly. Having recently done a report on “Ludology vs Narrative”, I find myself in the same boat.

    First of all I want separate “Story” from “narrative”. Yeah, I know it’s kind of the same thing, but it makes it easier to follow along when you differentiate. Narrative being the traditional linear representation like in books or movies; Story, I’ll mainly be referring to story telling. Do I think it’s possible to have stories in games? You betcha. But I’m also convinced that forcing a storyline on a player isn’t the best way to do it. In one of Jay’s posts, he talked about how in Wing Commander the death of a character felt more real to him, compared to Wing Commander 2 were the same character died a scripted death. The death had more impact when it is the players fault.

    I feel the exact same way. I didn’t care when Ashley/Kaiden died in Mass Effect. I didn’t care Sagacious Zu sacrificed himself. I didn’t care when Aeris got ran through (Okay, maybe a little, but I got over it.)But to this day I regret being unable to save Dogmeat while assaulting the super mutant base. I tried so hard, and he stayed by my side, but I just couldn’t save him. Right now I’m anguishing over the death of that poor blacksmith in Skyrim. I was just trying to sell some Items, but that Dragon found me. Everyone else ran, but that Blacksmith stood his ground. With his bare hands. I wasn’t fast enough, so he died. Every time the guards found his body in the streets, asking “who did this?” I die inside. I did it. Through my failings. Some Dragonborn I am.

    Another one of Jay blogs talked about how there is nothing wrong with not fleshing out characters, since the player will make their own story in their heads. Some great examples is the fanbase that built around “Barney” in Halflife, or that one girl in Armored Core that people like since she was so friendly in a cast full of jerks. I know I had a Personal Head-Canon crafted around Rhombus of the Brother-hood of Steel, where he was a seasoned warrior with a heart of gold, despite being a hardened jerk.

    The catch is, how can you tweak the simulation, to recognize the story the player is creating for themselves? So far interactive storytelling is out of range of programers, but there are times when it comes close. I loved it in Deus Ex when Paul Recognized I wasn’t killing people. Or that the soldiers were calling me a coward. I liked it when the guards in Skyrim complimented me after getting a certain skill high enough.

    Forcing a narrative on players through cutscenes, and scripted events just doesn’t seem to take advantage of the medium. Some attempt to have interesting stories through the use of nonlinear storylines, others focus on choice and consequence. Finding the perfect way to tell interactive stories is like finding a solution to pirating PC games, we sure can’t do it right now and if we found a way, it sure isn’t going to be easy. It’s got to be possible, it will just be very hard to do.

  • Xenovore said,

    @jwmeep: Well put!

  • Choose Your Own Enemy said,

    [...] CommentsXenovore on Guest Post: Storytelling and GamesBad Sector on Guest Post: What Indie Games Can Get Away Withjwmeep on Guest Post: Storytelling and [...]

  • Picador said,

    Until we have procedural storytelling, games will always have simple stories or limited player agency, if not both.

    Of course, some baby steps have been taken in this direction. Skyrim, of course, has generated a lot of buzz for its “Radiant Storytelling” system, which (as I understand it) swaps out quest givers and quest locations based on who is alive and on good terms with the PC, which locations have been discovered, etc. Left 4 Dead also does some dynamic narrative stuff related to the timing and intensity of zombie mob attacks based on the pace of the players’ activity.

    Both of these are pretty simple storytelling/GMing techniques that are part of the standard skillset of even a novice GM. Procedural storytelling has a lot of potential, but it’s unclear how realistic it is to expect it to recreate even a fraction of the capability of a table-top RPG GM or a storyteller.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Baby steps are good. I’m fine with small, incremental approaches to solving this problem. I don’t think we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and I think it’s okay to retain some of the lessons of linear storytelling for use in interactive games. We just need to avoid slavish adherence.

    I don’t know how long it took for movies to evolve away from stage performance as their model. The first era of motion pictures was more of a novelty, which probably equates well to the majority of video games in the 70s and early-to-mid 80′s Then cinema aped stage performances for more serious attempts at entertainment, which probably mirrors games’ embrace of movies as an analog in the 90′s (particularly with those awful FMV ‘interactive movies’). And then slowly the movies evolved into their own thing, a process which probably wasn’t “complete” until the 60s or 70s. So maybe videogames still have a long way to go yet.

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