Is there anybody going to listen to my story?

Viva la cutscene!There’s been quite a bit written on the internets lately about writing and storytelling in videogames, and frankly, I’m relieved. I was starting to get concerned that everybody had just given up.

People have been bitching for years about how the writing in videogames sucks. Long cut-scenes suck. And nobody cares about that stuff anyway, because they just want to get back to punching and shooting stuff. But I always assumed that that was just because they didn’t know any better. Even the most hard-line defender of videogames has to admit that the state of the art has been pretty dismal.

As much as I hate to trot out the old cliches, they’re mostly dead-on: the focus has always been on technology and visuals, with story and writing as an afterthought. More often than not, the stories and dialogue have been made by programmers, or artists and producers whose idea of high art is The Matrix. And even when publishers bring in the “real” talent, it’s usually been at the last minute. They’ll contract a science fiction novelist for the last couple months of development to write dialogue for their story about space marines with cybernetic implants and no memory of their past, and then act like that’s the highest achievement you can expect. And even that sorry level of non-commitment is only for the projects with the highest budgets; most titles haven’t aspired to reach the quality levels of even the worst television and best anime.

I always thought that if a game finally got it right, people would catch on. As evidence: the Old Man Murray guys put themselves out as the curmudgeonly, anti-intellectual voice of the unpretentious videogame audience, and they’d frequently complain when games tried to get all uppity and pretend like they were art. But you could still see their eyes light up about No One Lives Forever. And that game was a pretty standard stealth-FPS except for its storyline and some pretty clever dialogue.

Lately, though, a frightful rumbling has been going on across the weboblogosphere. Roger Ebert stirred up a shitstorm of angry, Halo-addled shut-ins when he said that videogames were incapable of being art, but he was hardly the first person to ask the question. It used to be that the question would result in a long and tedious debate about the role of “meaning” in videogames, lots of knee-jerk defensive arguments about how the industry is still in its infancy and they must be judged on different criteria than other media and by the way have you seen ICO/Grim Fandango/Rez/Deus Ex?

But nowadays when you ask “are videogames art?”, the response is less likely to be the usual debate about the role of “meaning” in videogames and more likely to be “Who cares? Shut up! Nobody understands me. Fuck you!” Games aren’t supposed to be art, they’re supposed to be fun. The game mechanic is what’s most important. Human beings are better than any AI, so it’s all about multiplayer, and cut-scenes just get in the way, so get them out of my face and let me start playing.

It’s not just the undereducated gaming masses saying this stuff, either. At this year’s SXSW Conference, Will Wright delivered a keynote about Spore and procedurally-generated game content. The actual transcript of his speech is pretty even-handed, but if you were to go just off the recaps posted in blogs everywhere, you’d think the key take-away was this: developer-created stories are an anachronism. Player-created stories are the future. Every time you make a cut-scene, you’re crushing a child’s soul.

Now, Will Wright’s one of the only people working in games that I have no reservations about calling a genius. Even better, an entertaining genius. So there’s no way I’m going to go on record as flat-out disagreeing with him.

But I will say that taking his presentation as the Grand Unified Theory of videogame creation is a path doomed to disappointment. I don’t even believe that was his intention; he’s got his biases and preferences — in his case, playing meta-games, treating the released version of a game as a toy or sandbox to create his own version of the game. And the Spore model is not the way to make videogames, but a way.

Most troubling is this quote:

I wanna take the player out of the protagonist of Luke Skywalker, and put them in the world of George Lucas.

Of course, when you put people into the role of George Lucas, you end up with stories like those written by George Lucas.

That’s not just a slam against Lucas, it’s getting at the basic truth: making a good story is hard. Even the guy who made Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark isn’t guaranteed to hit it out of the park every time. Will Wright puts his own optimistic spin on it when talking about user-created game content and social networking sites:

But most of the content is not so good, and a smaller percentage is great, but as we give them better and better tools, we’ll increase the quality of what they’re doing.

Which is a nice thought, I guess, but even the best tools can’t create talent where there is none. You can get a copy of Photoshop and a fancy graphics tablet, and that doesn’t make you an artist. (I speak from experience here).

But say you take a less pessimistic view, and assume that every person has a great story inside him that’s just bursting to get out, if only he could find the right tools. There’s still the question of inspiration. I want a game, or a movie, or a TV show, to show me something that I haven’t seen before. I want to see stuff that’s better than the stuff I’m capable of making. I like to think I’m a pretty imaginative guy, but the best story I’ve ever come up with in The Sims is one that I’d dismiss as pointless trash if I saw it on TV or read it in a book. And it didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know.

Opening things up to multiplayer isn’t a cure-all, either. It just turns your story into “And then I was crouching behind that wall when I saw the red team getting closer to the bomb and I pulled out the sniper rifle right before he reached it and just nailed him but then a red guy came around and circle-strafed me with an AK-47 and I died.” Awesome story, I want to hear that one again. The current crop of multiplayer games, even ones with great game mechanics, are social experiences. Calling them a “story” would be like building a theater, getting the audience together, and then never putting on the play.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a well-designed multiplayer game, especially if it’s got a solid game mechanic underneath everything. But I know that games are capable of more than that; I’ve seen it. Wouldn’t it be great if I could play Counter Strike for a couple of hours and feel that I’d actually learned something, experienced something, or accomplished something greater than just getting better at Counter Strike?

I’d be the first to say I’m defensive about keeping story — real stories, not just settings or scenarios or interactive toolsets — in games. Obviously, the main reason is because I want to get the chance to make one, dammit. The work I’ve done that I’m proudest of has been writing for videogames, but it’s always been adding dialogue to other people’s stories. And they’ve been pretty traditional, putting what I like to think is a higher level of polish, but on an already established format. I want to try to come up with a new way of telling a story in a videogame, that shows more of what the medium’s capable of. If only to find out whether I really do understand how these things work, or if I’m just all talk.

The other reason is that I can tell you pretty much exactly when I decided I wanted to work in videogames. I was in college working on an ill-conceived art major after having given up on film school, and I bought The Secret of Monkey Island. I didn’t know anything about the game other than having seen the demo; it was a parody of Citibank commercials at the time, and it was the first example of videogame material I’d ever seen that was genuinely funny, not just funny “for a game.” Now that I had the full game, I went through the opening and finished reading the first few bits of dialogue, and then exited the bar. The screen said “Meanwhile…” and cut to a scene on LeChuck’s pirate ship. They were miles away, talking about my character and what I’d been doing. The scene finished, and the game cut back to my character, standing outside the bar.

Baby’s first cut-scene, a magic moment. It’s pretty standard stuff now, and in fact is exactly the kind of thing that videogame fans have become jaded about and are now railing against, but at the time it was genuinely mind-altering. It had never occurred to me before that going into computer science didn’t necessarily mean a future of creative famine. Or that something on a computer could be as satisfying an experience as a movie or a TV show.

And I think it’s significant that the big moment for me wasn’t when a game gave me the freedom to tell my own story, but when it took control away from me and said: this is the kind of story we’re capable of telling.

That’s all preamble, and it’s already too long. Actual ideas of how to go about it will have to come in other posts. For background reading while you steel yourself for the coming onslaught of baseless conjecture, check out: Ben Kuchera’s articles about storytelling in games currently running on Ars Technica, and Warren Spector’s article about next-gen storytelling in The Escapist.

9 thoughts on “Is there anybody going to listen to my story?”

  1. I know what you mean, re: story. It’s weird – I’ve never understood why games have to be either/or. I mean, all sorts of other media accept a huge variety of content, but for some reason, a lot of people who talk about games talk about them like they can either be sandbox, or have story. Why not both?

    I mean, it’s not like games have to be 100% interactive, all the time. There’s a huge variety in how much games engage people. Some really successful games are quite passive and movie-like, while some games are really heavily interactive.

    To me, my *favorite* blend of the two is Half Life 2 – it’s not the most interesting *story*, but the presentation of it is so phenomenal that it’s basically completely unique. The way Valve integrates story and interactivity just blows my mind. But the story itself isn’t very interactive, so there’s room for improvement.

    Thing is, I think most people fundamentally are talentless and stupid – that’s the exaggerated version of it. I don’t want to hear most idiots rambling about some pointless bullshit in their user-generated schlock. Give me a talented storyteller who understands interactivity, with good tools and a talented team to back them up. I’ll pay for that. I won’t pay for say, 99% of the garbage on Youtube, even if that remaining 1% is absolute genius.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Seppo. You make me look optimistic and good-natured in comparison.

    But seriously, folks: I agree with you that it basically comes down to balancing activity with passivity. And that Half-Life 2 was one of the most successful games at it ever made.

    I must’ve spent too much time browsing the web while working from home, because I think I crossed some kind of point in Web Acceptance. A while ago, I would’ve said the 99%/1% estimate was being way too generous, that the internets is just a relentless torrent of crap.

    But there really is great stuff being done out there by random people who don’t make a big production out of it.

  3. Prince of Persia:Sands of time was a great story.. I wanted to keep playing to find out what happened next in the story. Jordan Mechner did a great job. When the sales wern’t as strong as they wanted UbiSoft made the absolutely awful Warrior Within. Fans questioned why Mechner was pushed aside. UbiSoft critizized Mechner and said they hired two great hollywood writers for this new story. It was awful and as generic as it comes. So UbiSoft made the same game that floods the ebgames shelves. Is the problem those making the games or the people buying that crap? If you are solely targeting a young male audience will we see any creativity? The right balance between story and gameplay creates the classic games that you remember forever.

  4. I believe there’s a lot of mix-up between story and storyTELLING in games. The story is one thing, but how it is told is another. You can have a great story and shoddy storytelling. Think Death of A Salesman dinner theater. I think a lot of gamer’s complaints about story in games is actually about the Storytelling method in games.

    I think the cutscene is the least innovative way to convey a story in game. It is the opposite of everything a video game is about. Yes, it gets the point across, and yes it uses a method that is very Hollywood-like, but in the end it’s a non-interactive bit you feel obligated to sit through lest you miss the one line that actually tells you how to solve the next level; paranoid to touch the controller for fear you might abort it.

    Prince of Persia: Sands of Time had voice-over narration that happened while you were still free to roam and explore the world, and to me that was a really innovative way to further a story without making me antsy for interaction. It’s story AND game at the same time. They were delivering important context without wrestling control away from me. I’m sure that’s been done in other games, but I thought the execution of it in Sands of Time was genius. What makes it great has nothing to do with the story itself, just that they had hit on a great way to pace out the storytelling without bogging down the gameplay.

    And I think this stems from the fact that the only thing that video games has over movies as far as storytelling goes is interactivity. It’s about control and freedom. And the cutscene has none of that. It often isn’t even in the same format at the rest of the game.

    Just as early cinema developed new ways of communicating story to the viewer outside of sheer exposition, I think video games need to try harder at integrating storytelling into gameplay without the binary switch of “Now you’re playing/now you’re watching”. I think this is actually *why* the story-in-games debate is as common as it is — because too many developers lean on the least-interactive ways to deliver their story, as if story and game were not to be mixed. I know LucasArts designers of the 90s tossed them around like footballs.

    So, the full mea culpa on this is that the very “Meanwhile…” scene in Monkey Island in which Chuck speaks of was the very moment I got hooked on adventure games and where I discovered how engrossing games could be. SCUMM games were all about those moments for me and I think the cutscene works best in Adventure games.

  5. Samantha: Yeah, it was a bad idea, poorly executed. The only classes in college I got C’s in were art classes. That’s partly why Monkey Island was such a revelation for me; it showed that it would still be possible to make something artistic, without having to do something that I suck at.

    Hanford: Excellent point about story vs. storytelling. I know I always conflate the two when it comes to videogames, because most games I can think of either succeed or fail at both.

    It’s hard to think of an example of a great game story marred by bad storytelling. Maybe Grim Fandango? I don’t feel qualified to comment on that one, since I never really played it, because I already knew the answers to all the puzzles. But I did get the sense that it was an awesome story that was shoehorned into an average adventure game.

    It may help explain Gears of War, though, which you could say is a lousy story told spectacularly. But is that really storytelling or just presentation? A lot of the cutscenes feel like they’re ripping control away from you at weird moments, and some of them which didn’t take over soon enough (like the one that was supposed to explain the birds that only attack in darkness, which didn’t trigger for me until after I’d already been killed like five times and had to re-watch the setup cutscene each time).

    I do think that cutscenes are a crutch, even for adventure games.

  6. I’d like to throw out Second Sight as a great example of good videogame storytelling. Okay – not really. The voice acting is terrible. Most of the writing is also awful. But there’s one plot twist that is *astonishing*, and makes the entire game’s story worthwhile. If you’ve never played it all the way through, I’d highly recommend it.

  7. Here’s a question: How non-linear/branching/interactive can a story be and still be a really good story?

    It seems to me like MOST of the really wicked awesomely good stories are pretty darn linear, told/written/crafted by a good story teller. I keep hitting my head against that when trying to design “interactive” stories. Do we really want to give the player control over the story (like Willy Wright says), or just make them feel “immersed” and part of the story (and not really give them much control over the plot except for moving it ahead).

    And I think a game that let’s players make up their own stories is a very different beast than one that tells a story made up by the game designers. Willy seems to lean heavily towards the prior.

  8. Here’s a question: How non-linear/branching/interactive can a story be and still be a really good story?

    My current thinking is that you have to take a step back and re-think what it means to say “story.” From what little I’ve seen of movie/TV production, they use “story” as a catch-all that includes scenario, world-building, dialogue, theme, message, set design, etc. and the actual script is only part of that.

    In theory, in a game you could still convey every element of the best story MINUS the narrative. In other words — I’d agree that most of the really wicked awesomely good stories are linear, but the question is how much of their wicked awesomeness DEPENDS on their linearity? How much of it depends on “this stuff happens IN THIS ORDER” and not just “this stuff happens”? I suspect that it’s not that much.

    Player-driven story games and designer-driven story games are very different, but I don’t think they’re two completely separate schools, or a major fork in game design that will result in two parallel paths. I think that they’re just coming at the same problem from two polar opposite ends. In the center, you’ve got this ideal and imaginary game that perfectly balances control over the experience (or the narrative) between the designers and the player.

    Nothing’s achieved that yet, and it’s going to be YEARS before anyone does. But the two different approaches can help each other — story-based games can learn more about player control from games like The Sims and Civilization. Sandbox games, or games that are all about a central mechanic, can learn more about giving players depth, purpose, and context from games like Grim Fandango and the Final Fantasy games.

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