More proof that ignorance is bliss: I’d been happily reading the internet for at least a year before I knew what “tl;dr” meant. Apparently, it means “too long, didn’t read,” and now it’s got my vote for the absolute worst internet acronym. Ruder than STFU, more arrogant than RTFM, stupider than ROFL, more vapid than ^__^, all combined in five attention-deprived characters. Plus, that should be a comma, not a semicolon.
But still: I do tend to go on a bit, especially when I’m making things up as I go along. So here are my thoughts so far on storytelling in videogames, in convenient list form:
- Videogames can and should tell stories. It’s ridiculous that this is even controversial.
- Not every game needs to have a story. This should be obvious, but the moment you say “videogames should tell stories,” that’s immediately mis-interpreted as “all videogames should tell stories.”
- Stop saying “videogames are young.” It’s a cop-out that comes across as defensive, defeatist and lazy. The medium won’t just automatically mature at a certain age, just like videogame players don’t automatically mature at a certain age.
- Games already have their Citizen Kane. It’s called Super Mario 64. Not if you’re looking for validation from movie critics, but if you’re looking for a work that advances its medium as its own thing, just as Citizen Kane advanced cinema. Games already have their Godfather, Singin’ in the Rain, Pulp Fiction, Star Wars, and about a billion Aliens, as well.
- Games can learn from movies. Games aren’t movies, but that doesn’t mean they’re completely mutually exclusive. Just because we don’t want super-long cutscenes doesn’t mean we can’t analyze how movies (and comics, and novels, and plays) work and apply that to interactive entertainment. (It also doesn’t mean that Hollywood types who try to get into games are automatically doomed to fail, just that the odds are not in their favor).
- Games have an implicit narrative. Humans are natural storytellers, so for all but the most abstract of videogames, we impose our own story, with a beginning (“I skipped the opening cutscene”), middle (“I shot some guys”), and end (“I beat the game.”) Because of this, I claim:
- If your game tells a story, then the story should be as important as the gameplay. Don’t treat it as an afterthought, or even “salt” to the real “meat” of the game. When you do, that creates a conflict between the designer’s story and the player’s story, but:
- The player’s story is not more important than the designer’s story, and vice versa. As long as there’s a conflict, one of them is going to get diminished in importance. Which just perpetuates the cycle of “videogame stories aren’t important because videogame stories suck because nobody think videogame stories are important.”
- Agency is the most important part of interactivity. What separates interactive entertainment from other media is simply that the player is the one who’s driving the experience forward. Contrast “agency” with two other aspects of interactivity:
- “Immersion” is too shallow. Even if the player is completely surrounded by a story, it can feel passive and reactive if the story is happening to him, instead of being driven by him. On the other hand:
- “Choice” isn’t everything, either. The intention is to give maximum control to the player, but the result means that the player sees a limited part of the available content. So he can choose from several shallow stories instead of experiencing one great story.
- No seriously, choice isn’t everything. The above is usually described as a limit of current technology. “As games advance, then we’ll eventually be able to give the player complete control.” That is not the holy grail of videogame design. It’d likely be a cool experience and is definitely worth pursuing. But:
- Entertainment is communication. Neither the developer nor the player wants to be left in a vacuum. And:
- The communication goes both ways. If the player has complete control, then the developer is squeezed out of the communication, and the player ends up just talking to himself. Therefore:
- The best videogame stories are a collaboration between the developer and the player. This is the only part of what I’ve been writing that’s at all novel. (And for all I know, it’s already been said lots o’ times elsewhere).
I think that sense of collaboration between the people who made the game and the people who played the game is the most important thing in videogame storytelling. I believe that’s the area where games are truly different from other media, and where games have the most potential to improve.
So far, I’ve only got a few sketchy ideas on how to foster that feeling of collaboration, all pretty specific to certain types of games:
- Let the player predict what’s going to happen. Horror and suspense movies do this, sometimes without even realizing it. Turn the story over to the player occasionally, so they’re anticipating the story, instead of just reacting to it.
- Let the player have multiple goals simultaneously. Or, “make the game less linear.” This isn’t branching, or artificial choice-for-the-sake-of-choice. It’s done in adventure games mostly to give the player something to do while he’s stuck. But in any game, it reinforces the player’s involvement, because it encourages him to think about the game on multiple layers (What am I doing right now? What will I need to do later?), instead of just making him wait for his next batch of instructions.
- Make story events a direct result of the player’s actions. Simply put, the story shouldn’t be “I went to the enemy base and then the front door exploded, trapping me inside” but “In order to enter the enemy base, I had to hack into the front door controls, causing it to explode, trapping me inside.”
- Overlap the cause and effect loops. This is also “make the game less linear,” more or less. It just means avoid the story “I did this then this then this,” in favor of the story “I did this, which caused that, which caused that, but then this other thing happened because of what I did at the beginning of the game.” This fosters the sense of collaboration, because I’m acting and reacting simultaneously, instead of just doing my thing and triggering a response from the game designer.
- Give the player a chance to figure things out. Action games have different pacing requirements than adventure games. But the constant handholding in action games is getting ridiculous: “press this button” in the objectives window, with the button highlighted on the minimap, and a big arrow pointing to it in the game world. Tell the player explicitly what his overall goal is, but let him take some time to figure out exactly how to accomplish that goal. If players are getting stuck in playtests, then add some adaptive system to detect when they’ve taken too long, and be more explicit in pointing the player in the right direction.
- Be concise. Learn from my mistakes.