Myths of Videogame Storytelling

storytellinggiant.jpgAbout a year and a half ago, I started writing a series of posts on here about “myths of videogame storytelling.” The idea was to take some claim I’d found on the internet about the role of stories in games, and explain why it was hopelessly, incontrovertibly wrong. Here they are, in chronological order for your convenience and protection:

  1. Is there anybody going to listen to my story?
    My justification for writing about the topic in the first place.
  2. You’ve unlocked… Rosebud!
    Stop rationalizing the failures of videogames as a medium with “games are still young.” Also, stop assuming that games have nothing to learn from movies.
  3. Pro Choice
    Player control of the narrative isn’t as important as player agency.
  4. Ready… Be fought against!
    “Activity” in storytelling games is more than just pressing buttons, it’s becoming actively engaged in the storytelling.
  5. The Old Man and the Realistically Rendered Water Volume
    (A diversion to make fun of a guy I don’t know). If you want to improve the state of videogame writing, stop setting such miserably low expectations of it from the onset.
  6. There’s no second chance to make a first impression
    No matter how open-ended and non-linear you try make your game, the player is going to experience it in a line from start to finish.
  7. The Calls Are Coming From Within the Ice Level!
    How horror movies often do a better job of interacting with the audience than ostensibly “interactive entertainment.”
  8. Who’s in control here?
    Player narrative and developer narrative are equally important.
  9. I’m thinking of a number between 1 and You’re Dumb
    A defense of adventure games, and why action games haven’t yet rendered them obsolete.
  10. Back off, man. I’m a scientist.
    Good storytelling in games requires a collaboration between the developer and the player.
  11. tl;dr;fu
    A brief recap of everything I’d written up to that point.
  12. Resident Evil, But They’re in Space!
    (Another diversion). Why Dead Space was a fine game, but games like it will drag down the entire medium until we start demanding more from the storytelling.
  13. Feedback’s a bitch
    We can make games demand more of the player without frustrating the player, as long as we treat the game as an ongoing communication instead of a static presentation.
  14. Feedback loop
    More about treating games as ongoing communication, this time in regards to scaling difficulty.
  15. On Brevity
    Videogames need to remain aware of how discrete pieces of writing will fit together in the final context of the game. Rhythm and flow are more important than length.

And that’s the last of them. They’re generally too dense to encourage any long-term discussion, even if I had time to keep up with the comments. Plus, I’ve now said everything I could possibly say about Portal, BioShock, and Half-Life 2 (at least until Episode 3 comes out).

Most significantly: they take too long to write, and any time spent writing about videogames would be better spent making videogames. These days, there are just too many tools available and too much great inspiration from the independent game developers for anyone to be content just writing hypothetically about how games should work. There’s no excuse not to put the theories into practice.

9 thoughts on “Myths of Videogame Storytelling”

  1. Okay, well put. And yet, to me, your ruminations have pointed to an undiscovered country. Your critical skills are acute, and I wonder if you have any interest in talking about a theory of game structure that breaks from the theories of dramatic structure that date back to Aristotle.

    A dry exploration, to be sure, and I couldn’t fault you for having no interest. But if you did, I’d propose this as a place to start:

    The traditional map of dramatic structure–exposition, rising action, etc.–can be taken a writing guide, but it’s also a map of the audience’s inner experience during the course of a good story (or at least, so one hopes). But is this in fact also the map of a player’s inner experience during the course of a good game. Does it even make sense to talk about the inner experience had while playing a game (curiosity, frustration, pride at achievement, etc.) the same way one talks about the inner experience had while being entertained by a story (fear, joy, anger, etc.)? How would one map a person’s inner state over the course of playing a great game, and what would one label the axes?

    An intriguing thing about this line of thought, to me, is that it potentially provides a unified theory that can be used to compare wildly different games, such as Fallout 3 and World of Goo.

    But anyway, like I say, I couldn’t fault you for seeing that as an even more pointless diversion from the important work of actually making games.

  2. I have the opposite reaction. These to me all form a defense of the existing form. There is no undiscovered country here (which is death, btw).
    As to the ‘POETICS’ of interactivity…now you’re just trying to make me mad.

  3. I’d certainly hate to cause irk and ire. But “Poetics” (thanks for eruditifying me, I appreciate it) simply does not, I think, apply to something like “The Incredible Machine.”

    You can certainly make a strong argument that story games are a special case, and cannot be meaningfully compared to, say, “Space Invaders”. That would seem to be common sense. Which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is plenty good reason to question it.

    I’m proposing that just as the insights of “Poetics” apply equally to Macbeth and McGyver, any universal theory of gaming has to take into account both Monkey Island and Pachinko. By applying critical thought to look for common elements between such incredibly divergent pastimes–which yet are obviously both games and nothing else–we can perhaps arrive at an analysis of what makes a game “work,” what makes a game compelling. That analysis, I suspect, would lead us to look at story games with perhaps greater insight than “Poetics” can be expected to.

    Of course, if you can convincingly apply “Poetics” to “Tempest”, that’s a job well done.

  4. No, no. You misunderstand me.
    I find the concept of a unifying game design theory horrid, and at best unhelpful.

    Games must offer something new, otherwise there is no point in playing them. People just play the old game until something that offers a different experience comes along.

    Codifying game design is self defeating.
    With stories on the other hand, humans love hearing the same damn thing over and over.

  5. Well, I’m sorry to have misunderstood you, and sorry indeed to have horrified you!

    I like your point about the insatiable human thirst for hearing the same story again and again; “Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooie,” eh wot?

    It seems what horrified is the concept of a prescriptive theory of game design. I am more interested in a descriptive analysis of the experience of playing any “good” game.

    And may I point out that in the effort to decry such a thing, you have yourself engaged in it: “Games must offer something new.”

    Well put! And that points to a starting point for the analysis, perhaps. We can say the first stage of engaging any “good” (in quotes to acknowledge the subjectivity of such a thing) game is a byproduct of novelty: intrigue. A game must first intrigue.

    You seem to feel there is no more to say, however. “Games must offer something new,” full stop. Maybe.

    Maybe not, though. To say “a game must offer something new” is to describe a game, whereas I am proposing an analysis of a player. For example, let’s take intrigue as a starting point. What might come next? Perhaps we could call the subsequent stage familiarization. One learns how, basically, the game works. Perhaps we could call a third stage “challenge evaluation.” One is intrigued by a game, one learns how it works, and then, crucially, one evaluates the challenge: “now that I know how to play, do I want to?”

    Is that all? Maybe. Maybe the only universal game experiences are intrigue, familiarization, and then a recurring cycle of challenge evaluation, with the player continuing to play until the answer to the challenge evaluation is “no.”. Even with a game that has an ending, like Monkey Island or Super Mario World, one could say the end is just another opportunity for challenge evaluation: “do I want to play this again?”. So maybe that’s all that can be said.

    But maybe not.

    Anyway, enough. The line of thought intrigues me, but I can’t fault anyone for finding such analysis dull, pointless, and obvious. Or even, so it seems, irritating. Fair enough, enough said.

  6. Jesse, there’s a ton of discussion out there along the same lines as you’re talking about: how to develop an understanding of games as separate from comparing them to linear narrative. I can’t give you any links, I’m afraid, since I don’t usually keep track of that stuff: it tends to be way too academic to interest me, and they use terms like “ludonarrative dissonance” and that makes me sad.

    You could try starting with Gamasutra’s GameSetWatch blog, which frequently links to long-form articles from people blogging about games. They usually link to each other, so you can just follow the trail from there and see where the discussion goes.

    I don’t have a lot to contribute to the discussion, either, since that kind of thing doesn’t interest me. In fact, the “myths of videogame storytelling” posts on this blog started partly as a counter to that: there seemed to be a growing sense that we’d done all we can with narratives in games, so it was time to abandon that and invent this Entirely New Language of Videogame Design! I think that mixing things up and innovation are desperately needed, but to say that we’ve even come close to hitting the limit of what games can do with traditional narratives, is completely ridiculous. We’re just barely starting to see people really experimenting with videogame storytelling.

  7. Thanks for the tip–though your description makes it sound pretty deadly. Sayeth the pot, maybe, but still.

    I’d hate to be construed as anti-narrative, though, just to be clear. ‘ray narrative!

    And bringing it all back home: I’ve enjoyed reading your thoughts. You write with clarity and precision without being reductive, at least to these eyes, which is a pleasure. Thanks.

  8. Well, thanks. I reserve the right to keep writing about games on here; I don’t think I can avoid it. I’m just bored with the dissertations and am more interested in starting discussions.

    (That I’m in control of).

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