Ready… Be fought against!

Defensive Blanka is DefensivePreviously on Spectre Collie, I got alarmed at what I saw as the rising sentiment against storytelling in videogames. The people on the message boards and blog comments kept saying that storytelling and interactivity are mutually exclusive, that story-based games aren’t games at all! And notable people like Will Wright were making proclamations that the old ways are dead, and sandbox games are the future.

I did the most sensible thing in response: I made a game that proves storytelling and gameplay can not only co-exist peacefully, but can support and enhance each other, turning videogames into the most engaging storytelling medium there is.

Wait, hang on — I didn’t do that, because really, who has that kind of time? Instead, I started writing a series of lengthy posts on a low-traffic weblog about it. And as it turns out, I was being a little reactionary. It’s never a good idea to interpret postings on message boards and comments on weblogs as being accurate, objective indicators of public opinion. And Will Wright’s championing sandbox games is about as alarming as Frank Miller advocating stories about whores.

Three of last year’s biggest releases — The Orange Box, Mass Effect, and BioShock — were mostly story-driven, and the two that I’ve played found ways to start innovating with storytelling in a big-budget high-profile title. And if you look at the schedule for this year’s Game Developers’ Conference, you’ll see dozens of seminars about how you approach videogame storytelling. So either the field is still wide open for story-based games, or game developers will say anything to get a free pass to a conference.

Still, I know where my paychecks are coming from, and I do like to pontificate, so I’m going to keep on trying to debunk the Myths of Interactive Storytelling, responding to actual statements I have read on the internet.

Myth 3: Storytelling is inherently passive.

This one usually comes up whenever a Hollywood type announces plans to get into the videogame industry. They’re all doomed to fail, apparently, because movies and TV shows have nothing in common with games, and there’s nothing to be learned from passive, old-school media. Every time you try to apply the techniques of cinematic storytelling to a game, you’re killing the interactivity and stabbing a dagger into Mario’s heart.

The reason this is bunk is pretty simple: it assumes that communication between an artist and audience can only go in one direction at a time. In a movie, you shut up and watch while the filmmakers tell you a story. In a game, you’d like to get to playing at killing bad guys and saving the world, but the designers refuse to shut up and instead keep trying to tell you a story.

To be fair, the majority of story-based games are exactly like that: play then wait. Watch a cutscene, mash buttons for a while, sit and watch another cutscene, repeat. (Including the consistently hilarious series of episodic Sam & Max adventure games, available for just $8.95 from Telltale Games). And a distressing majority of movies are indeed content to let you sit back and watch their story unfold as well.

But the best movies (and even many of the bad ones) demand that the audience stay actively engaged in the storytelling in order to get the full experience. And plenty of games have clumsy moments because of this insistence on activity for activity’s sake, instead of meaningful activity.

Starcraft: Ghost Orchid

One of my favorite movies is Adaptation. (If you haven’t seen the movie, all this could be considered spoilers, but I think the movie still works regardless.) One of my favorite moments in that movie is when the character of Charlie Kaufman is caught spying on a tryst between the character of Susan Orlean and her interview subject, John Laroche. She sits and thinks for a moment about what they’re going to do, then looks up and simply says, “We have to kill him.”

I burst out laughing at that scene, but everyone else in the theater was completely silent. It was awkward.

When I point out that I was the only one in the theater laughing, I’m not saying that I’m particularly clever or smart. Only that everyone else in the room was particularly stupid. Or actually: that we were all watching the same movie, but processing it differently. Some people undoubtedly reached the “a-HA!” moment a lot earlier than I did; others watched the entire movie and didn’t “get” the gimmick until after it was over, or at all. And sure, plenty of people picked up on what the movie was doing, and didn’t like it precisely because of the gimmick. But that’s irrelevant to a post about storytelling in videogames: the point isn’t the structure of that movie, or whether it works, but how it works.

Adaptation demands that you stay actively engaged in processing the movie while you watch it, that both lines of communication stay open throughout. When a new character or a new scene is introduced, you have to test it against everything else: is that based on a real person? How close is the movie version to the real version? Did this scene happen in real life? Did it happen in the book? Is it even happening within the movie’s version of reality, or is it a dream, or a movie-within-a-movie? Unless you stay actively processing everything you’re shown, sorting it into its proper place and putting it in the larger context, then everything falls apart. It becomes just a story about a whiny, self-obsessed neurotic with a lousy ending.

It’s definitely not the only movie that does this; even the most straightforward murder mysteries ask you to do the same thing. But Adaptation is one of the few comedies to do it (you could say 8 1/2 did the same thing, almost 40 years earlier). That’s proof that “active watching” isn’t limited to just certain genres, or just movies with twist endings. And it’s one of the few that makes the “meta” movie so integral to its overall message, where it uses the structure of the story to tell the story — it tells the story of a bad adaptation of a book by being a bad adaptation of a book. That’s the part that’s most relevant to videogames.

The Orchid Thief: The Dark Project

The reason that’s so relevant is because that is the next big hurdle for storytelling in videogames: figuring out how to use the structure of the gameplay to tell a story (or to convey meaning). When people claim that games have nothing to learn from movies, I believe that’s only because game developers have only been successful at using superficial cinematic techniques in the same way that most movies use them: how to frame a shot, how to light a scene, how to choreograph exchanges of dialogue, how to look like Aliens or City of Lost Children, or how to structure a story so your big twist happens here and your dramatic action-packed climax happens there.

The result has the feel of a game that’s been duct-taped to a movie, similar to how early film and television felt like pointing a camera at a stage play. Movies only started to mature when filmmakers started experimenting with the things you can’t do with plays and novels: showing only parts of a scene, making big leaps in time and space, and taking advantage of the frame or the fact that you’re being shown in a theater. Adaptation takes advantage of the fact that it’s a movie, it knows how the audience watches movies, and it relies on the fact that the audience will be so familiar with Hollywood cliches that it’ll spend most of its time trying to second-guess the movie.

What games add, obviously, is activity. And instead of treating that as completely separate from narrative, we need to find better ways to incorporate that into the narrative. Game theory is its own field of study, and to some degree they’ll always be separate — the skills required to come up with Bejeweled aren’t the same as those required to make Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But claiming that they’re completely incompatible is just a sign of frustration that we’re only just now finding ways to make them compatible.

The Three

One game that manages to do this is BioShock. Taken solely as a game, it’s pretty unremarkable — it’s fun enough, and there’s a variety of weapons and different strategies for different enemies, and that alone must’ve taken some considerable game design and playtesting effort. But without everything else, it’d go down as a reasonably fun but not particularly memorable magic-based first-person shooter. Which is why it’s a good thing they spent so much time on the setting and the story, and experimenting with different methods of telling the story.

Several moments of the story are told with good old-fashioned cutscenes. These are passive, for the most part — you’re still processing information and thinking how you’re going to apply it the next time you get control back. But they’re not taking advantage of any aspect of interactivity to tell the story.

Other moments are Half-Life 2-style faux-cutscenes: you’re allowed to move at least the camera, but you have no real control over the action, and everything stops until the scene is done. These are good for immersion, to remind you that you’re still involved, but they’re still ultimately passive.

It also, as I’m definitely not the first person to point out, uses the audio logs from the System Shock games. These basically piggyback a passive chunk of story onto whatever activity you’re currently doing. By placing them correctly, you can take advantage of the location and do some neat things with them — play screams or ominous music to build tension; let you hear a lively room while you’re looking at the ruined version to build mood; let you hear the explanation for how this corpse was murdered or this room was destroyed, to advance the plot. But they’re still basically passive; I’ve heard complaints from players who wanted the game to pause while you were listening to them, to make them explicitly passive. As with the faux-cutscenes, adding interactivity often doesn’t really add anything to the story.

But the best moment in the game, maybe in any game of the last year, didn’t happen in a cutscene or an audio log. It was coming into a room and seeing a message scrawled on a wall. If I remember correctly, it didn’t have any special music cues or camera cuts, the only contrivance was that the room was designed in a way so that you couldn’t miss it. Still, it felt like you had discovered it, that it wasn’t just shown to you. And it forced you to reconsider everything you’d done up to that point, not just everything you’d seen. (It’s followed almost immediately by a cutscene that makes everything explicit, but the real moment of discovery occurs before the cutscene).

Again, it’s somewhat similar to Adaptation, in that it makes a self-referential comment about the medium, which isn’t just parody but emphasizes its overall message — for Adaptation, it was about passion, desire, and the knowledge that the process is more important than the conclusion; for BioShock, it’s about free will and control.

Portal’s best moment is a scrawled message on a wall, as well. And it works because again, it knows what you’ve been doing. It’s placed you in an rigidly controlled, monitored environment with no real explanation of how you go there or why you’re doing the things it asks you to do. It knows that the tasks you’re doing are disorienting, simultaneously explaining the details of how the game works while relying on the fact that you’re unfamiliar with it and unsure of how it works. It starts gradually dropping hints that the situation is more sinister than you’d first expect. It presents one scenario after another where the objective is the same: to escape. And then, it gives you a peek “behind the curtain,” and a message that at any moment, you’re really going to want to escape.

Part of the reason the game works so well is because it has such an ingenious control over pacing, and pacing is supposed to be one of the things that videogames have absolutely no control over. But the real genius of it is that it’s got self-awareness baked in, without being just a gimmick or a “meta” game. It feels like a first-person shooter, but it’s not; it’s a puzzle game. But then, puzzle games aren’t supposed to have stories. Most of the game is spent subverting what you’ve been trained to expect, using an unfamiliar environment to train you how to play differently. Then finally, it throws you into a familiar environment, but now with a completely different set of tools.

And for a non-first-person-shooter example, there’s Day of the Tentacle. I still say it’s the best-designed adventure game there is, and I said that even before that could be considered sucking up to the boss. The reason it works is because so much of it bridges that gap between the active and the passive. It’s funny, but you’re rarely just shown a joke. Instead, you’re given all the components of a joke, and have to put the pieces together to make the punchline.

Those three games combine activity and passivity to varying degrees, with varying degrees of success. None of them does it perfectly, but I don’t think that any game has done it perfectly yet. One of the terms you’ll hear about a lot if you hang around videogame developers for too long is “mode switch.” We’re reminded that we have to be careful when going from minigames to puzzles, or inventory management to fighting, or cutscenes to gameplay, or in general, “doing” to “thinking,” because the shift can be jarring to the player.

I’d like to see games get to the point where we’re not so wary of the mode switch, where the shift isn’t jarring because you’re thinking, doing, and listening, all at the same time.