Back off, man. I’m a scientist.

Previously on Spectre Collie, I made the claim that action-oriented games like shooters and platformers and “action/adventures” haven’t yet lived up to their promise of rendering traditional adventure games obsolete. Conventional wisdom says that adventure games are great stories on top of lousy, illogical, frustrating, and boring gameplay, and therefore

Myth 8: If you could combine the stories and characters of the best adventure games with a style of gameplay that’s actually fun to play, you’d end up with better games.

But conventional wisdom is wrong and dumb. The problem, as usual, is that insistence on that division between “story” and “gameplay.” Whenever I’ve rambled about storytelling in games before, I’ve usually been talking about how purely cinematic storytelling techniques are clumsily grafted onto action games, the host game rejects the donor story, players get frustrated, and people come to the conclusion that storytelling has no place in videogames.

And it goes both ways: the results can be just as bad when a story-driven game is moving along with all the right character developments and plot twists, and then suddenly realizes oh crap we’ve had 15 minutes of solid cutscenes and we need to cram some interactivity in there. The message isn’t “story makes better games,” but “games with stories need to make the story and the game the same thing.” In theory, it should be impossible for an adventure game to have a great story but lousy, illogical gameplay, because a great story is inherently logical — there can be twists and surprises, but nothing that has you asking, “Where the hell did that come from?”

The appeal of adventure games isn’t that they can have complex stories, interesting characters, and detailed environments. For better or worse, those are standard issue in big-budget games these days; games as shallow, story-wise, as Quake and Unreal are now a rarity. The real appeal of adventure games isn’t in telling the player a cool story, it’s allowing the player to collaborate with the team to tell a cool story.

You’ll often hear fiction writers claim that at a certain point in the writing process, their original outline gets thrown out and “the characters decide where to go next.” You get a similar feeling in writing meetings that are going well. The story gains a momentum on its own, pieces fall into place, connections are formed, and new ideas are created. What if those numbers from the numbers station transmission turn out to be winning lottery numbers? What if the bad guy turns out to be the hero’s father?

Adventure games have a spotty record of capturing that feeling; some of my favorites have only one or two instances of its really coming together, and some don’t have it at all. But I’ve never seen it in done in non-adventure games. Games like BioShock and Half-Life 2 can have you immersed in a world and engaged in a story in a way that non-interactive entertainment simply can’t, but still, you’re always reacting to the story, never creating it.

Since I’m usually long on theory but short on actual practical examples, here are some examples from my favorite games to explain what I’m talking about:

The Control Group: Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge

Early in Monkey Island 2, there’s a part where you have to get a piece of your enemy’s clothing to complete a voodoo spell. The only item you have at your disposal is a bucket, the only people you’ve met are the bad guy, a Voodoo Lady, and some incidental characters who happen to be dry cleaners, and among the only locations you have available are the bad guy’s bedroom, a pirate town, and a swamp. As with any good adventure game puzzle, what you’re trying to accomplish has been made explicit. It’s up to you to figure out how you’re going to accomplish it.

The reason I like this puzzle so much is because I figured it out as soon as I realized what role I was playing in the game. You’re not playing as Guybrush Threepwood, or even as an unspecified “pirate.” The game’s already established itself as a comedy, one that throws in plenty of anachronisms and frequently breaks the fourth wall. So the role you’re playing isn’t a pirate, but a guy sitting in a room in Marin County with a bunch of other people writing jokes for a comedy game. Which means the solution is, more likely than not, a sight gag. Once I made that connection, I could see the whole bit played out before me. For the gag to work, I need to get to here, which means I need two things: and hey look guys, I’ve got those two things in my inventory, remember? And each step had its own little reward of confirmation (yes, you can use the bucket on the mud!) all the way up to the final reward of seeing the punchline play out.

In adventure games, these are usually described as “a-ha moments,” but that’s always struck me as kind of passive. As if the designer is standing there, tapping his foot and checking his watch, waiting for you to stumble on the right answer. I think of it as an “Ah, I see where you’re going with this” moment. It’s a kind of delayed collaboration — I’m recreating the same steps and going through the same leaps of logic you guys went through when you were making the game. And that, along with about 80-90% of Day of the Tentacle, is what I’m talking about when I talk about videogames’ potential as “collaborative storytelling.”

Consider the Heavy: No story, no collaboration

Team Fortress 2 isn’t a story-driven game, at all. It has all the elements of a great story — astounding art direction, memorable characters you can identify with, interesting environments, and an overall tone and sense of humor that sell it as a complete “world.” But it doesn’t want to tell a story, it wants to provide a playground for an action game. So it seems like a lousy game to mention when talking about videogames and story development, but I think there’s a perfect example here:

One of the best tactics in the game (at least when it was first released; the balance may have completely changed by now) was to have a Heavy/Medic combo. One class is pure offense, one is pure support, so when you combine them they offset each other’s weaknesses. Now, discovering that combo is something I would’ve liked to do, and I would’ve felt very proud of myself afterwards. But I never got the chance to discover it; it’s basically built into the game, where each class is clearly labeled as “offense,” “defense,” and “support.” I don’t know enough about the series to know whether it was “discovered” by players in the first game and then carried into the second, but I do know that even before I played my first match of TF2, I already knew to combine a Heavy with a Medic. (And to always shoot the Medic).

It seems odd to claim that there’s “no collaboration” in a game called Team Fortress, but I’m talking about collaboration between the player and the designer. And the game’s focus on balance means that the designers are actively working against any individual player discovering a new twist, a sure-fire way to win. These classes work well together because they’re meant to work well together. This sniper point is vulnerable to fire from here because it’s designed to be. That “secret” passage you “discovered” into the enemy base? It’s supposed to be there, and everybody knows about it. The game doesn’t reward discovery, because it isn’t supposed to be about how clever you as an individual player are. It’s about putting two evenly-matched teams in evenly-matched environments and rewarding the players who are best able to interpret the rules. A story-driven game wants the good guys to win; TF2 is agnostic as to who’s the good guys and who’s the bad guys. It just wants everyone to have fun.

The Sims 2: Infinite stories, no collaboration

The Sims games’ appeal is in letting the player realize any story he can come up with. And just like it is while writing a piece of fiction, you’ll sometimes find the stories in the game gaining a momentum of their own and heading off in unexpected directions. The character you set up to be the villain of the neighborhood turns out to just want to lie on the couch and watch TV. The couple you planned to get together and have lots of kids either turn out to be gay or one of them dies in a fire. Any session of The Sims is filled with dozens of story moments.

But nobody cares. Or more accurately, the game doesn’t care. (Actually, now that I think about it, and after trying to describe my individual Sims stories to other people and seeing their complete lack of interest, I was right the first time). Because the game is intended to be near-infinitely extensible, there’s no one “right answer.” There are dozens of end-goals to achieve — max out skills, max out career paths, make out with n other Sims — but each of those has exactly one solution. The real end-goal is simply whatever you choose to be the end-goal — get this guy into the most expensive house in the neighborhood, make this woman the neighborhood crime lord — and as such, you’re not collaborating with the game’s designers to reach that goal.

The designers’ hand is always visible; there are plenty of clever interactions or inspired pieces of animation that play out in response to certain actions. But the communication in the game is only one way at a time: the player sees something happen, thinks “Hey, that was funny,” and then goes back to telling his own story.

BioShock and Portal: Meta-story, no collaboration

I’m lumping these two games together, only partly because I’ve already written everything of interest I could possibly say about each. Mostly, it’s because as far as this topic is concerned, the key storytelling moment of each game works exactly the same: both involve finding something written on a wall, both do an amazing job of pulling the player into the game while turning the context of the game inside out, both give the feeling that you’ve broken through the surface story and are now experiencing the game on a deeper level, and neither one has a damn thing to do with what the player does for the rest of the game.

If anything, the conceit that I’m “subverting” the game makes it even more apparent that I’m not really subverting anything at all. As far as interactive entertainment goes, these are still huge achievements: they’re storytelling moments that are significant to the player only because of what the player’s been doing up to that point, not simply what the player’s been seeing, as it would be with a big twist in a movie. But they’re still ultimately passive: the big moment happens after I’ve done something, but not because I’ve done something. I couldn’t have predicted either one was going to happen, so obviously there’s no way I could’ve made it happen. I’m involved in the story, but I’m not involved in the storytelling.

Half-Life 2, or, Stop Patronizing Me

But then, I doubt that was the point for either game. They weren’t shooting for “collaborative storytelling,” but immersive storytelling. You’re not supposed to identify with some level designer or scriptwriter, you’re supposed to be that guy, the one doing all the jumping and shooting. And immersive storytelling is what Half-Life 2 and its episodes are all about.

The Half-Life games are the only first-person shooters I’ve played that are 100% first person. You never see the character you’re playing. (Apparently he shows up in “Opposing Force” and “Blue Shift”, and also a photograph, but I never saw those. And yet, Gordon Freeman is one of the most recognizable characters in videogames. Hooray for Valve’s marketing department). They’re getting increasingly cinematic and epic with their storytelling, but the focus isn’t on making the story, but experiencing the story. If there’s any story moment that would require breaking that, it gets cut (and you hear about it later). Anything that happens in the game happens to you. Everything of significance happens around you. If there’s an enemy base to be invaded, you’re the one to do it. If there’s an exploding tanker to jump over, you’re the one driving the boat. And if there’s a button to be pressed, you’re the one who presses it.

Which would imply that you’re taking on the role of Gordon Freeman. But you’re not, exactly. This guy’s ostensibly a theoretical physicist, but he never actually does any science past pushing buttons or plugging things into sockets. Everyone around you calls you the savior of humanity, but it comes across as a little patronizing — all you do is what the game tells you to do. It’s a lot more impressive that you can pick up and move objects with your mind, but nobody seems to notice that.

Of course, all of that’s intentional to some degree; he’s supposed to be an unexpected action hero, as a counter to the lone space marine or special operative of other games. The game never lets him become a transparent stand-in for the player; everyone calls him by name and talks about his history and comments on the great things he’s done. But ultimately, he’s a cipher; you’re not playing a character, but the cameraman.

And most importantly, the game never assumes you know what’s going on. There are frequent sections where you’re on your own, but the tasks are clearly laid out for you, destinations are clearly pointed out on a map, and the way things work is either told to you explicitly by another character or requires a minimum of simple experimentation. These games aren’t stupid at all, but they’re not cerebral either; you’re never required to think too hard about a solution. There are puzzles that require thought instead of action — my favorite is the part in HL2 where you have to get your speedboat over a barrier by forming a ramp — but you solve the puzzles through trial and error, and they’re all self-contained bits of interactivity. They’re included for pacing reasons, not to establish your character or to trigger an event in the larger story.

Again, there’s some terrific storytelling going on, on an epic scale, and it’s done in a way that only games can do — even if you filmed a movie entirely in the first person, it wouldn’t have the same effect — but there’s still no sense that you’re collaborating in the storytelling. You drive the action, but not the story.

Every Good Killing Spree Needs Time to Reflect

So the question is whether it has to be like this, and whether that’s even a bad thing. One of the things you’ll frequently hear about games is the idea of a “mode switch:” it’s jarring for the player to have to go from pure action to pure thinking. And from the other side, a frequent complaint about adventure games is that you’re often stuck with no idea what to do or even what you’re supposed to be doing; the next step of the story doesn’t happen in the game but in your head. So you’re taken out of the game while you try to figure out what to do next.

As much as I like to think of myself as a thoughtful videogame-playing manchild, I’ve found that my patience and tolerance for dead spots in action games is startlingly low. I’ll patiently explore every corner of the environment in an adventure game, but if I have to spend 30 seconds finding the exit door in a shooter, I’m cursing the level designers.

But that’s by no means insurmountable: Portal‘s a great example of a game that uses all the trappings of a first-person shooter in a more sedate game. There’s hardly ever any time pressure, and assuming you’re not a time-trial completist, you’re encouraged to take things a little slower while you try to work out the solution to a puzzle. We’re seeing more sophisticated pacing in action games, where level designers put in sections that encourage the player to slow down and explore, or find a hiding place and listen to a voice recording to further the next chunk of story. So I don’t think the clear division between “thinking games” and “action games” is doing anybody good; I think it’s just a holdover from when game genres were more clearly divided.

Dual Class Player/Designer

I believe the bigger problem is figuring out what the player’s role in a game is. I said that for some of the puzzles in Monkey Island 2 or Day of the Tentacle, you’re taking on the role of the game designer, figuring out the next few story beats and then carrying them out. That’s fine for comedy games that are all about breaking the fourth wall, but how does that work when your game is all about immersion?

Since I’ve never really worked on one of those big-budget games, anything I came up with would be pure armchair designer speculation. (I definitely haven’t worked on a game as aggressively playtested and iterated on as Valve’s games, where they pound the hell out of everything to guarantee no one gets stuck). My biggest question is why there’s such an emphasis on self-contained set pieces and scripted events. I’m told to go to the docks, I see a submarine blow up, I get my next mission objective. I’m told to go to a hotel, I’m ambushed by Hunters, I kill them, I get my next mission objective.

I don’t have any problem with linear narratives in game, but I don’t see why they have to be based on such simple objectives like “go here”, or why the cause-and-effect chain has to be so rigidly controlled with no overlap. Why not give me the general goal (“escape the city,” or “get to the rocket,”) and let me figure out the steps in between? Why not set it up so that the cool stuff happens not just because I’m there (“here’s where the sub blows up”, “here’s where these guys ambush you”, “here’s where you’re attacked by a sniper”), but as a direct result of what I’ve done (“the sub blows up when I try to launch it”, “I get ambushed because the sound of my car alerted a sentry,” “the sniper attacks because of that guy I killed in the last level.”) When one event leads naturally to the next, I feel like I’m in control of the story, even though of course I have no actual choice in what happens. And then I feel that the story isn’t happening around me, but because of me.

Don’t tell anybody I said this, but: I’m not particularly in love with point-and-click adventure games. They’re fine, and will always have a place, just like it’s still fun to play a side-scrolling shooter or a 2D platformer. But it’s not as if there’s something inherently perfect about the genre that’s not reproducible in other types of games. I’d love to see all the future-speculation of the “Dark Forces/Half-Life era” come true, and have games that are as engaging and immersive as story-driven shooters, while still giving that same rewarding feel of collaborative storytelling as point-and-click adventures. We’ve already learned that cutscene abuse is bad, and are learning to give interaction back to the player. But we’re still not giving enough control of the storytelling back to the player, treating it like a collaboration. Not throwing up our hands and saying, “do whatever you want and we’ll stay out of the way, we don’t care.” And not treating the story as a sequence of controlled environments the player can run around in, doing stuff that has no bearing on the rest of Our Story.