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.
Hrm. So, reading your post reminded me of this thing I’d been thinking about for a while, now. And this isn’t really a “fully formed” thought, so I’d be interested to hear why it doesn’t work, if it doesn’t. Here goes:
A videogame presents the user with a compelling choice that impacts their ability to make future choices.
Not exactly a definition of a videogame, because it’s not really video-specific. But the core is about the choice. That’s not to say that “choice is everything,” particularly in the way that you discuss it above. But games *are* primarily about user interaction. How do you inform a player where to go?
You can have a HUD element that shows them, you can explicitly say “go here,” or you can embed the information in part of a story and make the communication feel more natural. The degree to which a story is “required” in a game is dictated by how the designer wants the information conveyed to the player.
The degree to which that story is interactive, in this case, is largely irrelevant. If the choice that the player is presented with in the game is to change the story somehow, fine – it’s *likely* that to make that choice compelling, the story needs to react to the choice, it needs to give the user context for that choice, etc. But it’s not implicit in creating a story for a game.
What *is* necessary is that the story is relevant to the user’s actions.
So it all *does* come back to choice.
I’m not sure exactly what you’re saying, but it sounds like I completely disagree.
A lot of the current writing about game design (if not the actual process of game design) takes Sid Meier’s quote that “a game is a series of interesting choices” and runs with it. Games are about interactivity, interactivity means letting the audience choose what happens. At that point, you start talking about “probability spaces,” and everything else — story, setting, UI, music, etc. — is just about filling up that probability space with context and “information [that needs to be] conveyed to the player,” as you put it. The core choices are still the structure and purpose of the game.
My problem with that is the first assumption: that interactivity means choice. I think that’s true for a subset of games, but it’s not the definition for all games. I believe that agency is more fundamental to interactivity than choice is. I don’t care as much about “I chose this over that,” but “I did this.”
My reason is that that probability space is always going to be finite. The designer knows that, and the player knows that. As the player, I’m only going to see a subset of the choices anyway, so why do I care about the stuff I don’t choose? Being finite doesn’t mean that it’s shallow, because I’ve played more hours of SimCity and The Sims and Civ 3/4 probably than all other games combined. If you’re as clever as Meier and Wright are, you can get seemingly indefinite permutations from a finite set of inputs.
But it’s bad for storytelling, since stories generally favor depth over breadth and hate repetition. If you’re putting all your energy into making this huge “probability space,” then the result of each choice has to get more granular and shallow. While units in a strategy game or interactions in The Sims can be repeated several times before they get old, repeating plot developments or lines of dialogue in a story will only work so many times before they feel cliched and tedious. There’s a reason Choose Your Own Adventure books aren’t great literature.
So it sounds to me like you’ve made a circular argument: you’ve assumed that a game is a series of interesting choices, and storytelling in games exists only to provide context to or information for those choices, and therefore choices are important.
I’m assuming that a game is about giving me a goal and a toolset and letting me use those tools to reach that goal. In a solitaire card game, that goal is to fill the reserve stack. In a storytelling game, that goal is to complete the story. That doesn’t mean that choosing between different story branches wouldn’t be cool (I think it would, and am interested in seeing how we can make a genuinely compelling “choose your own adventure” story), just that it’s not necessary.
“Games already have their Citizen Kane. It’s called Super Mario 64.”
The eternal movie:games analogy is something I think a lot about as well, and it’s funny that I came to a similar conclusion, but I used a different game. For me, games have their Citizen Kane and it’s called “Chess”.
I think your analogy is tighter, as you address the specific reasons for Citizen Kane’s deserved position on the top of movie charts and draw a line between those reasons and the reasons for Super Mario 64’s greatness.
Indeed, my analogy is more of an exasperated retort against those insecure gaming enthusiasts (aka EA executives) who hand wring when faced with the Awesome Awesome that is Film.
Video games share the rich tradition of narrative with films, but films have fuck all when it comes to interactive play. For that love, you need games, of which the electronic variety are a member in full standing.
Well, after this and another conversation in e-mail, I’m thinking Super Mario 64 was a bad example for what I’m trying to say. Because I haven’t really been talking about videogames in terms of sheer gameplay, but as a storytelling medium. And Super Mario 64 is a great game but not a great narrative; it’s not really “about” anything except fun and exploration. You’d never mention chess in a discussion about storytelling games, because it’s too abstract.
The relevant part of Citizen Kane to this isn’t just “it’s a good movie” but that it’s an example of how to tell a gripping story in a way that only a movie can. It didn’t just film a play, it used all the things that a movie can do to deliver its message. So pretend I said “ICO.” Or “Shadow of the Colossus.” Because both of those convey whatever mood or meaning they have via their gameplay, not via cutscenes or by telling you explicitly what they’re about.
If you’d said Super Mario Bros. instead of Super Mario 64, you could make a case for it narratively, though–most movies have maybe three big plot turnarounds, but Super Mario had seven. “Thank you, Mario! But our princess is in another castle!” M. Night Shyamalan wishes he could hit that note seven times in a row.
Jeez, Chuck, the more I read of your site the more I feel like you’ve thought of everything I’ve thought of, but thought of it first…
Re: Games and Citizen Kane: way back in the day, around the time when Day of the Tentacle was being released, a Lucas designer said to me, “I want to see somebody do the Citizen Kane of games.” Not giving it too much thought, just to be contrary, I said “I think games already have their Citizen Kane. It’s Doom.”
I’m not sure I was right, but it sticks in my head just because it’s so counter to normal thinking. Doom is the exact opposite of what everybody means when they talk about “The Citizen Kane of games”–it’s got no story, it’s mindless, and it doesn’t make you think or confront any issues at all. But it’s fun as all hell, and when it came out, nobody had seen anything like it.