What If… Nothing Was Different?

Thoughts on the new “What If…?” app and other immersive experiences for the Vision Pro, and revisiting some old assumptions about interactive storytelling

Today I went through1Watched? Played? :shudder: Experienced? The lack of useful verbs is still a problem when trying to talk about interactive entertainment the new What If…? app from Marvel and ILM for the Vision Pro. It’s an interesting and extremely well-made mash-up of the animated series, some light minigames, and the “immersive” format that Apple is pushing with the visionOS platform.

I think it’s currently one of the best examples of what the platform is capable of.

People more cynical than me could probably dismiss it as just another VR experience, just like they insisted that the Vision Pro is just a fancy VR headset and Apple doesn’t want you to say that! I still think that the differences are subtle, but significant. You could absolutely bring the What If app to another mixed-reality headset, and you could even bring it to a pure VR headset without losing much. But I believe it would feel like an inferior port.

It’s designed to fit in perfectly with how (I think) Apple is positioning their headset. In particular: it’s a seated, “lean back” experience, feeling more like an animated series with interactive elements than a simplified game with extended cut-scenes. It also uses gesture controls as its only interface, having you grab infinity stones, fling objects around, fire magic bolts, hold shields, and open portals using only your hands. (Tying it into Doctor Strange and having your guide be Sorcerer Supreme Wong was an inspired choice).

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    Watched? Played? :shudder: Experienced? The lack of useful verbs is still a problem when trying to talk about interactive entertainment

Half-Life: Alyx is not an immersive life sim

How the Half-Life series has all the ingredients of a perfect VR game and then subverts most of them

Valve released a new Steam Link app for the Quest headsets that lets you play wirelessly connected to a PC running your Steam library. At least with my particular home setup (Quest 2 connected via WiFi to a Windows machine in a different room connected via Ethernet), it runs flawlessly.

This is pretty huge, since it removes one last bit of friction that’s kept me from playing Steam VR games for a very long time. There’s not really enough space to play VR games comfortably in the room with my PC. And the whole process of starting up Steam VR with a physical USB connection was always more than a little clunky, especially compared to the just-pick-it-up-and-turn-it-on nature of the Quest1Ironically, the Quest seems to have gotten some updates since I last used it, and they make it kind of clunky and unwieldy to get into the experience. I especially enjoyed how an app designed to demonstrate hand controls would refuse to start up unless I had the controllers..

Now there are only a couple of stumbling blocks left: I never have time to play games anymore, and I’m so bad at them that experiences designed to last a few hours will for me stretch out over months or even years.

On that note: I always imagined I’d write about Half-Life: Alyx once I’d finished the game, or at least gotten farther than the first chapter. But I’m realizing that that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, partly because I rarely get time to play, partly because of the weird time-dilation in video games caused by my ineptitude, and partly because being trapped in confined spaces with zombies is so creepy that I need to frequently take the headset off and take a break.

But Alyx is the absolute gold standard for VR experiences, easily the best one I’ve played at home and likely even better than location-based stuff like The Void. And it’s tonally perfect for the Half-Life series; in particular, the slow build-up to action, as you’re dropped into a mundane moment in a bizarre world. I think of the series so much as clicks and explosions and gunfire and shrieks and expository speeches and electronic music, that I forget how quiet it often is.

There’s a ton of fascinating stuff that happens before you even encounter your first zombie. And I found myself running out of superlatives for the whole design experience by the first time I fired a pistol.

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    Ironically, the Quest seems to have gotten some updates since I last used it, and they make it kind of clunky and unwieldy to get into the experience. I especially enjoyed how an app designed to demonstrate hand controls would refuse to start up unless I had the controllers.

Stay a while longer, and listen some more

Thoughts about Diablo 4 after the open beta, and how much storytelling is actually “necessary” in one of the most successful game series of all time

Featured image for this post is from the Diablo IV website.

Last weekend, I played through a little bit of the Diablo IV open beta — long enough to get past the tutorial section, but not long enough to form any kind of solid opinion on the game overall. Disclosure: one of my friends has been working on it, so I’m not going to do any kind of real “review” of it, even after I’ve played it for much longer. I will say that I enjoyed the beta a lot, and while it was probably inevitable that I’d end up buying the game no matter what, I’m actually looking forward to getting back into it now.

But while I was playing through Diablo IV, I was struck with the uneasy realization: this franchise isn’t made for me! I don’t mean that in the usual sense where any white American male gets uneasy when confronted with any media that isn’t made specifically for him. I mean that I’ve put dozens if not hundreds of hours into the Diablo games over the years, more than any video games apart from The Sims and maybe SimCity and Civilization, but I don’t think I’m the target audience at all.

I just play these games as single-player action/adventures. I don’t care at all about min/maxing. I’m actively repulsed by multiplayer. I don’t pay much attention to weapon or armor stats, beyond the slot-machine “this number is higher than that number” dopamine hit that forms the basis of all Diablo games. I don’t care about the ideal build of a character, only about what’s the most fun to use to smash shit up. And I play the games for the story.

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Haven’t Got Time for Immortality

Immortality is both a masterwork and a frustrating example of the limitations of interactive storytelling. Spoilers within.

Immortality is a fascinating and frustrating interactive movie that asks the audience to solve the mystery of what happened to a promising young actress by watching and scrubbing through clips from her three unreleased films. I can’t remember ever having this kind of reaction to interactive entertainment, where I can recognize that it is both a fantastic achievement of ambition and execution, and also a disappointment.

I’ve been careful to say “interactive movie” and “audience” instead of “video game” and “player,” because Immortality is not a game. I don’t consider calling something “not a game” as a pejorative, and it’s absurd that people get so hung up about it, but this is kind of a weird case. The main thing that keeps it from being a video game is my biggest issue with it: you navigate the experience with insufficient information, so you’re essentially wandering through a collection of very well-made video clips, instead of making meaningful choices.

But this is a perfect example of how I’m of two minds about Immortality, because the thing that made it ultimately not work for me is the same thing that made it an amazing experience for the first several hours. It’s structured so that it’s front-loaded with discovery, as you’re uncovering more and more stuff and marveling at how deep and layered the whole experience is. It’s honestly unlike anything I’ve experienced in games or interactive entertainment before, and to come up with any kind of comparison I’d have to go way way back to the early days of the internet, when following a hypertext link could result in diving down a rabbit hole that seemed to have no end.

I read a review that promised no spoilers, but then talked about something crucial to the game that I really wish I’d discovered myself. So I recommend going in cold, with just one piece of advice: play it with a game controller if at all possible. I spent the first evening using just a mouse and keyboard, and while it was still fascinating, it turned out that I was missing a crucial part of the experience, and I was just going around in circles. The rest of this post is going to necessarily give too much away, so I recommend giving it a try even if just for those spectacular first few hours. It’s absurdly affordable considering how much work obviously went into the production, and it’s also currently included with Xbox Game Pass, if you want to take a risk-free dive into it.

Spoilers follow

Until Done

First impressions of Until Dawn and the current state of story-heavy games

Until Dawn is a horror game about a bunch of dead-eyed teenagers in their mid-20s, none of whom have full control of their necks. The game is set in a dark, secluded ski lodge in the mountains in the dead of winter, where they’ve all gathered to celebrate the one-year anniversary of a cruel prank that resulted in the disappearance and/or death of two of their friends because why not.

Even though it’s emulating the style of horror movies, it’s inexplicably split into “episodes,” each with its own “Previously on Until Dawn” sequence to recap the stuff you just did 30 minutes ago. According to the episode count at least, I’m still only about halfway through the game.

Normally you’d experience an artistic work to its conclusion before you’d be arrogant enough to start critiquing it, but I’m not going to do that for two reasons:

  1. Even B-grade horror movies scare the hell out of me, so I can only play the game in short, tense bursts where my heart’s racing and I’m not particularly enjoying it. By the time I actually finish the game, it’s probably not even going to be relevant anymore and I might as well be writing a navel-gazing analysis of the ludonarrative complexities of Night Trap.
  2. I feel like I’ve already seen everything that interests me about the game.

What interests me is the way games are developing a unique language of storytelling. I particularly like trying to pick apart horror movies, because they have a built-in tension between active and passive storytelling that they share with narrative-driven games. (It probably helps that horror movies are usually so easy to pick apart, because they’re usually so direct in what they’re trying to do and trying to say).

So this is, if anything, a “first impressions” instead of a review of the game. So far, the game hasn’t blown me away with its originality or any particularly brilliant achievement, but what it does have going for it is that it’s completely accessible and surprisingly compelling.

Uncanny Peaks

It’s weird to be An Old Person (in video game terms) whose first exposure to horror games was Uninvited‘s black-and-white, MacPaint-drawn rooms, but still be dismissive of Until Dawn as an artistic achievement. Just look at it! It’s got recognizable actors like Hayden Panettiere and Peter Stormare painstakingly motion captured and rendered down to their pores, walking around extremely detailed environments with dramatic lighting. Plus each of the eight characters is controllable at some point in the game, which would be a ton of animation work even before all the narrative branching were taken into account.

So it’s frustrating to think of all that work being undone by dozens of small, seemingly insignificant details. Like how the characters seem stiff and overly fidgety unless they’re in a canned cutscene, at which point they’re clearly walking around on a sound stage. Or the eyes that never focus quite right, or the necks that don’t move quite naturally. As well done as it all is, it still ends up feeling like a bunch of robots wearing rubber masks of the actors.

That feels to me like a problem of technology, though. (I can already hear the groans and see the eye-rolling of character animators and modelers reading my dismissive “Press button to make character look human” take on it). The environments don’t get off as easy, because that seems like a problem of design. And one that hasn’t been solved by any narrative-driven game I can think of.

The first iteration of Until Dawn was apparently focused on directing a light source with a Playstation Move controller, and that’s very evident in the final game. There’s dramatic and atmospheric lighting throughout, with a flashlight or lantern cutting through the darkness, and it all makes for a very distinctive look. (One criticism I will make is that for every distinctive environment like the ski lodge or cable car station, there’s another generic one that’s lifted directly from the book of Early 21st Century Horror Movie Locations).

But the environments are detailed while by necessity having few objects that you can actually interact with. So important items are marked with a glint of blue light. Which means that a stray reflection off snow, or a strong specular highlight on a doorknob or vase or something, looks like an object of interest, and you keep getting taken out of the moment trying to figure out how to get to it and activate it.

On top of that are all the problems of level design that aren’t at all unique to Until Dawn: areas that feel like narrow corridors from point A to point B, rooms where it’s not obvious how far you can travel until you run into an invisible wall, spaces that give the illusion of being freely explorable but actually only have one or two areas of interest.

All of these problems are common, because they’re all fundamentally the result of having multiple design goals that are completely at odds with each other. Everything you do to encourage exploration and decision-making are going to kill your game’s pacing, and vice versa. Too few objects to interact with, and the environment feels barren and video game-like; too many, and you’re wasting time looking at incidental things that have no bearing on the plot, draining all the urgency out of the moment. The more you make a level “intuitive,” where the “right” way to go is the one that just feels right with no obvious clues, the less the player feels as if he’s actively exploring a space and making decisions.

It works the same way that the uncanny valley does for characters, since counter-intuitively, making things more realistic or more subtle just makes the problem worse. Playing Until Dawn has frequently reminded me of Gone Home, since they both have you wandering around dark spaces looking for things to pick up and turn over in your hands to get the next bit of environmental storytelling. Gone Home‘s objects and environments are obviously much less detailed and realistic than Until Dawn’s — whether out of intentional design or simply the fact that it’s a much smaller team and smaller budget — but it still has a better sense of place. It’s entirely likely that I’ve already spent more time in Until Dawn‘s ski lodge than the entire running time of Gone Home, but the latter’s house is the one that feels like a real place. I can still remember the layout of that house and where stuff happened, while I have no clear picture of how the ski lodge’s rooms even fit together.

It occurs to me now that “uncanny valley” is inherently optimistic; it just assumes that the problem will go away if we keep pushing forward. I’m starting to become skeptical. I’m sure that there’ll come a point in the future where it’s feasible and even practical to motion-capture an entire performance. Production on that type of game will become just like it is currently for linear media, and the software will be advanced enough to seamlessly blend between pre-recorded and procedurally generated movement in real time. In fact, after seeing how far “intelligent assistants” have come on cell phones in the past few years, I no longer think it’s unrealistic to expect CG actors to be able to understand natural language and respond intelligently.

But all that assumes that making things more realistic will solve all the problems, when we’ve seen time and again that interactive entertainment is a medium that rewards artifice and punishes realism. It’s Understanding Comics material: our brains are constantly looking for tiny, nitpicking details that will make something realistic seem “off,” while at the same time eagerly filling in the blanks on less detailed things to make them seem more recognizable and human.

To bring it down out of the clouds and back to a specific example from Until Dawn: most of the “teenage” characters are going for a completely naturalistic performance in both their voice delivery and motion capture, which ends up with lots of “ums” and “ahs” and overly-casual poses that just seem weird in comparison to everything else. It inevitably feels like a mannequin playing a recording of a real person instead of a real person.

Peter Stormare’s character, on the other hand, is played completely batshit crazy. He’s chewing the scenery so hard that he tears right through the fourth wall. It doesn’t feel at all real, but his character is still somehow the most compelling. Even though the lines he’s given and the questions he asks aren’t all that interesting, in my opinion. Most of the teenagers feel like disposable ciphers in comparison.

Warning: Explicit Language

So I think the “problem” with going for something hyper-realistic isn’t actually in rendering or art direction, but in game design and narrative design. When I said that Gone Home does a better job of establishing a sense of place, I don’t think it’s because of its relative low fidelity, or even due its careful and thoughtful level design (although both contributed to it). I think the main reason is that the game’s pacing allowed you to explore the space at your own leisure. You aren’t just dumped into a space and left on your own — it’s clear that a good bit of thought went into gating the sections of the house in a believable way and making sure that the revelations of the story could play out non-linearly and still make sense — but there’s nothing pressuring you towards the next story development except for your own interest and curiosity.

My biggest criticism of Gone Home is still the same as it was when I first played it: there’s absolutely no sense of player agency in the entire narrative. Everything interesting has already happened by the time the player’s game starts. And by the end of the game, it even seems to be mocking the player for wanting to participate in the experience.

Until Dawn is basically at the other end of the spectrum, desperate to remind the player how much they’re shaping the entire experience around player choices. I was going to say that it fetishizes player choice, and it does so almost literally: instead of fetishes, there are vaguely native American-ish totems lying around everywhere that dispense prophetic visions. (When each one gets discovered, the camera zooms inside, which makes for a hilarious image of a teenager picking up this weird totem and immediately slamming her face into it).

In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept of branching narratives, the game helpfully talks about the butterfly effect, then drives the metaphor home with an elaborate sequence where you fly over the veins in a butterfly wing. Each crucial junction point in the game is punctuated with an animation of butterflies. There’s a screen listing each of the story threads, which lets you page through your choices and see how they build on top of each other.

When I played Telltale’s Walking Dead series, I said that that game’s notifications of branching points (“So-and-so will remember that”) were a pleasant surprise. They seemed jarring, artificial, and clumsy at first, but in practice turned out to work like musical stingers. If we accept non-diegetic music in movies and don’t freak out that there’s suddenly a full orchestra in the shower with Janet Leigh, why dismiss non-diegetic notifications of in-story developments as being too “gamey?”

There are plenty of aspects of cinematic “language” that would be weird if we hadn’t spent a century being trained to accept them without a second thought. Cuts and montages are the most apparent, but even the way filmmakers compose shots is so deliberately unnatural that when we’re shown a scene framed the way a person would actually see it, it’s unsettling. In games, though, the tendency has been to reject all the game-like elements almost as if we should be ashamed of something so clumsy and primitive. Health meters have to be explained in-world as displays generated by your hazard suit, assuming they’re not eliminated altogether. Even Mario games have to explain that there’s a Lakitu following you around with a camera. Instead of developing a new language for games, it seems as if there’s a desire to hide the fact that they’re games as much as possible.

The obvious problem with Telltale’s approach is that they haven’t done anything with it. It was promising at first as an intriguing warning of story developments to come; after so much of it, it feels as empty as a jump scare. It’s just “a thing that these games do,” as if they’re not as interested in actual innovation in storytelling as they are in branding.

Until Dawn‘s notifications make Telltale’s seem restrained by comparison, but I think they work better as a result. When a story branch occurs or a clue is found, you’re shown exactly what happened, given a good idea of what it means, and you’re explicitly shown the junction points that led up to it.

That’s not to say that the choices are particularly interesting. So far, they’ve been all over the place — actual considered decisions are extremely rare. Most take the form of split second binary choices that don’t give enough information to judge against each other, e.g. “take the quickest route or the safest one?” Others let you slightly steer a conversation in one direction or another, which supposedly affects your relationships with the other characters. Others just go the Saw route and have you deciding between one horrible thing or another.

(When I bought the game, I’d forgotten that modern horror movies have been overtaken by stuff that don’t interest me at all or actively repels me, like all the torture porn franchises or the found-footage craze. I’d been expecting something more like 80s slasher movies or the Scream series. I’d still like to see more done with the Final Destination movies, because I think they’re relentlessly clever and it’d be interesting to see if it worked at all when made interactive).

As often as the game reminds me that characters can die as a result of my choices, I rarely feel like I’m making informed choices. But I’m not sure that that’s a failure of the game, because I don’t believe the game is trying to present a narrative built off of your player’s informed choices. I believe its ambitions are a lot more modest and straightforward. I believe it just wants to be a pastiche of horror movies, but with a simple layer of interactivity: instead of yelling at the screen “don’t go into that room!” you get to decide whether the character goes into that room or keeps going down the hallway.

In other words: it aspires to be a movie with some moments of interactivity, instead of a story-driven game that’s presented cinematically. The reason I believe that’s the case is because it uses the language of horror movies throughout, even at the expense of the game.

Secret Agents

Sometimes, it works fine: the sequence in which Sam is exploring the lodge alone seems to be what the game was designed for, the standard scene from any slasher movie translated shot-by-shot into a video game.

Occasionally, it works so well that it seems too ingenious to be completely intentional: having multiple controllable characters is nothing new, but it turns out to be a perfect way to re-introduce cinematic edits into a video game narrative. Usually, games have to take place in some version of real time, and you’re either relinquishing complete control of the pacing to the player, or making the player feel like everything’s on rails and she’s in a shooting gallery. Thirty Flights of Loving is all about using cinematic cuts, flashbacks, and flash forwards in a first-person game, but it’s frankly tough to tell how much of the experiment could be translated to feature length. Until Dawn has no reservations about cutting away right as something interesting happens, but it doesn’t feel like missing time, or like the player’s had control ripped away from her, because she’s immediately given another part of the story to work on.

Most of the time, it just seems to be doing its own thing with the player input as something of an afterthought. You’re occasionally given something to open or push or flip over to read the back, but it doesn’t do much for engagement or immersion since you’re just following prompts. Same with several of the arbitrary binary choices: I can’t reliably predict what’ll happen if I choose hide instead of run, but I’m going to try it anyway. A lot of the quick-time button-press sequences, on the other hand, work surprisingly well. I despise QTE sequences on a philosophical level, but in this case, they add tension throughout — the usual “something is going to jump out and kill these fools,” but with the added stress of knowing that you could be asked to participate at any moment. Of course, these are even more random, unpredictable, and have no regard for agency: there are several sequences where Mike does a whole sequence of acrobatics in a cutscene. Or decides to shoot something, and even though I think it’d be a big mistake, I’ve got no option except to pull the trigger.

(To be fair: there are a few moments where the player’s choice not to do something is used for dramatic effect, and those are pretty well done).

But Until Dawn also insists on using some horror movie tricks that just definitively do not work in a video game, and it’s infuriating. The worst offender so far is the painfully long sequence of Mike and Jessica making their way through wooded paths up to a cabin. The game cuts away — over and over again — to show that there’s a strange person in the woods stalking them. We get just about every possible variation that’s been used in movies before: the Predator style POV shot. The shot where the characters walk off-frame but the camera stays behind to show the stalker waiting in the woods. There’s a particularly asinine jump scare one where the stalker is suddenly visible in a set of binoculars right as Mike stops using them. They’re infuriatingly tone-deaf, because they act as if what works in a movie will work in a video game with absolutely no thought given to player agency.

It’s entirely possible for a player to know more than a character, and to get tension out of that. In fact, Until Dawn does an adequate job of it later on, starting off the sequence I mentioned earlier where Sam is walking through the house alone. The player knows for a fact that there’s a killer in the house, but really, that’s something the player’s known since scene one. In that case, having the audience know more than the characters works exactly the same way it would in a horror movie.

The sequence of Mike and Jessica walking through the woods cuts away so often and so clumsily that it goes past “frustrating” all the way to “insulting.” If you show me a POV shot where a weird dude is looking directly at the characters I’m controlling, and then immediately turn the joystick back over to me, of course my first inclination is going to be to walk directly to where the guy is standing and ask him what’s going on. If you show me a flash of a bad guy in a set of binoculars, of course I’m going to immediately try and use the binoculars again.

The fact that I think it works with Sam’s sequence but completely fails with Mike and Jessica’s may seem like a contradiction until you consider what role the player has in Until Dawn. For me, at least, I’m never playing as Mike or as Sam. I’m floating in limbo somewhere between the director of a horror movie and the movie’s audience. Maybe I’m a production assistant?

During Sam’s sequence, the character’s goal and the player’s goal are aligned: we both want to find out what’s going on. So even though I know more than she does, following the trail is the best course of action because I know something interesting will happen when I get there. During Mike & Jessica’s sequence, their goal is to get to some absurdly distant cabin to have sex. I have absolutely nothing to gain from their having sex. I’m more interested in when this story is going to finally commit to being a horror movie and make something happen, already. So introducing the threat and then repeatedly showing it and pulling it away isn’t cleverly manipulating the tension between what the audience knows and what the character knows. It’s just showing me the thing I want to do — bring on the confrontation! — and then yanking it away from me for no discernible reason.

The Tingler

“Partipulation: Participate in your own manipulation.”

The other day I caught the tail end of a conversation/skillfully-defused argument where a bunch of people were trying to call out Patrick Klepek of Kotaku for writing “Emily, Who Is The Worst, Deserves to Die in Until Dawn. As far as I can tell (Twitter makes it difficult to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations these days), people were accusing the article, if not Klepek himself, for being somehow complicit in the horror genre’s long history of misogyny. Or maybe it was because Emily and her boyfriend are the only characters who aren’t 100% white in the game? Like I said: tough to tell exactly what the complaint was.

Regardless, objecting to lack of empathy for a character in a horror movie doesn’t just miss the point; I believe it’s even more ghoulish than the alternative. Obviously, there are volumes of material looking at the “problematic” aspects of the horror genre, and its treatment — both intentional and subconscious — of women, ethnic minorities, and gay and transgender people. But to suggest that the audience is expected to feel genuine empathy for any of the characters in a slasher movie is either a pointlessly broad rejection of the entire genre, or is seriously messed up.

Knowing more than the characters do is an implicit part of watching a horror movie, since from the start of the film, you know they’re probably going to die horribly. If you’re feeling sympathetic towards the characters and getting attached to them, I’ve got to wonder why you started watching the movie in the first place. “I love seeing three-dimensional, fully realized humans be murdered and/or horribly traumatized!” The distance and lack of empathy is what makes the movies work at all.

The stakes in a horror movie (no vampire puns intended) aren’t something horrible happening to the characters, but something happening to you. You’re going to get startled by the jump scare or the face suddenly appearing in the bathroom mirror. You’re the one who has to feel tense knowing the character’s walking into danger. You’re the one who’s going to have to see something gross and disgusting. Until Dawn isn’t subtle about manipulating this: it explicitly asks you what bothers you, then shows you exactly that a few scenes later. Consider it “enthusiastic listening.”

Manipulating the audience as much as the characters is something that translates particularly well to video games, because the audience is even more invested in what’s happening. Not in the characters, necessarily, but in their story and in the things they’ll have to see. And as much as I hate QTEs, they add that layer of being invested in what I’ll be expected to do.

So far, even with its faults, Until Dawn pulls it off better than any game I can remember since the first Silent Hill or Eternal Darkness. It doesn’t require breaking the fourth wall, but it does require being aware of the fourth wall and how to use it. It may be as simple as the fact that the game is structured not so that you feel in control of what happens, but that you feel responsible for it.

Whatever the case, what’s increasingly clear to me is how much of the experience of interactive narratives depends on artifice. It rewards explicitly exposing the mechanics instead of subtlety. It benefits from deliberate design instead of hyper-realism. So much of the marketing of games — which has inevitably taken over the design, at least outside of indie games — is focused on selling the idea of player empowerment. You’re in control! You’re making all the decisions! This fantastic world has been built entirely for you! That should’ve been setting off all our bullshit alarms, even before GamerGate happened and made it explicitly obvious what a shitty goal that was for a medium that’s striving to be artistic expression.

It’s definitely true for horror games, but I think it’s true for all story-driven games: players aren’t giving you their money so that they can be in control; they’re giving you their money so that they can have fun being artfully manipulated.

Camp Grizzly

Camp Grizzly finally hits the sweet spot between cooperative games and storytelling games

At KublaCon this weekend, I got to play through a demo and then a full game of Camp Grizzly by Ameritrash Games. I wanted to spread the word about it here, partly because the designer Jason Topolski is a former co-worker and a super-nice guy, but mostly because I really love the game.

The premise sells itself: it’s a semi-cooperative game in which you’re playing a camp counselor (in 1979, easily the most dangerous era for camp counselors) being stalked by a homicidal maniac named “Otis,” who wears a bear mask and wields a bloody gardening claw. You and the other players are trying to evade Otis while gathering the items you need to trigger one of the game’s four finales. As you play, you encounter campers, side characters in “cameo” roles, and special events that cover just about every single trope from early 80s slasher movies.

I’ve been wanting to try it for at least a year, but not without a little bit of trepidation. No matter how solid the idea, and no matter how talented the people involved, what if it ends up feeling flat in the execution? As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and it’s already become my favorite cooperative game.



The Kickstarter for Camp Grizzly was hugely successful, tripling the amount of money they were asking for and spawning all kinds of expansions for stretch goals. If you missed the Kickstarter like I did, and you don’t see it at a convention, you can get a copy directly from their site. I picked up a copy right after the demo, and I immediately sprung for the miniatures. I never do that. Now all I have to do is wait for the expansions.

The art by Austin Madison (and others) is phenomenal, as you can see here used completely without permission. Not surprising considering the pedigrees of the people involved, but each card looks like polished storyboard/character concept/pitch art for a project from The Studio That Makes the Best 3D Animated Movies. And even better — and more difficult — it nails the tone exactly right between horror and black comedy, from a time when slasher movies were as interested in being exhilarating and fun as they were in going for the biggest gross-out.

Choosing “Ameritrash Games” as their name wasn’t just a self-deprecating gag, either; Camp Grizzly nails that part, too. The board is designed — from the fairly simple layout to the big red “Camp Grizzly” logo just above the “Body Count” tracker — to remind players of board games of the 70s and 80s. Without any context, you could assume it was a marketing tie-in game to some obscure 80s slasher movie.

Once you get into the game, though, it quickly becomes apparent that it could only exist in the “post-BoardGameGeek” era. It includes a lot of familiar elements from games like Betrayal at House on the Hill, Pandemic, and the dungeon-crawl Dungeons and Dragons-themed board games. Then it streamlines them and combines them with fantastic artwork to throw all the emphasis back on storytelling.


“Let’s Split Up”

I’m a fan of “pure” cooperative games like Pandemic, Forbidden Island, and Forbidden Desert, even though I always take it as a given from the start that I’m probably not going to win. (I still have never won a game of Forbidden Desert). But they tend to suffer from the same three problems:

  • One or two players can take over, becoming so fixated on a particular strategy that everyone else is basically squeezed out and left just moving pieces around a board.
  • Getting the right balance means making it feel like you’re always on the brink of disaster, which can result in spending two hours on a game and then everyone loses.
  • No matter how strong the theme is, or how well the theme is integrated into the mechanics, it usually ends up feeling like a purely mechanical abstraction.

Cooperative games have been popular enough for long enough that there’s already a sub-genre dedicated to fixing those problems: games with a traitor mechanic, like Battlestar Galactica and now Dead of Winter. The traitor mechanic not only guarantees a winner, but builds in an incentive to keep any one player from running away with the game: you’re never exactly sure if she’s just being bossy, or if she’s deliberately working against everyone else. (From what I’ve read, one of the expansions for Camp Grizzly introduces a traitor mechanic, too, with the intriguingly-named card “So It Was You All Along!”).

As it turns out, there’s another way to fix those problems: go all in on theme.

The tone of a slasher movie is a perfect fit for a modern cooperative game: it’s supposed to feel like the odds are overwhelmingly against you, and there is a “force of nature” appearing completely unexpectedly out of nowhere to make things worse.

One of the many decisions in Camp Grizzly that seems straightforward on the surface, but is actually an elegantly perfect solution to a ton of problems: making the antagonist a character. A forum post on the BoardGameGeek page for Camp Grizzly points out that Otis has a lot more personality than some generic slasher movie villain. He’s obviously a pastiche of Jason Voorhies and Michael Meyers, but he’s still a distinct creation. And it doesn’t just help the theme; it helps the game. You’re not fighting some abstraction like “disease” or “time” or “flood waters” or “zombies” or even “Sauron,” but another character.

The Tabletop episode of Forbidden Desert, for instance, demonstrates one of the aspects of “pure” cooperative games that I hate: the inevitable point when players start counting cards to figure out what’s left in the deck. It breaks whatever minimal theme has been established and makes it completely obvious your antagonist is a deck of cards. When you draw an “Otis Attacks!” card in Camp Grizzly, it feels more like a story moment than the result of a card draw.


“Foolin’ Around”

One of the reasons I’ve been over-thinking Camp Grizzly is that I think slasher movies are fascinating to pick apart. They started becoming self-referential while they were still popular, and they somehow continue to work even when you’re completely aware of all their tricks. When Scream came out and explicitly made a list of all the standard slasher movie tropes, it wasn’t a last death rattle of irony; it actually revitalized the entire genre.

When you have a genre of movie that comes with a built-in set of rules, it obviously lends itself to adapting that to a game. Camp Grizzly isn’t the first to do it; one of the most popular is Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game. It’s very similar in structure and theme to Camp Grizzly: you move characters around a board to fight zombies, drawing event and character cards based on the familiar cinematic cliches.

I like the ideas behind Last Night on Earth a lot, but I just didn’t enjoy the game. It felt self-aware about its theme, but didn’t really do anything with that self-awareness. To make a tortured analogy: if Last Night on Earth is like Shaun of the Dead, then Camp Grizzly is like The Cabin in the Woods.

In Scream and Shaun of the Dead, the central gag is that they telegraph what they’re going to do, and then do it anyway. And it still works: they have great moments, even though you know exactly what’s going to happen. In some cases, because you know what’s going to happen. (And a big part of why they work, when so many other attempts at self-aware horror movies just collapse into an insufferable mess, is because they’re self-aware out of affection. It’s not just we all know how these things work by now, but also …and that’s why we love them).

Not to pick on TableTop, but their playthrough of Last Night on Earth demonstrates why the game never really worked for me. For one thing, having some players as zombies introduces a disconnect before the game even starts. Zombies with agency is just weird. Only some of the players are controlling characters, while the rest are controlling game mechanics whose entire purpose in fiction is to be without any agenda except killing and eating. And obviously those episodes are exaggerated for the sake of making an entertaining video, but you can see the problem with Felicia Day’s repeated attempts to create a backstory for one of her zombies. It’s a struggle to impose a story onto the game mechanics.

One of the clever ideas that first attracted me to Last Night on Earth was a card called “This Could Be Our Last Night on Earth.” Two hero characters (they have to male and female, which I’ve got to point out is a minor disappointment) in the same space lose a turn. On the surface, it seems like a really clever way to incorporate theme into the game. In practice, though, it’s just a “lose turn” card with a picture and text.

A bunch of other mechanics subtly throw off the balance as well. Combat isn’t hugely complex, but it’s still more complicated than it needs to be. Certain locations have specific benefits, which seems like it’d reinforce the storytelling but in practice just becomes another mechanic to remember. All the elements combine to keep the focus on the game and leave the story lurking in the background.

It’s not “about” zombie movies and B-movies. It’s ultimately a game “about” fighting zombies — and a solid one, by most accounts! — that’s aware that zombie movies and B-movies exist.



If the gag in Scream and Shaun of the Dead was to acknowledge the cliches and then execute on them, the gag in The Cabin in the Woods is to come up with imaginative ways to explain why the cliches exist. (And then in the third act, why they need to exist).

I’m not saying that Camp Grizzly is some arch or cerebral deconstruction of the slasher genre — all the stuff I’m over-explaining here, it says with artwork, a few lines of text, and some game mechanics. But I do think it works the same way. The reason you need characters opening doors that are clearly hiding a monster, or sneaking into the woods to have sex when there’s obviously a killer on the loose, is because smart characters making good decisions makes for lousy storytelling.

Camp Grizzly isn’t a game about careful coordination and planning four moves ahead. Whether it was intentional or not, it feels as if they took a “pure” co-op game mechanic and streamlined or removed outright anything that made for a bad story.

One example: Otis. I already said that he’s a more interesting character than some abstraction. Even more important, though, is the fact that no player controls him. He’s got a simple agenda: stalk everyone and kill them, one by one. If he ever goes off the board, he reappears unexpectedly on a random wooded path. And after every player has taken a turn, Otis moves according to a simple set of rules:

  1. Go after whoever’s closest.
  2. If there’s a tie, go after the solitary characters, the ones who have nobody else in the same cabin.
  3. If there’s a tie, go after the character who’s most horrified.
  4. If there’s a tie, go after the one with the most wounds.
  5. If there’s still a tie, choose randomly.

All the standard slasher movie rules are covered except for “go after the black characters first.”

That impresses me as much as a movie nerd as a board game nerd: it’s not just an elegant deconstruction of slasher movie “rules,” it’s an elegant incorporation of them into an easily-understandable game mechanic.

All the other rules surrounding Otis are just complicated enough to make the decisions interesting. As the body count goes up, Otis gets stronger. “Combat” is a simple dice roll, with stronger weapons getting better dice. Characters can even “panic” thoughtfully: if you’re attacked, you can panic and run away from Otis a set number of spaces.

Another example: the cabin cards. Players start the game with a clear and simple objective: find a set of items. In a lot of similar games, you’d have to spend an action to “search” a location for something useful. In Camp Grizzly, you just move your character, and then do one of two things:

  1. Turn over a visible item token in your space, to see if it’s one of the things necessary to start the finale; or
  2. Draw a card from the cabin deck.

It splits the difference between all the move-and-explore games I’ve ever played, where you have a clear goal in mind and are deliberately looking for something; and all the cooperative games I’ve ever played, where at the end of every turn there’s the chance of something unexpected horrible happening. But what’s key for a story is that something interesting happens every turn. What’s key for a story game is that it’s not the player’s fault.

In the full game I played, we’d found all the necessary items, and we were all limping injured towards the barn to trigger the game finale. On his way there, one of the characters turned up the “Skinny Dipping” card shown above. He had to choose another character to take to the boat house and “tempt fate.”

This was a very stupid thing for him to do. Not only did it take two characters completely out of the way of our agreed-upon meeting place, but it invited Otis to attack and kill both of them. It’s exactly the kind of thing that has movie audiences shouting at the screen, “What are you doing? Don’t do that! Don’t open that door! Get out of the water! Put your clothes back on!” These moments are necessary to drive the story forward, but they’d be frustrating if they invalidated or supplanted the player’s decisions. Players still make decisions in Camp Grizzly, but they’re almost always reactionary.

There’s a lot of value in forcing the player’s hand. Another game we played this weekend was Cosmic Encounter. After years of seeing it top lists of “best board game ever made,” I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. My conclusion was that it’s apparent how well-designed it is, and it may very well be the best possible implementation of a bluffing/negotiation/character interaction game. I just don’t enjoy that type of game.

But as a game that is striving for negotiation, bluffing, and interaction above all else, it’s crucial that Cosmic Encounter forces an interaction every turn. Encounters aren’t optional, you often don’t get to choose which player you attack, and you often don’t get to choose whether you’re going to be hostile or try to negotiate. It doesn’t just guarantee that something is going to happen every turn, but it ensures that there’s a very good chance it won’t be what you expect. It may violate every carefully-planned strategy and intensely-negotiated alliance up to that point.

In Camp Grizzly, “Tempt fate” is a simple mechanic that encompasses 90% of the plot development of a slasher movie: those moments when a supposedly sympathetic character does something unforgivably stupid. You follow the setup on the card, and then draw some number of cards from the top of the cabin deck. If any of the cards is a red “Otis Attacks!” card, then surprise: Otis attacks. It’s an annoyingly elegant distillation of the cliche. You get the complication, the suspense, and then either the “Whew! It must’ve just been the cat” resolution, or another slasher movie moment.

And most importantly: you can’t avoid it. (Unless you happen to have a card like “Don’t,” pictured above). Camp Grizzly has the appearance of a standard co-op game, but it will happily throw out all of your careful planning and coordination for the sake of making a better slasher movie.



That’s exactly the kind of thing that infuriates some players. There are players who love the type of game where they can plan for three moves in advance, carefully counting up points and considering available moves and calculating card frequency to figure out which of their options will result in 5 victory points as opposed to 4.

For me, the only thing that sounds less fun is doing my taxes while having dental work done. I tend to be on the more “reactionary” end of the spectrum, where I can just try stuff out and see what happens. Even with that mindset, though, it took me a while to wrap my head around the interesting disconnect that’s inherent to Camp Grizzly.

Even as someone who hates having to plan too far ahead, and as someone who’s gotten so comfortable with losing games that I barely even consider it an objective anymore, I still approached Camp Grizzly as if it were a standard co-op game with a horror movie theme baked into it. Our objective was to pick up three items, go to this location, and then win the finale.

But after a few turns, I started to realize that I’d made the wrong assumption. The objective of the game isn’t to find three items and have my character survive the final showdown. The objective of the game is to make a slasher movie.

That’s when I realized we’d spent the bulk of the last hour doing exactly that. Because the art is so vivid, I could picture every scene as if it’d been animated. And because the mechanics themselves are relatively simple, I was remembering them as scenes instead of turns. It had the opposite effect of the flavor text in most board games: I wasn’t thinking “cancel an attack card” and then trying to impose some kind of story moment on top of that. Instead, I remembered lighting a flare in the middle of a dark cabin, or Mike’s character escaping into a crawlspace, and I couldn’t remember exactly what the description of the rule was.

And then I realized that a larger “plot” had pieced itself together. A couple, one of them badly wounded, had snuck into the barn to set a trap for Otis. But she slipped out to the boat house with another guy, and they were both punished for it when Otis attacked! After they narrowly escaped, the other counselors changed plans and decided to regroup at the boat house, with a last-minute and completely unhelpful appearance from Donald Pleasance’s character from Halloween. All the teenagers were panicking on the dock, screaming for the art teacher Karen to hurry up and make it to the boat.

Then we all got on the boat and things got wacky.

As soon as I saw what the setup for the finale was, I laughed out loud. I still think it’s brilliant, even though the character I was controlling was one of the first to die. The finale we got was unapologetically goofy way to end the game and the story. And it seemed like the game was finally explicitly asserting itself as a storytelling engine instead of a co-op game. (I’ve looked through most of the game cards by this point, but I’m carefully avoiding seeing any of the finale cards until they come up in game. I want to be surprised each time).

It seemed to present the same question that The Cabin in the Woods did, although in a less accusatory way: why are you pretending to be so emotionally invested in this cartoon teenager? I finally had to come to terms with the fact that I’m not actually a sexually promiscuous teenage girl, any more than I’m a pirate or a merchant or a Lord of Waterdeep or a kaiju attacking Manhattan. My goal isn’t to gather a bunch of items and escape a homicidal maniac; my goal is to take an interesting situation and see what happens as a result.

After getting burned out on euro games, it was nice to be reminded of a game that’s not super light but still just wants to be fun. And after spending so much time thinking about agency and the various ways that interactive media tell stories, it was nice to see a successful example of favoring storytelling over control that didn’t feel too abstract or too passive.

So much of the talk about player agency, especially in video game storytelling, makes the implicit assumption that the ideal is a “perfect avatar.” The player’s goals and the character’s goals are perfectly aligned. Story moments only happen as a direct result of the player’s actions. But again, horror and suspense movies have been chugging along for decades with the obvious “dissonance” of an audience aware of a monster lurking around every corner, and a bunch of characters doing frustratingly stupid things because of their own obliviousness. Why can’t a game do the same thing? Acknowledge that the player isn’t her character, and it’s not as important to control the experience as it is to enjoy it?

If you spend an hour playing a game and then “lose” at the end, what’s more important? That you didn’t win, or that you spent an hour having fun?

Paper Chase

My thoughts on Gone Home and what it reveals about storytelling in video games

Gonehomemovieticket Gone Home is available now, and it’s extremely well done. Anyone interested in video game storytelling should check it out; it’s an experiment in almost purely environmental storytelling. You play as the elder daughter of a very sloppy family, who’s returned from a year abroad to find the family’s new house empty and a cryptic note from your sister on the door. Your goal is to explore the house and find out what happened to everyone.

The premise is an ingenious way to get around the most common disconnect in a story game: the player enters this world knowing nothing, while the player’s character should know a lot more. The conceit of a year away from home and a change of address means that the character is exploring this place for the first time, just like the player. That’s subtly (and again, cleverly) reinforced throughout the game, as the things your character should be familiar with — her sister’s stuffed animal, her father’s published novels — are just taken for granted and acknowledged in the text description. There’s even a nice touch of finding several post cards that your character had sent from her travels; while “Katie” is never fully established as a character, these bits of writing help keep her from being a completely blank slate.

And the writing is very strong throughout. Characters’ personalities come through vividly through the things they’ve written and the things they own, even though you never actually see them in anything other than generic, static family portraits. The writing almost always sidesteps exposition, instead giving out details intermittently and allowing the player to piece together the chronology and the implications. As a result, almost all of the writing feels natural and realistic.

Speaking of realism: Gone Home is full-to-bursting with details that firmly establish this as a real place (a suburban house near Portland) in a real time period (1995). Brand labels on products, magazine covers, TV listings, multiple versions of book jackets, covers for textbooks, and dozens of other mundane details all work to keep the player completely immersed in the setting. The ordinariness of it somehow makes it interesting. And while I’m a little bit too old to identify with the main character of the game, I didn’t doubt for a moment that this was absolute verisimilitude for a high schooler in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-90s. There were enough details I did recognize — like the stack of VHS tapes of every X-Files episode — that it all felt absolutely earnest and completely real.

What interested me the most during the first hour or so of the game was how the total commitment to exploration exposes the way audiences process stories. It’s anything but passive: we’re constantly constructing and reconstructing the complete story in our minds, putting all the details in the right order, extrapolating towards multiple endings. Each new bit of information either solidifies a theory, closes off one possibility, or introduces another.

While I haven’t yet played the Minerva’s Den DLC for BioShock 2, I have been playing through BioShock Infinite. Like Gone Home, the BioShock series has tried to convey the bulk of its narrative via environmental storytelling. Playing a big-budget shooter version of that at the same time as the smaller-scale independent version really reveals how much more real and more personal Gone Home feels, and how much better it is at telling an affecting story. While playing BioShock Infinite, I feel that I’m constantly barraged with elements that are completely at odds with each other: an opportunity for exploration and world-building is interrupted by combat, which leads to another section of just following instructions from one way-point to the next. Gone Home lets you explore its environments in peace, without their feeling hollow or empty. And while it’s obvious that the game imposes a structure on the narrative by gating your progress through the house, it doesn’t feel particularly jarring or artificial, and it doesn’t interfere with the notion that you’re mostly free to do what you want, at your own pace.

I wanted to make clear that I think it’s extremely well-made, and make it clear what I think it does really well, because I spend the rest of this post criticizing it. I’d hope it’s obvious that I wouldn’t waste time analyzing a game that didn’t interest me, but criticism can often seem like a dismissal.

While I was playing, I was completely engrossed. (In fact, I’d been spending most of the game frustrated that they’d violated the environmental storytelling premise by having fourth wall-breaking voice-overs, but the finale reveals exactly what was actually happening). It wasn’t until the end that I left feeling — “cheated” isn’t the word, but maybe “unsatisfied.” To explain why requires a huge spoiler warning. I strongly encourage everyone to play the game before reading the rest of this!

Continue reading “Paper Chase”

Choosy Zombies Choose Jeff

Telltale’s The Walking Dead series is some of the best work the studio’s ever done, and it’s actually right on the verge of establishing an entirely new genre of video game. Spoilers on the first two episodes.

Last week I went on a caffeine bender and finally played the first two episodes of Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. It’s some of the strongest work ever to come from the studio — as good as they can possibly do without involving space gorillas — and probably the first to feel like an integrated and fully-realized work. Every single game that I’ve played from the studio has had some outstanding work behind it, but this might be the first series that feels as if all that outstanding work is working together, without compromises.

I’d been wondering how appropriate it’d be for me to write anything about the series, since I kind of worked on it. I consulted for a couple of months on the season set-up, characters, and overall season arc, and I wrote a first draft of the episode two script. But then, the episode and the series as a whole have changed significantly from when I left them, so at this point, I’m basically a mostly-detached observer. And as for whether it’s appropriate or not, I’ve never been that big on tact, anyway.

More than that, though, the series hits so much of the stuff that I’ve written about in theory on here, and it actually puts that stuff into practice. I can’t help trying to pick it apart and see where and how it works or doesn’t. It’s reaffirmed a lot of my earlier opinions, and it’s made me completely reconsider others.

(And it should go without saying, but: all of this is purely my own thoughts and shouldn’t be taken as being based on any kind of “insider” knowledge, much less representative of the company, or what the guys are actually trying to do with the game. I’m writing about them solely as games that a lot of my friends worked on, and I just happen to have been spoiled for what goes down in the first couple of episodes).

The Episodic Model

To be honest, I’ve never been a big proponent of the episodic model for video games. There are definitely some advantages — players really are more engaged in the story and characters; and it really is gratifying to have something you spent months working on last for months, instead of being played in a weekend and quickly forgotten.

But there are enough disadvantages to make the whole prospect seem like breaking even at best. Most obvious is the necessary reduction in scope: the difference between planning for a feature film vs. a television series, or a novel vs. issues of a comic book. It’s not even about budget; it’s the problem of cramming sometimes epic ideas into bursts of content that are actually producible by human beings.

Of course, we’re surrounded by outstanding television series, so it’s obviously not impossible to tell epic stories in an episodic format. The real question is how to do it in a video game. That’s made me wonder if it’s not the episodic model that doesn’t quite fit in games; it’s the sitcom model that doesn’t fit in games.

I’m most interested in comedy stories, and it’s tough to try to manipulate a deliberately silly plot into a format that emphasizes plot twists and reveals. Portal 2 did it well, but the end result still felt more like a series of set-ups and punchlines instead of genuinely resonant surprises. I’d say we managed to do it reasonably well in Sam & Max, too, and I’d even say that we pulled off a couple instances of the best that episodic comedy can do: a joke that’s set up in one episode and doesn’t deliver the punch-line until several episodes later. Still, after three seasons, we’d already pretty much exhausted what you can do with convoluted plot twists, and it was getting pretty formulaic.

I can think of only one comedy series that’s been successful at going for the long arc, with episodes that build on each other — Arrested Development. It’s a lot more common for comedy series to keep everything as stable as possible: smaller, self-contained stories that reset to a default state at the end of each episode. Audiences don’t watch sitcoms to get caught up in what the characters are doing, but to check in on what they’re saying. That’s inherently passive, and video game audiences have very little patience for that.

After playing two episodes of The Walking Dead, though, I’m really anticipating the next one. I’m not just waiting for another burst of content; I’m waiting to see how the story will be affected by what I’ve already done, and to see what I’ll get to do in the next part of the story. And even though I have a rough idea of how the finale will play out, I still have no idea how the finale will play out. A huge part of the appeal of the comic is the constant reinforcement of the idea that no one is safe, that anything can happen. It’s the same for the game: there’s absolutely no guarantee that the finale will take the usual episode 5 structure of revealing the villain and tying up all the loose ends.

Spending Some Time Apart

One other thing that’s made clear by the first two episodes of The Walking Dead is the significance of the difference between episodic content and “feature length” content. From the start, Telltale’s understood that episodic development is its own thing. Dave Grossman has said in interviews that you can’t just take a full story and split it into chunks; each segment has to work as a self-contained story and have the requisite unresolved plot points to draw the audience into the next segment.

But I was never quite able to appreciate that there’s even more to it: there’s a unique rhythm to episodic storytelling, and mastering that can mean the difference between a good story and a great one. And more than any of the Telltale series I’ve played (or worked on), The Walking Dead suggests that rhythm, the sense that there’s more going on in the world and with the characters than what we see on screen.

Part of that is from the source material. Because the tone of The Walking Dead comic is essentially a post-apocalyptic soap opera, the characters all exist in this indeterminate state between completely prosaic and over-the-top melodramatic. That’s not a criticism; it’s essential for a story that’s not about the zombie apocalypse, but about what happens afterwards. In the 80 or so issues that I’ve read, action heroes like Michonne and even Tyrese are rare, and they don’t last long before they’re either killed off or made more human.

And if you think about it, the reason is obvious: spending an hour and a half with Indiana Jones or James Bond is exhilarating. Spending months or even years with them would not only be exhausting, it’d break any sense of realism. The characters in the Walking Dead games feel more real on the screen than they do “on the page,” and a lot of that is because of the time you don’t spend with them. Your mind fills in the blanks.

The time gap between episodes 1 and 2 was necessary for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was simply aligning the time frame of the games with that of the comics. This is a story that has to be set firmly in the aftermath of the zombie outbreak, not during it. And I’m now convinced that introducing a new character during the break was a good idea, if only to establish that the characters were actually doing stuff during that time, and didn’t just exist in suspended animation since you finished the last episode.

Silence As An Option

Speaking of the value of what you don’t see, I think one of the most successful design decisions of The Walking Dead games was to insist on timed dialogues and events, and “silent” dialog choices. It’s the idea that what you leave unsaid is as significant as what you do say.

I’d initially thought that the inclusion of “…” as a dialogue choice was at best a stylistic flourish. It’d add a sense of variety to exchanges. Maybe, along with the dialogue time-out, it’d liven up the monotonous and repetitive pace typical of adventure game dialogue trees. I’m happy to say that I was completely underestimating it; it actually changes the entire dynamic of the game.

In most traditional adventure games, the player spends 90% of the time in an idle state. Stuck on a segment of a puzzle, thinking of the right solution; or waiting in a dialogue tree to make the next choice and get the next short burst of content. I’d thought that that was baked into the genre. There was no real way to fix it; the best you could hope for was to alleviate it, by adding more steps to a puzzle or varying the pace of dialogue exchanges.

The majority of The Walking Dead episodes do away with the idle state — the world is moving on, with or without you. It’s strongest in the dialogues; you feel as if you’re in an active conversation, not just exhausting choices in a dialogue tree. When a timed event starts, you’re compelled to think quickly; you’re not just locked into an artificial situation where the story’s reached a climax but the game is just waiting indefinitely for your input.

And when the game reverts back to traditional adventure game sequences, it’s jarring. The story, and especially the direction, are strong enough that you can easily suspend disbelief, but there’s still a sense that the pacing has hit a wall, and you’ve switched modes from active engagement to passive, stumble-on-the-right-choice puzzle-solving. On the farm in episode two, it works well enough because the pacing of the story is supposed to have slowed down enough for you to feel “safe.” At the motel in episode one, it’s more frustrating. They wisely changed up the presentation from the usual walking around and picking up objects, to one of hustling between hiding spots surrounded by immediate threats, but it’s a lot tougher to shake the feeling that the story’s slammed to a halt. The game, and the zombies, are just waiting for me to find the right answer.

I’d seen a review describe The Walking Dead as the beginning of “Adventure Games 3.0,” and I don’t think it’s that much of an exaggeration. The episodes are relatively short — I finished each in under 2 hours, without knowing any of the final puzzle solutions — but none of it felt like filler. It’s been years since I’ve played an adventure game that delivered on that sense of constant discovery and exploration.

Quick-Time Events

Speaking of rhythm and pacing: Quick-Time Events. I still hate them.

I understand why they’re there, and The Walking Dead does handle them about as well as any game possibly can. It changes up the pacing. It gives a sense of immediacy and time pressure to a story event. It’s only used in scenes of physical action, and it gives the player a direct physical action to perform. And it avoids the pitfall that a lot of people joked about when they first heard that an adventure game company was making a Walking Dead game, that it’d be nothing but choosing the verb “SHOOT ZOMBIE” over and over again.

Still, it’s a completely meaningless abstraction — mash A then X to fend off zombie? — that invariably ends up feeling like a crutch. I’d welcome any change to either make it at least a little more cerebral, or to at least better match the action on the controller (or keyboard) to the action on screen.

For instance: have the four controller buttons map to four weak points on the target’s body, so it’s not just “press A” but “press the target’s weak spot based on the current animation.”

Or even simpler: take the example of the hacking tool in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Using it on the Xbox 360 was an almost brain-dead mini game of twirling the two thumbsticks until you felt the controller vibrate the right way. But I don’t think it was supposed to be sophisticated; it was most likely put into the game for the same reason QT events were: to change up the pace, and to give a direct, tactile interface between the player and the action. What made it work, though, was that it wasn’t just a meaningless, artificial abstraction. Whether Batman would actually carry a 360 controller around with him is beside the point; what mattered is that the actions you were taking as a player corresponded exactly to what your character was doing on the screen.

Feedback and Stats

Speaking of things I hate: I would’ve thought that I’d absolutely hate the decision to alert the player with an on-screen notification whenever he makes a choice that alters the story, and I’d hate the inclusion of a post-episode stats screen showing how many other players made the same decisions as you did.

But I didn’t. I thought both worked well, and it never once occurred to me to turn them off.

If you’d asked me, before I played the games, what I thought about having the text “CLEMENTINE WILL REMEMBER THAT” in the middle of a dialogue exchange, I would’ve said that it was the worst, least subtle idea imaginable. In practice, though, it works. It doesn’t break my engagement in the story; if anything, it increases it. It’s a constant reminder that the things I’m saying might have repercussions down the line, even if they’re not immediately visible. Essentially, it’s taking the place of a dramatic dun-dun-dunnnnn music stinger, and ends up being even more subtle because it’s happening on a “separate channel.” It’s speaking to the part of my brain that’s still aware that I’m playing a game.

The end-game stats might end up being just a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick that’s already paid off. They’re shown after the story’s ended, so they don’t break the engagement there, and instead start off the post-game speculating. I still wouldn’t assign too much significance to them, since assigning numbers to player motivations is never an accurate science, the decisions are often more binary than they’re presented in the game, and players will still assume “video game logic” is in effect instead of treating situations in the game as they would in real life. But it’s already obvious from reading the message boards that the stats spark between-episode water cooler conversations, exactly as they were intended to do.


Death in The Walking Dead games feels more like a stylistic necessity than a genuine gameplay mechanic. It’d just be silly to make a game with this much death in it and have it be impossible for your character to die. But the death of the player character hasn’t been meaningful in any game, ever since they stopped taking quarters.

The bigger aspect of the SCUMM model that’s still very much intact is that you can’t completely ruin the game for yourself; every problem has a solution, and you can’t get yourself into a situation where the story can’t be finished. The biggest difference here: first, while you can’t make a decision that breaks the game, you most definitely can make a decision that makes you feel terrible. In fact, there are several points where you have to.

The “YOU HAVE DIED” screen isn’t a real deterrent in any meaningful way; if you do something that gets you chomped, you can just reload and try again. But knowing that you can take an action that pisses off a character you wanted to befriend, or even kills a character that you wanted to save, is a much stronger reminder to be careful and think about the consequences of what you’re doing.

And the final few sections have significant spoilers for episodes 1 and 2 of The Walking Dead game, so I’m putting them after a spoiler warning. Continue reading “Choosy Zombies Choose Jeff”

Side Effects May Include Dizziness, Nausea, and Plot Development

More on using narrative as a game mechanic. Games have borrowed liberally from Tolkien over the years, but I’ve never seen a game incorporate one of his coolest ideas.

In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins wins a magic ring in a riddle contest. The ring allows the wearer to become invisible, and Bilbo uses that ability to escape from some goblins and later to protect himself during a battle.

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins inherits the ring and is tasked with taking it to be destroyed. Along the way, he’s compelled to use it to escape a bar fight, and he uses it again to protect himself from an attack by the Nazgul, alerting them to his presence and causing him to be near-fatally injured in the process.

I’ve played tons of games that do the former — Bilbo completes a quest to win a Ring of Invisibility. I can’t think of a single game I’ve played that did a good job of the latter — the player gets a new ability, but using that ability actually works to advance the narrative.

Even my trusty examples of good storytelling through game mechanics are no help to me here: there are games that use the mechanics to develop the mood or meaning of the story (like Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and segments of BioShock), and there are games that use side effects of the player’s actions to advance the plot (like Portal and Portal 2, and The Secret of Monkey Island). But I’m coming up short trying to think of examples that take advantage of the rules — the player’s established abilities — to alter the plot.

I’m going to describe why I think that is, and how it may be possible to do it.

With 5 Power Comes 5 Responsibility

A couple of disclaimers: First, the title for this section is a quote from Doug Tabacco during a game of Ascension, and it’s one of those cases where I immediately started trying to think of a way to appropriate it as if I’d come up with it. Second: I’m not an authority on role-playing games. My only experience with tabletop RPGs is a couple of standalone sessions over the years, and my first exposure to computer RPGs didn’t come until Diablo was released. So any claims I make about the history of RPGs is pure outsider’s speculation based on a glance at Wikipedia.

But my very high-level guess at how fantasy RPGs developed goes like this: Dungeons & Dragons came out of a miniatures-based tabletop war game combined with a Lord of the Rings-inspired fantasy setting. The tactical combat portion of the game is still heavily rooted in the rules of the war game, and those rules bled into the storytelling aspect of the game. Dice rolls were now used to represent more abstracted narrative events like being able to unlock treasure chests or to persuade characters to do something.

Presumably, without all the rules, systems, and dice rolls in effect, a session of “pure” role-playing could quickly deteriorate into either Calvinball or Axe Cop. I still hear complaints, from people far more versed in tabletop RPGs than I am, that one system descends too far into dice-rolling and tactical combat at the expense of actual role-playing, or that another system is too free-form to have any direction.

As the tabletop RPGs got translated into computer games, they understandably took better advantage of the number-crunching than they did of the free-form storytelling. Some concepts were already entrenched as staples of RPGs just from years of the tabletop games, while others got more emphasized because computers are simply better at handling them.

By the time someone like me gets exposed to the “rules” of magic in fiction, it’s after it’s been represented by dozens of game systems, and it’s already been codified into a rigid system of numbers. Spells cost x amount of mana to cost (or they can only be cast x times per day), and each does y amount of damage of type z. Those are the rules, and the rules are what make it a game.

It’s become so codified, in fact, that the times I’ve been exposed to other descriptions of magic in fiction — even when they haven’t been done that well — have been revelatory. Magical, even. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke presents it in a way that makes it sound wondrous even after I’d played dozens of games that let me cast fireballs and summon magical creatures. It describes magic as weird, dangerous, and exotic.

Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s clumsy magic-as-drug-addiction storyline was filled with moments unlike anything that I’d seen in a game — magic battles where the witches don’t have to ready spells into assigned slots, or wait the requisite cooldown time to maximize damage per second. For that matter, even the silly magic battle in The Sword in the Stone was based more on wit than on rules.

Obviously, the difference is that a narrative has built-in limitations on what the characters can and can’t do. An open-ended gaming system needs to enforce those limitations because we’re trying to build a society here.

But when a game is introducing a developer-designed narrative anyway, why not use narrative-based limitations instead of (or in addition to) abstracted, system-based ones? Narratives have to have rules to be satisfying as stories; a novel can no more make its protagonist infallible and invincible than a game can.

Buffy’s magic “rules” were based both on familiar systems — magicians had to be powerful enough to cast certain spells, and certain spells required reagents and rituals — and on narrative limitations — each use of magic was addictive, and using it too much would consume the caster and turn her evil. The “rules” in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell were even more complex and narrative-based. Strange’s use of magic attracted the attention of the faeries and put his family in danger. There’s a real since that using magic is simultaneously wonderful and awful.

Meanwhile, Underneath Monkey Island…

I’ve said it before, but if I could choose one moment that made me want to work in video games, it was the first “Meanwhile” cut-scene in The Secret of Monkey Island. After Guybrush accomplishes one of his three trials, the game cuts to a distant scene of LeChuck reacting to the news. It was the moment that made me realize that it is possible to do storytelling with a video game, and here was an example of a game that was combining the “language” of cinematic presentation with the rules of a puzzle game. I was being given new narrative information based on my actions within the game.

For whatever reason, instead of building on that as video game storytelling got more sophisticated, the technique became an evolutionary dead end. Showing me what was happening elsewhere in the world gave the sense that I was only seeing a part of a much bigger story, but in most games I’ve played since, the action never once leaves the vicinity of my player character.

More significantly, the scenes in Monkey Island had a rudimentary sense of cause and effect. My actions were making LeChuck nervous, and my actions were raising the tension towards the inevitable showdown. But over time, games dropped that cause and effect in order to tell only tangentially related stories. Completing objectives trigger a cut-scene which is at best a “reward” for finishing a section of the game, or more often just an excuse for the developer to impose more passive storytelling on me.

When a game inserts narrative in unexpected places, it can be powerful. Obviously, peeking behind the walls of the test chambers in Portal is one of the best examples. And one of the best moments in Portal 2 comes when the player steps on an aerial faith plate to start solving a puzzle, and she unexpectedly re-encounters Wheatley. Each is satisfying because it advances the narrative not with a disconnected cut-scene, but as a direct result of something the player is doing.

But neither of those moments, or for that matter the “Meanwhile” cut-scenes in Monkey Island, actually affect the player’s narrative. The player can’t really do anything about them, and the player doesn’t leave with any immediately useful information. They’re terrific at setting tone and mood and at giving context, but aren’t really using the narrative as a gameplay mechanic.

One of my favorite moments in Sam and Max: The Penal Zone is a short scene that plays out the first time (chronologically) you use Max’s teleportation power. It was there mainly as an homage to the opening of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, and to make good on one of Steve Purcell’s ideas from an early brainstorming session: “Sam & Max teleport to another dimension where they’re surrounded by skeletons with scythes.” It also did a little bit of narrative development, of course: to reinforce the idea that Max’s powers were creepy and dangerous, and abusing them could end badly; and to foreshadow the flaming Max heads from the end of the game. I like it a lot, but it would’ve been even better if it had actually done something to advance the story: giving some significant clue for a later puzzle, or replacing some of the tons of expository dialogue that Superball and the alien brain have to deliver.

I Want You To Think About What You Just Did

So how about developing a game where the player’s abilities affect and advance the narrative? It could exploit the thrill of those moments of discovery — I did something that caused this real change to the story — as well as provide a more interesting and less abstracted limiting factor to keep the player’s abilities in check.

I can use this magic ring to make myself invisible. Each time I wear it, I can see what the villain is plotting. But each time I wear it, am I alerting powerful villains to my presence? And each time I wear it, what is the cost to my soul or my sanity?

I can cast this magic spell without worrying about its mana cost, but I have to be concerned about its narrative cost. Will using it too often cause me to go insane? Is it worth the risk, because I’ll get a vision of something happening elsewhere in the world, a danger that I’m going to encounter later? Does it make the villain aware of where I am and what I’m doing, even though I’m nowhere near powerful enough to fight him yet? Does it make the villain jealous of my power and cause him to put innocents at risk? Does it frighten the townspeople, to the point where they don’t simply respond with a canned “hey, cut it out!” response, but actually stop dealing with me? Does casting the spell somehow drain the life of the person who taught the spell to me, forcing me to consider the consequences of using it?

I can inject myself with this DNA-altering cocktail that, somehow, allows me to conjure a swarm of bees to attack my enemies. But is using it actually turning me into one of the demented former humans that I’m fighting? Does it do anything to help me understand them? Does it inadvertently reveal a secret passage that I hadn’t seen before? Does it wound me every time I use it? Does it make the lumbering, unstoppable guards of the city attack me immediately?

More simply: what if the “cake is a lie” room in Portal had been accessible only by creating a portal? What if Wheatley’s reappearance in Portal 2 had him shouting out a piece of information that was necessary to solve the subsequent puzzle? What if destroying the security cameras in both games actually made a difference in how the story played out, instead of just providing an achievement?

The thing I’m most looking forward to in Bioshock Infinite is seeing how the “tears” play out. The preview video shows them being used as a game mechanic, and also as a bit of world-building spectacle (with the glimpse of the alternate universe movie theater). I’m curious how far, if at all, they’ll be used to affect the narrative. It seems to have so many of the qualities I’m thinking of — a powerful “magic” with unpredictable side effects and a definite cost/risk associated with it. Will it be systemized to the point of taking all the wonder out of it, or will it be reduced to a simple “press A button here to trigger cut-scene”?

Or can it finally break the game out of the first-person shooter mold as significantly as the original BioShock tried to, and present a story where the player’s actions have genuine consequences and genuinely advance the story?

What is Past is Prologue

Laying the foundation for more talk about narrative as a game mechanic, but this time with semi-concrete examples. Plus huge spoilers for Portal 2!

My rambling essay in response to “Narrative is Not a Game Mechanic” gave the impression of being strictly about adventure games. Plus, I spent so much time talking about how to clue players in to what the game developer’s thinking, it could be read as “puzzle games should have good hints.”

But what I’m talking about is much broader. What I’m really trying to get at is a philosophy of treating narrative and game mechanic as so closely intertwined that it no longer makes sense to try and separate the two. It’s cheesy to quote myself — and put it in bold, no less! — but I finally found a pretty good way to describe what I’m talking about in the comments to the other post:

The goal is to make the player feel as if he’s writing a story and simultaneously watching it come to life around him.

A player-controlled narrative is one obvious way to accomplish that. But it’s not the only way, or even necessarily the best. My problem with that is still the Truman Show effect: Even if a developer could build a system with perfect feedback, where the world and its characters infallibly respond to the player’s actions in a satisfying way, what happens at the end of it, when the player pokes his head back into the real world? He’s just spent hours talking to himself, instead of meaningfully communicating with another person.

Of course, the problem with a pre-defined narrative is more obvious: how do you guarantee the player a feeling of agency and participation in meaningful choices, if all the meaningful choices have already been made?

I believe it sounds worse than it is, and it’s totally possible if more developers would just consistently commit to it. I’ve played plenty of games that get most of the way there without even trying. The key, as always, is to treat the story as a collaboration between the developer and the player.

Be forewarned: this post completely ruins the ending of Portal 2, so if you haven’t played that to completion yet, then 1) what the hell is wrong with you? and 2) don’t read it until you have, or unless you never plan to (see 1).

“Ludonarrative Resonance”

It doesn’t do any good to pontificate about “game stories as interactive collaboration between developer and player” without giving some concrete examples. The problem is that there aren’t a lot of good, concrete examples. I don’t believe that’s because it’s impossible, but simply because it’s never been a priority. The conventional wisdom is that story is at best a thematic layer on top of gameplay.

That’s why I really enjoyed this essay by Mattie Brice, called Narrative is a Game Mechanic. It was also written in response to Raph Koster’s Narrative is not a game mechanic, and it makes the case that

Ludology and narratology aren’t mutually exclusive studies. In fact, their combined perspectives will improve how video games influence players.

I’ve said before that I hate the term “ludonarrative dissonance,” since I think it’s a needlessly pretentious attempt to put an academic veneer on a simple and easily-understood concept: a game’s story shouldn’t be at odds with the player’s story. Completely hypocritically, I love Brice’s use of the term “ludonarrative resonance,” to describe moments when the game’s story and the player’s story aren’t just aligned, but they actually build on each other to provide a depth of experience that’s only possible in a game.

She uses the example of Ico. The player begins to feel empathy for the princess Yorda and anxiety over her vulnerability, not just because he was told to in a cut-scene, but because the central mechanic of the game reinforces it. It’s not an escort mission shoehorned into a different style of gameplay, but a game designed to evoke emotion through the player’s actions. There’s a dedicated “hold hands” button!

My usual go-to example is Portal, for putting story and characterization into a game where it wasn’t technically necessary. The story isn’t just context for the game; the story and the game are perfectly aligned. The game puts the player through a series of contrived puzzles, so the game is about a character trying to escape from a series of contrived puzzles. It’s impossible to lose the suspension of disbelief, because the game is in on the joke. Later, when the game starts to pull back the fourth wall and assert a more layered story, it resonates because of the feeling of genuine discovery, and it generates a completely unkillable internet meme.

But Portal is, deliberately, fun-sized. Expanding that to feature length meant filling in more of the game world and introducing a couple of new characters. What resulted was one great example of narrative as gameplay — “ludonarrative resonance” — but a lot more examples of story as nothing more than context and “feedback.”

The Audacity of Puzzling

First, the great example: the very last puzzle of the game. (Hence the repeated spoiler warning). The player’s got a portal gun with no portal-able surface. The game has spent the last several hours teaching the player the rules of the game by teaching the limitations of portal guns. You can only create a portal on certain white walls. The farther you get from the test chambers, the fewer white walls you’ll have available without creating them yourself.

But where Portal had one story, Portal 2 has three: the player character’s attempts to escape the testing facility, Wheatley’s attempts to take over the facility, and Cave Johnson’s creation of the facility and recruitment of testing subjects. One of the things you learn from the story of Aperture’s history is that ground moon rocks were used to create the paint for portal target surfaces. During the climax of the game, the sky is visible, revealing the largest portal target surface possible. Aim the gun, shoot the moon, then watch the conclusion.

Now, “make a deduction based on something you heard earlier” might seem a little flimsy to be basing a game design philosophy on. More than anything else, the fact that it’s such a novelty demonstrates how little emphasis is placed on integrating story with game mechanics. Even in games that do an outstanding job of storytelling, such as Portal 2. But that type of interaction is essential to integrating game and narrative — allowing the player to make strategic gameplay decisions based not on an external, explicit set of game rules, but by the rules established within the narrative.

One of the problems with putting too much emphasis on the “final puzzle” in Portal 2 is that it veers too far into adventure game territory. Any time the game’s narrative re-asserts itself, the player’s forced into a narrow corridor of interactivity. There’s clearly only one correct solution. That’s true of most of the other puzzles, actually, but unlike the other puzzles, the player doesn’t have the opportunity to experiment until she discovers the correct solution.

When the Player’s Story is the Least Interesting

My bigger problem with it, however, is that it’s such a narrow point of intersection between the player’s story and the Aperture Science story. Over the course of the game, you’ll spend hours learning the history of the facility and the events that led up to the beginning of the first game. But the vast majority of it has absolutely no bearing on the actions you’re taking in the present. Until you need to remember a bit of info at the game’s end, the story is doing nothing but provide context for the game.

And Cave Johnson is one of the most interesting characters in the game! But he’s been relegated to a separate “presentation layer.” It’s all very well presented, and it undoubtedly adds to the overall experience, but it doesn’t do anything for the actual gameplay.

The storytelling gimmick used in Portal 2 is pretty common, from System Shock through BioShock and Skyrim: as you’re playing, you discover recordings, letters, books, or computer terminals that deliver some chunk of background narrative. Occasionally, it’ll feed into your narrative — you’ll hear a pass code for a lock, or learn about a secret entrance to a room.

It actually works pretty well. I like it in the Elder Scrolls games, for its ability to convey a novel series’ worth of world-building in a method that’s completely opt-in. At worst, it’s ignorable. And it actually solves a lot of problems: it allows the story to be doled out at the player’s own pace, it can give context to the player’s immediate surroundings, and it’s more manageable to develop as a linear narrative.

The last bit is also the biggest problem with it: it’s more manageable for the developers because it exists in a separate timeline, one that the player can’t interfere with. The player never has the opportunity for an actual conversation with Cave Johnson, so he can just have several well-written monologues. The player can’t change what happened to Aperture Science, so Valve had total control over the timeline, allowing them to go backwards through time at exactly the pace they wanted.

Meanwhile, the player’s just going from one level to the next, solving test chamber puzzles (and thinly disguised test chamber puzzles) as she goes. Portal 2 has more sophisticated storytelling than Portal, but at the cost of that tight integration between the player’s story and the game’s story.

The other story in Portal 2 — Wheatley’s taking over the facility from GlaDOS — is taking place in the present, but the player has no real agency in that story, either. But Valve does such a good job of establishing these characters, without rewarding us for understanding the characters. We can tell pretty early on that Wheatley’s an unreliable narrator, but we can’t do anything with that information. We know that when Wheatley asks us to flip a switch, it’s going to end badly, even if we can’t predict exactly that it’s going to inadvertently flip the hundreds of switches that end up re-activating GlaDOS. Our only agency is to deliver the punchline.

Granted, it’s a great punchline! But there has to be room to use that character development for genuine narrative development. Let the player make deductions based on his understanding of the character, and let her make some type of decision based on the narrative. That’s the story that I want to be involved in.

I’ve said before that I started to lose interest in Portal once I’d left the test chambers and had to apply the portal gun to “real world” environments — which, it was revealed later, was originally intended to be the entire game. My problem with the post-test chamber section was that it reintroduced the feeling of artifice that the rest of the game had so deftly avoided. When the game is acknowledging that I’m in a contrived puzzle, I’ll run with it. When the game presents a situation that’s just as clearly a contrived puzzle, but it’s disguised to look as if I’d broken into the “real world,” I’m jolted back into the state of second-guessing the game. My story’s diverged from my character’s story.

Portal 2 alleviated a lot of that by making the environments so interesting. Portal‘s sections looked like repurposed Half-Life 2 levels, while Portal 2 maintained a genuine feeling of exploration. I’m using that exploration to further my own simple “narrative:” find what looks like it will help me escape, and then use it to escape. There has to be room to integrate the Aperture Science narrative with my own narrative of escape. Instead of just navigating the level, couldn’t I be making deductions based on what I’m learning about the facility’s history?

It’s easy to tell when a game is doing nothing more than throwing the player a bone. That can break the suspension of disbelief even more than leaving it out altogether. When BioShock introduced characters still alive in the player’s present, it was abundantly clear how much they’d been relegated to a zone safe from player interaction: phone calls from someone on the other side of the city. The closest you come to a living human (who doesn’t want to kill you) is seeing a numeric pass code scrawled on the other side of a glass wall. It’s a story moment, but not so much a game moment, since no deduction is required. In terms of game mechanics, it’s just a fancy way of presenting the next rule.

I’ll accept that it’s difficult if not impossible to achieve the perfect integration between gameplay and story that Portal achieved, when expanded to a feature-length story. But I can’t believe that it’d be impossible to bring together Portal 2‘s three main stories — the past, Wheatley & GlaDOS’s story in the present, Chell’s story in the present — in more significant ways. Learn something from Cave Johnson’s recordings that give us the solution to a test chamber. Learn something about the formation of GlaDOS that helps us defeat GlaDOS. Take advantage of our knowledge of Wheatley’s incompetence in order to defeat him, instead of just ending with a boss fight (no matter how clever the boss fight).

When you can tell two stories as well as Portal 2 does, and simultaneously deliver some great gameplay, it seems like there’s little incentive to treat the stories as anything more than background and context for the story. But consider the satisfaction that comes from figuring out the perfect solution to one of those test chamber puzzles, and think about how great it would be to use that same kind of clever problem-solving to put story moments together.

Are You Experiences? (And have you ever been games?)

Narrative can too be a game mechanic, as long as you familiarize yourself with how narratives work, and you don’t have an overly strict definition of “game.”

On his blog, Raph Koster wrote an essay titled Narrative is not a game mechanic. His main point, somewhat over-simplified: a game’s narrative is not part of the player’s interaction with the game, it’s merely feedback for that player’s interaction. Whenever the narrative “content” outweighs the player’s interaction, that’s bad game design, because it ignores the strengths of games as a medium. Narrative-heavy productions may make for great experiences, but they’re not games.

Essentially, it’s the same arguments that have been repeated for years, but presented clearly and filtered through a more purely academic analysis. “Game stories suck.” “Games aren’t stories.” “If you put more emphasis on story than game design, you’ve made an interactive movie.” When I saw the essay linked on Facebook, I had to double-check the date to make sure that it was written recently and not pulled from the archives from 5 years ago.

I really don’t want to sound too dismissive, since Koster makes his points well, and it’s clear that the essay is more of a definition than an indictment. But I can’t agree with most of his assumptions or conclusions, partly because I think Koster uses an over-exclusionary definition of what constitutes a “game.”

A few days later, he addressed similar concerns with a follow-up essay: Narrative isn’t usually content, either. This one’s a bit harder for me to over-simplify, but essentially: he acknowledges that there is a category of games where the gameplay consists of piecing together a narrative, but says that the narrative is still being used as a resource, not a mechanic. You could change the individual pieces of narrative to fit any theme, but the actual game mechanics, what the player actually does with those pieces of narrative, don’t change.

That’s an insightful observation, but it still doesn’t do anything to address my problem with the claim that narrative isn’t a game mechanic. Most of my objections are rooted in his insistence that a “game” is by definition systematic, replayable, and deterministic.

If it were just a simple matter of definition, I wouldn’t really mind. He doesn’t use “experience” as a pejorative. He does use “interactive movie” as a pejorative, but I think we’ve all got a general idea of the distinction between a satisfying game story and an interminable series of cut-scenes interspersed with limited interaction. And if Koster were to say that, for example, a traditional adventure game was a great “experience” but not a good game design, then what’s the harm?

For one thing, it continues the tradition of drawing a clear do-not-cross line between “gameplay” and “storytelling,” which is bad for both. Back when I was working on narrative-driven games, I was looking for ways that games could be used to tell stories. But even then, I was starting to get more interested in systematic games, and I started to develop a greater appreciation for board game design. Now I want to understand how stories and games can work together.

Understanding how games work and how to design games as systems, instead of just cranking out minor iterations on the same set of established game genres, will only make for better games. There is one point that I agree with completely: it’s foolish to ignore or diminish the interactivity in a game, because the interactivity — the game design — is what’s unique to games as a medium.

But my main objection to Koster’s basic assumption is this: If you treat game narrative as nothing more than feedback, then your game narrative will never, ever be satisfying.

A digression about replayability

Most of Koster’s arguments reduce to the core problem that narratives aren’t repeatable:

There’s nothing wrong, to my mind, with using narrative as feedback. But we have to keep in mind that all that narrative and visual content is the expensive part of making the game. It is also consumable, whereas a systemically driven game system can provide many many problems to solve and heuristics to develop (and therefore fun to be had), with relatively few rules. Because of this, narrative content is destined to be expensive, short, and over.
You’re not going to get people to keep playing unless you keep releasing more content. This will matter quite a lot for any service-based game, be it MMO, F2P, social game, whatever.

I was a little baffled by his last statement, since “service-based” games are exactly suited to supplying more content. Downloadable content, in-app purchases, expansions, and sequels — an entire industry has been built on players wanting to buy more content. It’s very rare that these significantly change the game mechanics, and a lot more common that they provide more narrative. (For the simple reason that designing genuinely novel game mechanics is a lot more difficult and time-consuming than developing narratives).

Still, Koster insists that a systematic game that is indefinitely replayable is the ideal. That seems reasonable enough on the surface: if the player’s interaction isn’t meaningfully changing the outcome of the experience, then it would seem to be non-interactive by definition.

But consider a partial graph of a simple game, where the circles are the player’s decision points and the squares are the moments of feedback that lead to the next decision:


But whenever a player plays the game, he has to walk the graph:


The game itself is a system, but no matter how complex the game, the player’s experience with the game is always linear. Like a story. That’s just as true for the most systematic, abstract game as it is for the most linear, narrative-driven game.

You can never actually circle back to a junction point and make a different decision to arrive at a different outcome. Even if you go back to a saved game, you’re still arriving at the decision point with more information than you had the first time you made the decision.

I’d even take it a step further and say that because humans aren’t “stateless,” we can never truly replay a game from the beginning. Whether we’re re-rolling a character in an RPG or starting a new game of Tetris, our subsequent play-throughs are actually just a continuation of our last. Because this time, we know that enemy X is more vulnerable to heavy weapon attacks, or we’ve learned when and where is best to place the straight-line tetrominoes. All of our experience with a game lands on a linear timeline from the start of our first play-through to the end of our last.

I believe it’s a mistake to ignore that when we’re talking about good game design vs bad game design, to focus on an academic definition that requires replayability instead of looking at the player’s experience as a whole. I’ve got a board game called Macao that’s a perfectly enjoyable game, somewhat similar to Puerto Rico. It’s lightly themed, only slightly dependent on luck, and is primarily driven by a system of well-thought-out game mechanics (too many game mechanics, you could argue). I can’t imagine a definition of “game” that wouldn’t include it.

Still, I’ve played it exactly one time. I have no compelling reason to play it again as anything other than a pure diversion. Not because it’s a bad game, but because I feel as if I got everything I wanted out of it from my first play-through. It’s systematic, but I won’t get anything new out of interacting with its systems.

On the other hand, I’ve played Sam and Max Hit the Road at least five times, even though little has changed from one play-through to the next. It’s not just to watch the cut-scenes, either; I could go to YouTube if that’s all I wanted. Instead, there’s something inherently satisfying about putting the pieces of the system together and making them click, whether or not I’m still getting the “a-ha” moments of first discovery. Based on Koster’s definition, that’s just be a case of my getting excited about feedback. But I’d say it’s slightly deeper than that: it’s the interaction with the system that’s fun, just as much as that of a player going through the same course in a driving game even after he’s played it dozens of times.

To put it another way: I say what makes a game is the act of playing it. Being presented with a choice, deciding on one, and responding to that decision’s outcome. As long as the choices aren’t over-simplified, the knowledge that I could do it differently a second time has no bearing on how much I enjoy playing it the first time.

Weapon of Choice

All of my graphs above reduce the decisions a player makes — the inherent gameness of the game — to simple circles, each with the same weight. You could say that putting all the interesting decisions into what are effectively black boxes, and dropping them all onto the same line after the decision has already been made, ignores what it is that makes a game a game: the ability to choose between several different predictable outcomes.

Koster reminds us that our brains love feedback; it’s why slot machines are so profitable, and it’s why long strings of cut-scenes in a videogame can trick us into believing that we’ve actually accomplished something, even when we actually haven’t.

I’d make the claim that even more than the chemical jolt we get when we receive feedback, our brains love having the illusion of choice.

We hate the idea of choices being closed off to us. We love the idea that we’ll be able to explore every possible opportunity and get the chance to see every possible outcome. We agonize over restaurant menus, even when we know we’ll be back. We throw bachelor and bachelorette parties as a kind of wake to mourn a person’s decision to enter into a stable, committed relationship with only one person. We even value the potential of a choice as much as the outcome — the old expression reminds us that eating a cake means losing the option of having a cake to eat. It’s a big part of why we like stories, simulations, and games in the first place; they give us the chance to try out the choices we wouldn’t be able to make in real life.

The prospect of having multiple choices is so compelling, in fact, that we think of it as a virtue even when we’re not equipped to handle it. One of the terms you’ll hear frequently in regards to board games (and occasionally with video games) is analysis paralysis — it’s when a player has so many equally appealing choices available, she can’t decide which one to take. The best games circumvent this by introducing mechanics that limit the player’s choices at any given opportunity, scale the number of choices up or down as the game progresses and the player gets more information, or give context to the player so that some choices are more appealing than others.

So we love having plenty of choices with lots of possible outcomes available to us, even though we’re generally bad at predicting what those outcomes are going to be. And “anecdotal data” from my own experiences with games, and from reading and hearing other players’ accounts of games, leads me to believe that we value the potential of multiple outcomes more than actually seeing multiple outcomes.

I’ve heard plenty of accounts of players praising the Grand Theft Auto series by saying “I solved this mission using one method, but my friend solved it completely differently.” But I’ve never heard of players saying how great it was to successfully solve the same mission multiple times in multiple different ways. (I’ve absolutely no doubt that there are players who do exactly that; I would just categorize them as “completionists” and still say that playing the game that way isn’t the series’s main selling point).

And I’ve heard lots of accounts of players finishing BioShock, or any BioWare RPG that presents a series of binary good/evil choices, and then playing through again on the “opposite” path. But I’ve never heard anyone claim that it significantly changed the gameplay, or even that it was as satisfying as the original play-through. It’s more like my replays of Hit the Road — going back through a game I enjoyed, in an attempt to see what I missed the first time.

All of which leads me to conclude that it’s the player’s agency that’s most important. Koster says that

The bar that designers should strike for should include a rich set of systemic problems precisely because that is what the medium of games brings to the table. It’s what lies at the center of the art form.

That’s game design, which is the field that Koster is interested in. What I’m interested in is “interactive entertainment,” which is a combination of game design and storytelling, and therefore isn’t constrained by the definition of a “pure” game.

The appeal of a simulation is that it allows the audience to do both A and B. But a game, much like a story, has an end goal. What lies at the center of the art form is presenting the audience with the information to make an intelligent choice between either A or B, then showing the outcome of that choice. The act of solving the problem is what’s important, not the chance to see an array of alternate solutions.

The responsibility of the game designer is to present the player with a set of interesting choices. The responsibility of the storyteller is to make a sequence of interesting decisions and form a narrative from their repercussions. They’re not mutually exclusive. Anyone making a narrative-heavy game has to be good at both.

Press B Button to Ruin Game

So far I’ve side-stepped (I hope) the question of authorial control. All of the discussions I’ve read on that topic tend to be prescriptive: because games are by definition like this, you’re violating the integrity of the medium by doing that.

But I’ve played outstanding games that give the player absolute control over the storytelling (like The Sims). I’ve played outstanding games that give the player no control over the storytelling (like Half-Life 2). And I’ve played outstanding games that have no storytelling at all.

The only absolute must-follow rule is to be consistent. If you make a game with the intention of making the player the storyteller, then don’t impose narrative decisions on him without his consent (as in Grand Theft Auto 4 and a couple of unfortunate quests in Skyrim). If you’re making a game on the assumption that the “gameplay” is the focus, and the narrative is there solely to provide context and feedback for the game, then follow Koster’s advice: don’t let the narrative overpower the player’s actual interaction with the game.

In his example from Arkham City, Koster points out the problem of having a very small, very stupid game (turn camera and press A) followed by a huge cut-scene. But the problem with the Quick-Time Event isn’t just one of scale, but intent. It fails as both gameplay and narrative.

My interaction with the game is inconsistent with everything else I’ve done to that point: the A button doesn’t mean “leap through window and glide safely to the street below as the cathedral explodes behind me.” If I remember correctly, the A button means “jump.” And my interaction with the narrative is inconsistent with the story as presented up to that point: even though I’m ostensibly the Batman, and I could safely predict that I’d be walking into a trap, I was given no way to prepare for it or to circumvent it. I wasn’t an active participant in the storytelling; I was simply moving the character into place for the next cut-scene the designer wanted me to see. That’s not storytelling, it’s blocking.

Quick-Time Events happen when the developer wants to show the player an elaborate non-interactive cut-scene, but then feels the need to throw in some token amount of interaction because hey, videogames.

To fix the problems with the gameplay, you’d need to make the interaction more interesting and more consistent with the game as it’s been presented so far. Let me take any of the dozens of bat-gadgets I’ve acquired and learned how to use, and figure out a way to either defuse the bomb or open the window. That still doesn’t fix the problem with the storytelling, though. I’ve accomplished what I set out to do by making my way to the top of the cathedral, but I haven’t actually learned anything useful to advance the story; I’ve simply completed one in-game objective and been assigned a new one. In storytelling, you’re supposed to eliminate scenes that do nothing to advance the story. Even if they have cool explosions.

Sharing the Role of Storyteller

I’ve played plenty games that use narrative as feedback or “reward” for the gameplay. Solve a puzzle, get a cut-scene that introduces the next puzzle. Shoot a bunch of bad guys, get a cut-scene that introduces the next bunch of bad guys. It can be perfectly entertaining, but it’s still the least interesting type of interaction.

When Koster limits narrative to the role of just feedback, he also limits the amount of interaction the player has with the narrative: I’m making decisions in the gameplay that have little to no bearing on the story. He dismisses what I believe is most exciting about the potential of interactive entertainment: to create games where the gameplay is the story.

If you’re on board with the assumption that an indefinitely repeatable system with different outcomes isn’t required for something to be called a “game,” then it’s easy to see how a player’s walk-through of a game can be mapped directly to a plot-driven story:


Nothing particularly earth-shattering there; that correspondence is why game developers thought it would be a good idea to use games to tell stories in the first place. The interesting part is figuring out exactly how you map the game design to the narrative, and deciding how to divide the roles of “game designer” and “storyteller.”

First, you have to take the narrative and imagine it structured as an enormous game graph. (Or alternatively, start with your game design and assign narrative beats to it). Start with the setting, introduce the protagonist (the player), establish the protagonist’s goal (the win condition), and define what the protagonist can and can’t do (the rules).

Next, identify the significant plot points and translate them into decision points for the player. That’s the part that requires a familiarity with “pure” game design — determining how to present the player with a set of interesting decisions.

You could just stop there and turn the role of storyteller over to the player. Say that the player’s in charge of the decision points, the developer’s in control of everything else. In that case, the narrative is feedback for your game. I play a game, and when I accomplish an objective, I get to watch a moment in somebody else’s story.

Koster calls narrative a “parallel medium” to game design. But narrative is a lot more interesting when it intersects game design. To do that, I believe the developer has to share the role of storyteller with the player.

Earlier I said that a game designer presents the audience with a set of interesting choices, a storyteller decides among choices and pieces them and their repercussions into a sequential narrative. So in this case, the developer would have to:

  1. Map the story onto a game graph
  2. Walk the graph, deciding on a “best” subset of choices at each decision point
  3. Encourage the player to reproduce the steps you took to walk the graph
  4. Enjoy the accolades from your audience and your peers

My feeble attempts to translate this into the terminology of game design is making it sound more complicated than it really is. (It’s been almost two decades since I’ve been in an academic environment, so I’m not the best person to be talking about game theory). In the simplest, highest-level terms: turn the story into a game, “play” the game until you get the most satisfying result, and then encourage the player to replicate your play-through.

In the case of the Sam & Max games, it meant:

  1. Figure out the narrative “arc” of the episode: typically opening, act 1, act 2, finale
  2. Break that down into obstacles for the characters: getting into a room, getting past a character, searching for a key item
  3. Since the games had only one solution for each puzzle, decide on the single funniest or most satisfying solution that we could think of
  4. Putting context into the setup for each puzzle to make it feel as if our choice for the funniest or most satisfying solution was actually the best solution

Obviously, the magic happens (or doesn’t happen) in that last step. Adventure games are particularly susceptible to the “having to read the designer’s mind” complaint. But I believe that’s more due to the often ridiculous complexity of the puzzle solutions compared to the player’s actual interaction with the game, not the fault of the process itself. By which I mean: it’s kind of difficult to subtly suggest the idea “use sea slug on gong.” It’s not as difficult to suggest less specific things, like “this character is untrustworthy, you should check him out” or “that bridge looks rickety and is about to collapse.”

Most games do this kind of thing already, not just puzzle games. A huge part of level design is encouraging the player to do certain things instead of others: go this way, take this corridor, notice this object, climb on this ledge, get ready for the boss fight here.

Game stories do it as well, even though developers usually like to believe that they’re dropping huge unexpected plot development bombs on the player. In the Arkham City example: you’re Batman, heading to the top of an old building to meet the Joker, in the first 30 or so minutes of the game. Did any player, anywhere, not realize that he was walking into a trap? Instead of forcing me into a narrow corridor of cut-scenes and limited interaction, wouldn’t it have been more satisfying to reward me for realizing that I’m walking into a trap?

After the “read the designer’s mind” complaint comes the “interactive movie” complaint. If the developer is making all the so-called “best” choices for the player, then the player’s not actually interacting with the game. He’s just pressing buttons to advance to the next stage of the developer’s story.

But when you make a game that treats the narrative only as feedback or context for the game, instead of as an actual game mechanic, what you’re doing is making a non-interactive movie. It’s just one that happens to be separated by sections of interactivity. I get an objective, I kill a bunch of monsters, I watch the next scene of the movie to get my next objective.

That’s why I insist that a linear, non-systemic sequence of repeating decisions already made by a game developer can still be called a “game.” Because when it’s done correctly, the player’s doing exactly what the developer did while he was designing the game. During the design process, you start with a game state and a set of tools with predictable results, and then you have to decide “what happens now?” The “a-ha” moment comes when you decide “Of course! He should storm the rebel base!” Whenever I’ve hit one of those moments, it’s given me exactly the same jolt of satisfaction as when I’ve made a decision in another game.

If you were just to show the player a cut-scene, with the notice “New Objective: Storm Rebel Base,” then you’ve guaranteed that the player won’t get that same feeling of piecing together information to arrive at a decision. The narrative has no chance of being a game mechanic.

But if you give the player the exact same information of the game state, the exact same set of tools with predictable results, and an appropriately subtle nudge making the rebel base look like an awfully ripe target, then there’s a good chance he’ll get the exact same “a-ha” moment that the designer did. Assessing the game state, knowing the rules of the game, knowing the available moves, and making an informed decision about what to do next. How is that not a game mechanic?

Lore on Demand

Repressed memories dredged up by Skyrim, and reconsidering some assumptions about storytelling in videogames

I started a couple of times to write a review of The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, but as time went on it became increasingly irrelevant (and this is on the scale of relevance that includes amateur blog reviews of videogames). There’s already such a surfeit of reviews, walkthroughs, parodies, and travelogues available that any review from me would do little to add or subtract.

But according to Steam I’ve spent over one hundred fifty hours in Skryim, longer than a lot of real places I’ve been to. It’s an outstanding game, and it’s joined the growing sub-genre of Games Good Enough to Make Me Angry.

Team Fortress 2 was annoying because it was so much better than it needed to be. Portal 2 bugged me because it took “feature-length” storytelling beyond the FPS and delivered a novel puzzle-based sequel with new mechanics and had an opening sequence that went past virtuoso presentation into just plain showing off. But Skyrim doesn’t draw attention to its art direction (even though it’s often astonishingly beautiful). And it doesn’t depend on spectacular set-pieces (although there are a few). Skyrim pissed me off by invalidating almost all of the assumptions I’ve made about open-world sandbox games in the past few years.

You’ve been having strange dreams, Outlander?

Playing Skyrim, I kept having unsettling flashbacks to Morrowind, my first exposure to the Elder Scrolls series. I played that the HellOblivion out of that game when it was released, but all memory of it had been buried under sandstorms (seriously, the entire last third of Morrowind is one interminable sequence walking through the desert during a sandstorm) and the lackluster sequel Oblivion.

But gradually, all those hours in Morrowind started to come back to me: I remembered that Bretons are good at magic, Khajit are cat people who make good thieves. I remembered jumping from rooftop to rooftop in a city building my acrobatics skill. I remembered making potion after potion and crafting ridiculously overpowered spells using the souls of monsters I’d killed. I remembered reading dozens and dozens of books scattered throughout the world. I remembered traveling from city to city on the back of giant bugs. More than anything else, I remembered being completely transported to a different world with centuries of history.

I’d saved the world, too, but I couldn’t tell you from what, exactly, or how I’d done it. Something about a prophecy. That’s a big part of why I’d dismissed open-world games as nothing more than diversions: completely engrossing while you’re playing them, but they evaporate as soon as the insubstantial main quest ends.

The Elder Scrolls games are all about world-building and giving the player near-infinite flexibility in creating his own character and his own story. So it would seem that criticizing Morrowind for building a completely immersive, memorable world but failing to deliver a compelling plot is missing the point. If anything, it’d seem to be a criticism of my own failure to tell a good story.

But that gets back to my core complaint about sandbox games: too often, they act as beautiful echo chambers. I’m not actually interacting with the game developers in any significant way; I’m spending hours telling a story to myself. (And a pretty tedious story at that, since videogame stories take place in real time).

And what’s annoying and tantalizing about Skyrim is that it’s full of instances that do more than that. They don’t form the bulk of the game, and they can be outweighed by the constant push-and-pull of a linear main narrative and an empty “do whatever you feel like” game design. But when those instances reveal themselves, they hint at how videogame stories are supposed to work.

Books: Check ‘Em Out

Here’s an example, left somewhat vague so as not to spoil it for anyone: while I was heading to my clearly-marked destination for some quest or sub-quest or sub-sub-quest, I wandered into a house. I killed a couple of lower-level monsters, and I found all the occupants of the house had already been killed. A new quest popped up: find out what caused the murders at this house. I wandered around, collecting the personal journals of the murdered occupants and reading them to find out what went down. They had clues telling me where to go next and where to find helpful potions or weapons along the way.

All of this is standard stuff, I had dozens of similar quests already in my quest log and had done countless more just like it in other games. (The first rule of creating a videogame world is populating it with characters narcissistic enough to document every detail of their lives either in journals or voice recordings). I followed the instructions, found the cause of the murders, and killed it. Boom, quest completed.

But then: I remembered a detail I’d read in one of the journals, a detail that had seemed like something of a throwaway. The game had already told me that I was done with that quest and could move on, but I decided to take a few minutes to role-play what my character would actually do in that situation. Without prompting from the interface, I went off course and followed one of the murdered people’s last requests as mentioned in a journal. Surprisingly, the game recognized it and rewarded me for it, with a permanent boost to my character’s stats.

Most of the discussion in support of open-ended games talks about “emergent storytelling,” but there’s nothing emergent about my example. It was a moment deliberately left by the developers for me to find, and they acknowledged me when I found it. But the key is that I was never explicitly told what to do. I wasn’t rewarded for following instructions, I was rewarded for understanding the story.

There are plenty of more conventional examples scattered throughout the game, where books give you explicit context for what you’re doing and what you should do next. There are also plenty of terrific examples of purely environmental storytelling. My favorite is wandering up to a burning house in the middle of the woods, exploring the interior, and finding a charred corpse next to a summoning circle and a spellbook describing how to conjure Flame Atronachs.

But the bulk of the storytelling in Skyrim uses the most conventional means possible: cut-scenes, dialogue trees, and books scattered about to give context to the world and to specific dungeons. And that’s fine, because Skyrim isn’t a storytelling game.

Its emphasis is on exploration and experience, and it seems that the design mandate throughout the Elder Scrolls series is: “Do everything possible not to interfere with the player’s experience.” The player’s free to take on the main quest at his own pace, or to ignore it altogether. The player can make his own weapons and armor as he sees fit, and then add (almost) any enchantment he wants, until his character is practically invincible. (Which invariably leads to complaints that the game is “unbalanced,” which is a silly thing to complain about in an open-ended single-player game, especially one in which the central story revolves around a mortal man who became so powerful he joined the pantheon of gods).

More significantly, the game avoids the usual binary good/evil morality choices and instead offers a multitude of completely linear quests. There’s frequently only one linear path through a storyline, and instead of choosing one branch or the other, you simply choose to follow the storyline or drop it completely. In most games, that wouldn’t be an option, but Skyrim has dozens of stories to choose from. In fact, it’s when the game tries to impose a more complex story on the player — when it forces a moral decision — that it starts to break down. There’s a sequence of events in the city of Markath that forces the player’s character into prison and into an alliance with one of the fellow prisoners. It feels the most structured of any of the storylines in the game; you can tell that the developers were trying to present a complex, multilayered subplot of political intrigue with its own warring factions and its own exploration of relative morality. But it ends up feeling the most artificial and frustrating of all the game’s storylines, because it breaks that central design tenet of player freedom (literally). The game just isn’t designed to give the player as much control over interaction with characters as he has with the rest of the world. In the rest of the game, when the player’s presented with an unsatisfying choice, he can simply choose to leave.

A Game of Drones

After all that, it would seem like I agree with Tom Bissell’s review/analysis of Skyrim on Grantland.com. He says that it’s frustrating when Skyrim insists on presenting its fantasy world via cinematics, long expository dialogues, and text:

Are we not at the point where dramaturgical incompetence in a game as lavishly produced and skillfully designed as Skyrim is no longer charming?
Dense expositional lore has no place in video-game stories — especially stories that go without highly wrought cinematics — and it seems increasingly clear that video games are neither dramatically effective nor emotionally interesting when the player’s role becomes that of a dialogue sponge. More simply put, the stories of Demon’s and Dark Souls are told in a way that only video games can tell stories. They don’t suffer in comparison because there’s no comparison to make.

But while I agree with the kernel at the core of Bissell’s argument — videogames are capable of telling stories in ways that no other medium can — I don’t agree that the more conventional storytelling used by Skyrim was clumsy or overbearing.

For starters, Bissell offers Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls as RPGs that don’t sacrifice their core “gameness” in order to establish a fantasy world. I must be in a completely separate circle from Bissell on the Venn Diagram of people who play RPGs, because I’ve tried Dark Souls and found it completely, almost offensively, uninteresting. I found myself dropped into the most generic fantasy world possible, and I was given absolutely no context for what I was doing, or why I should care. I refuse to believe that the solution to “bad” storytelling in games is to bury the storytelling so completely that I’m just wandering around, killing dudes because they’re there, and collecting experience points.

I also disagree that the more conventional storytelling of Skyrim was, on the whole, clumsy or overbearing. I enjoyed all of the storylines that I played (there are several that I still haven’t completed, even after over 100 hours), and they all ranged from above-average to quite good. The “main” storyline is obviously the one dealing with the reappearance of the dragons, and I thought it had a very satisfying, suitably epic and heavy metal finale that was cleverly inspired by Norse mythology.

I didn’t enjoy the Civil War storylines as much, although I do have to give them credit for making them more nuanced and less black-and-white than you tend to see in videogames. You don’t side with pure good or pure evil, since both sides are pretty much dicks, and the unabashed transparently evil characters are constantly looming in the background. (If the DLC doesn’t let me kill a lot of the Thalmor, I’m going to be sorely disappointed).

But calling the cinematics, dialogue, and expository text in Skyrim good or bad is completely subjective. Calling them unnecessary is less so.

Of course, Skyrim would no longer be Skyrim if it were to strip itself down to the spectral narrative simplicity of Dark Souls. No one, least of all me, wants the game to lose its special character. That does not mean the next Elder Scrolls game would not benefit from a measure of radical distillation.
Like most who play Skyrim, I’m greatly drawn to these incredible environments because the act of exploring them becomes uniquely my experience. When I’m listening to and watching Skyrim’s interminable characters, I’m skipping through the same dumb cartoon everyone else is. Video games can tell involving, interesting stories — but they can’t do it like this. It’s high time we start thinking about another way or ways.

Here’s my biggest disagreement with Bissell’s argument: the storytelling in Skyrim is already inherently interactive, because the world-building and exposition are entirely opt-in. After the lengthy (and unfortunately, unskippable on subsequent play-throughs) opening sequence, the cutscenes rarely overstay their welcome. They give just enough exposition and information to give context and keep from degrading into “You. Go kill that dragon.”

For those of us who want more context and world-building, there are dialogue options, where we can ask most characters for more details on recent events and the state of the world. And for those of us who want to go all-in on the high fantasy, there are tons and tons of books detailing the history of the world, its leaders, and the various races. And many of the details are provided purely via background dialogue, like the amazing vocal performance of the devotee of Talos who rants/preaches in the square of Whiterun every morning. But none of it is required.

Contrast that with all the movies that have struggled to present a novel’s worth of fantasy world-building exposition. They’ve varied in success from the horribly inept (Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings) to the baffling (David Lynch’s Dune) to the pretty interesting (Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings). And even with the explosions and elf battles, the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring could seem like an information dump, even to those of us who’d read the books. A game can give the audience the option of saying, “Yes, I know this already; let’s move on.”

We’ve seen what happens when you take a complex fantasy world and give it a “radical distillation:” it becomes generic. There’s no shortage of elves, dragons, and wizards in videogames; it’s only via the Elder Scrolls’s stories of racism, political intrigue, lost races of dwarves, conspiracies, and dragon languages that this world distinguishes itself from hundreds of other Tolkien- and George R.R. Martin-inspired game settings.

So how to convey that to the people in the audience who choose to opt out of much of the storytelling?

Ideally, you do it through the gameplay. But I don’t feel that the focus of Skyrim is on killing dragons or even killing bandits, even though that’s what the player’s doing 99% of the time. The focus is on becoming completely immersed in a fully-realized world and having the freedom to shape a character however you want. And Skyrim only works as well as it does because it doesn’t impose too much on the player, instead relying on the “uncanny valley” effect — its stories are generally linear and its characters generally one-dimensional, allowing the player to extrapolate subtleties of character and cause-and-effect chains in the plot.

I believe Skyrim is on the right track. Even for those of us who’ve enjoyed the game’s conventional narratives, they’re not the most compelling parts of the experience. Skyrim works best when we’re given a sense of agency, allowed to stray from the static list of instructions and explore the world on our own terms. But more than that, it’s most compelling when we interact with the world and it responds.

All of us speak the language of games — even if you’ve never played a computer RPG before, you can’t proceed far in Skyrim without understanding how the game works. As such, we learn to control and throttle our interaction with the game’s storytelling. We learn to distinguish main quests from subquests; random monsters from the end-dungeon boss; significant books from ones just provided for color; and actions that are pure exploration from actions that will trigger the next big story moment.

I think almost all of the storytelling in Skyrim is competent, but it’s only when it breaks out of the predictable cycle of exposition-then-action that it excels. Staging a dragon attack on a city that I’d assumed was a “safe zone.” Having a random NPC in a tavern unexpectedly transport me to the other side of the continent and force me to retrace my steps. Giving me a quest reward that wasn’t on my list, a reward I wouldn’t have known about if I hadn’t picked up on a detail in a private journal.

You could punch up and trim down the dialogue of a cutscene all you want, but it still won’t resonate if the player’s been conditioned to think that the cutscene is just getting in the way of the real game to follow. It’d be the equivalent of trying to improve a roller coaster by making the valleys and lift hills more interesting.

What I’d like to see in the next Elder Scrolls game, and in all the open-world games to come that are going to build on Skyrim‘s success, is an attempt to blur the line between the main quest and the game. I shouldn’t feel as if I’m either furthering the story or straying from it and exploring, with the difference between the two clearly marked on my quest list and map. I should feel that the game is actually responding to what I’m doing, recognizing when I’ve done something that wasn’t explicitly asked of me, and rewarding me for it. And ideally, changing the world as a result of those actions.

It’d mean closing off some of the content, but Skyrim is the first game in years that I’ve resolved to give a second playthrough and then actually done it. I wouldn’t mind having parts of the game closed off to me. And if Bethesda has proven anything, it’s that they’ve figured out how to generate tons of content without its spiraling out of control.

The Radiant System as originally rumored was supposed to do a lot of this, constantly adjusting the world in response to the way you were developing your character. In one huge aspect, it worked: throughout my game, I always felt as if dungeons and random monsters were at a suitable level of difficulty, and that I was actually progressing and getting stronger. (Contrasted with Oblivion, for example, where after a certain point, you were discouraged from wandering, for fear of encountering a random bandit who had even finer armor and weaponry than you did).

The quest assignments, however, still felt noticeably computer-controlled. I didn’t feel as if I was interacting with Bethesda’s story, but with a random number generator. That’s the danger of relying too much on a “virtual world” to take the place of pre-generated content. I’d like to see the system expanded not so that I get infinite content — there’s already more content in Skyrim than I’ll ever see — but so that the content I do see is in response to what I’ve decided to do, not simply as a result of my checking an item off a To-Do list.