The Calls Are Coming From Within the Ice Level!

Previously on Spectre Collie, I made the claim that storytelling in “passive” media like books and movies isn’t as passive as people like to think. A well-told story demands that the audience stay actively engaged in the telling, processing what’s come so far and anticipating what happens next.

The interesting thing is: this is so integral a part of storytelling that even the not-so-well-told stories do it, sometimes without even realizing it. Last time, I compared the movie Adaptation to the game BioShock, because each uses the limitations of its format (a cliche-filled Hollywood action movie, or a linear first-person shooter game) to feed back into its story and deliver a more significant message (about the misguided passion for perfection, or the nature of free will).

The most common criticism of both of those is that they’re “meta” stories, based solely on a gimmick, with the director (or screenwriter) or designer dangling his message just out of the audience’s grasp, all the while thinking he’s so clever. But the idea of manipulating the audience’s expectations isn’t particularly new or post-modern; it’s a fundamental building block of storytelling.

Any story worth hearing (or reading, or watching, or playing) is going to have moments where the audience has to fill in the gaps and make predictions, forming its own parallel version of events that’ll get rewritten in collaboration with the storyteller. On its own, that’s not the type of activity that people mean when they talk about interactive entertainment. And that’s a problem, because it’s the most interesting type of activity. And understanding how it works will lead to better storytelling in games.

Myth 5: A story is a sequence of events leading to a conclusion.

Whenever anybody says that storytelling is “passive,” I have to wonder if they’ve ever seen a horror movie with a big crowd. The first time I saw Scream, it was in a theater packed with Marin County high school students taking advantage of Tightwad Tuesday. I’d have a hard time calling that audience “passive;” they were screaming, laughing, and yelling back at the screen.

Now, Scream came out during the crest of the Irony Wave of the mid-90s, so it’s definitely overloaded with gimmicky “meta” moments. But it didn’t really do anything to change the rules of horror movies; all it did was explicitly spell out the rules before it carried through on them. And the first rule of any horror movie, from the most highbrow suspense thriller to the cheesiest B-movie, is “don’t go into that room.”

birdsdoor.jpgScream‘s most memorable “don’t go into that room” moment kind of sucked (seriously, who thought death by automatic garage door was scary?), so look at the most famous one from The Birds: Melanie Daniels is sitting in a dark living room after everyone else has fallen asleep. She hears a noise. She picks up a flashlight and gets up to check it out. It’s not the lovebirds in the next room, so it must be upstairs. She looks at the stairs to the door for a moment, deciding whether to go in. She walks up the stairs. When she gets to the top, she reaches for the doorknob. She opens the door and goes inside. (Spoiler: there’s a bunch of birds in there).

Now, that scene goes on for like three or four minutes, and taken out of context, it’s every bit as tedious as I just described. Seriously, nothing happens. It’s even less inherently creepy than a little boy riding his Big Wheel through the halls of an empty hotel. You’d think that with as much praise as Hitchcock gets, he would’ve had the sense to cut that scene shorter, or out altogether.

Except we all know, on a gut level, why this scene is in the movie. The short answer is “pacing,” but that’s an over-simplification. It’s not just a case of shifting from loud to quiet, or action to rest, but shifting the audience’s role from passive observer to active participant. There’s still a story going on, but the storyteller is inviting the audience to compare their version of things to the one that’s playing out on screen. The story isn’t just a sequence of events, but also the decisions leading up to those events — it’s not just what’s happening, but how it’s happening and why it happens.

What do you, the audience, think?

We all know that something scary is behind that door. Considering what we’ve seen so far, including the title of the movie, we know that it probably somehow involves birds. But we don’t know what exactly it’s going to be. Much of the scene is shot from a first-person view; we’re not just watching stuff happen to the star, we’re making decisions about what she should do next, and what’s going to happen as a result.

Should she try harder to wake up the others? Should she get a weapon? Should she devise some way to find out what’s behind the door without opening it? Should she just forget about the door altogether, and leave it until morning? What’s going to be on the other side? Is she really at risk of dying when she sees it? Would the movie really kill her off without a resolution of the love story?

Once we get through the door, that’s when movies and videogames diverge: movies become completely passive, showing the audience whatever nasty monster or expensive CG effect the storyteller’s come up with. And games become completely active, inviting the audience to run around and mash buttons until everything’s dead. The pay-off’s not the key, the build-up is. It’s during the build-up that videogames and movies are the most similar.

Of course, the audience doesn’t have real control over what happens; we’re inexorably pulled up the stairs and through that door no matter what. But does that really matter? “Survival Horror” is the videogame world’s attempt at horror and suspense, but I don’t know of any game that lets you do the sensible thing, just forget about the zombies and just dial 911. And if such a game exists, I don’t think I’d want to play it. You’re going to go through the door, but that’s not the interesting part. It’s not about what happens, but about what could happen.

No one will be admitted during the chilling Boss Fight sequence!

But games still don’t get this. We’ve been conditioned to think that “interactivity” makes games an entirely new medium, and we’re adamant that we have nothing to learn from the movies that have already mastered a lot of this stuff. So we liberally borrow the most shallow aspects of movie storytelling and try to graft those on top of a videogame. We pretend that there’s a clean division between “gameplay” and “story,” putting all the cinematic stuff into the “story” section to make the “gameplay” section seem cooler, instead of learning what the cinematic stuff really does.

So our games end up playing like long sequences of pay-offs, with interminable, dull storytelling spots in the middle. We assume that we have no control over pacing. And we insist on a clean break between passive storytelling and active playing, which means “cut-scenes” and “interactive sections.” Basically, we throw pacing out the window, letting the player run around unsupervised for 90% of the game, until we grab control back from him to show him parts of a story he doesn’t really care about.

For example: every time BioShock tried to do straight-up horror, it failed for me. It came across more like the cheesy Castle movie remakes like House on Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts. Messages scrawled in blood, gruesome medical facilities, bodies sprawled out all over the place, and loads of rusty hooks. But the best moment of the game, and I’d say of any game last year, was the “don’t go into that door!” moment leading up to your showdown with Andrew Ryan. Everything in the game has been building up to this point, and you know that something big is going to happen on the other side, even if you don’t know exactly what it is. You run through a couple of empty corridors, building up to an epic confrontation, speculating on which combination of weapons and superpowers you’re going to use, putting together the bits of story you’ve seen so far. Then, in a quiet anteroom, you see the biggest reveal of the entire game, written on a wall (in blood, of course). The following cutscene is basically just clean-up work; the climax just happened, in an “interactive” section. And it didn’t involve shooting anyone or leveling up, but piecing together the story without having it handed to you.

The best example of “don’t go into that door” that I’ve seen in games is in the Silent Hill series. I’ve never been impressed with the games overall, from what I’ve seen, but the radio mechanic is just genius. As you get closer to danger, the static on a handheld radio the protagonist carries gets stronger. It’s creepy, it serves a function in the game, and it serves several functions in the story, not the least of which is to remind the player that something supernatural is going on. Basically, the storytelling never stops, since you’re given constant feedback as to whether something spooky is happening.

In games, you’ll find a lot more examples of the “don’t go into that door” moment’s evil twin, the “oh, it’s just the cat!” moment. In a movie, a cat (or even a monster) suddenly jumping out of nowhere is the worst of cheap scares, because it breaks the contract between the audience and the director. We’ve watched this young, almost naked college girl walking down a dark hallway, we’ve invested thought into whatever horrible thing is going to happen to her at the end of the hallway, so don’t cheat us out of that by making it something we couldn’t have predicted.

But even in games without monster closets, we’ve got no problem just throwing a ton of monsters (where “monster” is shorthand for “any obstacle”) at the player, with no predictability or reason. The story gets shut down completely, reduced to an insultingly simple “You’re at point A and need to get to point B.” The level designer will usually make a token stab at pacing by the order he places enemies and power-ups, but for the most part, all storytelling conventions have been thrown out the window. So there’s a short gauntlet of having enemies thrown at you for a few minutes, until you get to the next cutscene; sometimes you’re asked to push a button or pull a lever.

How is that not passive?

The End… OR IS IT?!?

All of this stuff may seem specific to horror and suspense, but it’s not. All comedy is based on playing with the audience’s expectations, as well. Horror movies are just a good example because they prove that none of this is all that hard: if Friday the 13th can do it, why can’t we?

The basic lesson is this: game developers like to think of games as semi-controlled environments, where we have control during cut-scenes and chokepoints, and relinquish it for the interactive sections. This is bad; it leads to shallow games annoyingly interrupted by bad stories. What we need to realize is that we never have complete control over the audience. Not even “passive” media like movies and TV have that.

And to realize that, first we have to realize that the audience — even the droolingest fanboy in the comments section of a videogame blog somewhere — is always thinking. You can’t stop it; it’s the curse of being human. So don’t try to divide the game into “the time when I do the thinking,” and “the time when you do the thinking.” Instead, find a way to use it to your advantage; as movies prove, you can use the audience’s creativity to tell your story.

Open up the game, let the player figure out the story as he goes along. Don’t worry that everything has to be revealed in a cutscene before you relinquish control to the player, or he’ll be completely lost — it’s a joystick and some buttons; it’s not rocket science. And stay open to the idea that the player’s got his own version of events that’s constantly being updated and compared to the version that you’re trying to show. As it stands now, we’re putting all our energy into making what happens on the other side of the door. We need to put more effort into what happens in the long hallway leading up to the door.