Who’s in control here?

Alexander_Haig.jpgThat’s Alexander Haig. Look him up.

Also: This post has spoilers for BioShock and Grand Theft Auto IV, in case you’re paranoid about that kind of thing.

Previously on Spectre Collie, I made the claim that videogame developers can learn more from “non-interactive” media than just how to make more cinematic cut-scenes and more literary dialogue. If interactivity is the key aspect of videogame storytelling, then how come everything we borrow from traditional media is non-interactive? Why not look for the ways in which movies, books, TV, and comics interact with the audience, and then try to build on that?

The example I used last time was the “don’t go into that room” scene in horror & suspense movies. Those scenes build tension not by showing the audience what happens next, but by asking the audience what they think is going to happen next. In effect, they’re turning the storytelling duties over to the audience.

This only works because there are always at least two versions of the narrative being told simultaneously: the filmmaker’s version, and the audience’s version. It’s as true for movies, books, and TV as it is for storytelling games. In games, obviously, you put more emphasis on the player’s narrative. Which leads to the assumption:

Myth 6: Player narrative is always more important than developer narrative.

On the one side, you’ve got the arrogant, control-freak game designer, forcing his lame story onto players who don’t want to hear it. One of the designers at Telltale, Heather Logas, described this phenomenon better than I’ve heard anywhere else: “A lot of game designers act like they don’t want players coming in and messing up their story.” So we’ve developed all kinds of ways to ensure our stories don’t get messed up: cut-scenes; choke points; and linear sections that trick the player into believing he has control, when in reality he’s only allowed to do the one thing we want him to do.

On the other side, you’ve got the players, a bunch of whiny malcontents with an inflated sense of entitlement. They insist that their $50-$60 has bought a team of professionals who should dance at their command. The interactivity of a game is supposed to let the player tell his own story. That’s the only story that players care about. Besides, everybody knows that games will never have storytelling and writing that’s as good as movies or even television. If a game developer just wants to tell a story, he should get out of games and just make movies. So players have developed all kinds of ways to ensure their stories don’t get messed up: basically, insisting repeatedly on blogs and message boards that developer’s stories be kept quiet and unobtrusive, and that cut-scenes should be kept skippable if not cut altogether.

So which narrative is the more important one? If the real potential of interactive storytelling is giving the audience the freedom to tell whatever story they want, then the answer’s obvious: the player’s narrative is everything.

But the real potential of interactive storytelling isn’t giving the audience the freedom to tell whatever story they want. That’s the real potential of the pencil. And if you give someone a pencil and a blank sheet of paper, or a blank page in Microsoft Word, or a blank workspace in Flash, you don’t automatically end up with great storytelling. If you end up with anything at all, more often than not it’s insipid, derivative, filled with cliches. That’s as true of the best screenwriters alive as it is of the guy who writes “FIRST!” on blog comments. Great stories are rare, because great stories are hard. So the player’s narrative isn’t the most important.

But the developer’s narrative isn’t the most important, either. After all, if a game developer just wants to tell a story, he should get out of games and just make movies.

Tear down this wall!

The real potential of interactive storytelling is delivering a story that’s a collaboration between the storyteller and the audience. It’s not the player’s narrative, and it’s not the developer’s narrative; it’s this third thing that’s better than either. As you play the game, the pieces of the story start to come together, and you feel not like you’ve played a part in someone else’s story, but you helped write the story.

So how does a game design make that happen?

Continue reading “Who’s in control here?”