I’ve been so busy with the videogame-making and occasionally -playing that I’ve been negligent in the videogame-promoting. Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People has two episodes out for WiiWare and PC, and the second episode, “Strong Badia the Free” came out last Monday. As you might imagine, it’s a thoughtful and provocative examination of the political process and man’s cruelty to his fellow man.
It’s kind of a milestone for me, since it’s the first game I’ve been credited as a “director,” and the first game (not counting the Kim Possible playtest at Epcot) where I’ve been involved from initial story idea all the way to shipping. On the blog, I’m listed as “lead writer,” which is a little silly on these games. When you’re working with a couple of guys who can turn the boring line “Freedom!” into the actually-funny line “Sweet Recently Divorced Lady Freedom!” you quickly learn to just get the basics done and let the experts do their thing.
My capsule review (which is probably biased somewhat): it’s very good! I think it feels like an extended Homestar Runner toon (if not a sbemail) that you can wander around in, and it hits a pretty good balance between in-jokes and story. Plus, there’s a gag (a cutscene at the beginning of the last act) that I’ve wanted to see in a videogame ever since I was a freshman in college.
And one of my favorite things about episodic development is we can experiment with the story and puzzle structure, and come up with adventure game puzzles that play like minigames — Tic Tac Doom from the Sam & Max episode “Bright Side of the Moon” is still my favorite. There’s an extended one at the end of this episode that, whether it works or not (some people got what was going on right off the bat and liked it, some people absolutely hate it), makes me optimistic about our ability to change up the way these games work. Maybe we can slowly and gradually cram character development and storytelling into types of games that don’t normally have it.
Biggest lesson learned: The Algebros was way too much work for such a corny joke.
I finally got to play some of Spore tonight, ending up just partway through the tribal phase. I’m in danger of overusing the word, but I can’t think of a better one to describe it than “wonderful.” (I could be biased, since several of my friends are on the team, but then we’re not that good friends, because I haven’t talked to them in a long time since they’ve all been busy making Spore).
The game is proof that videogame reviews are broken. The negative reviews I’ve read complain that there’s not enough to do (a common complaint about The Sims, and we’ve all seen how poorly that series has done). Or, they compare Spore to Flow (or Pac-Man) plus World of Warcraft plus a real-time strategy game plus Civilization plus Master of Orion or Elite, and then fault the game for coming up short. It’s “dumbed down” or “oversimplified,” we’re told. Or it tries to be too many games, but just comes across as mediocre mini-games, none of which is as good as “the original.”
Then it’s compared to The Sims, but it’s not as good as that because of reason x (most commonly, that you can’t model your friends and family like you can with The Sims). And plus, the reviewer’s girlfriend or wife loves The Sims but is bored with Spore, which is proof that they’ve lost their audience.
Before I’d actually seen the game, and just seen snippets of videos online, or gotten cursory progress reports from friends over the past couple of years, I thought the complaints could be valid. After seeing the different parts — as I said, I’m not even halfway through yet — work in concert, I think that the complaints are missing the point on a colossal scale.
Spore does borrow the mechanics of other games, but it doesn’t use them in the same way as those games. To make a tortured analogy: dismissing the game for being a “dumbed-down” RTS would be like looking at a poem written in French and dismissing it as gibberish. The letters are the same, but it’s the meaning that’s important.
If it should be compared to any game, it’s The Sims. Not for this mysterious audience of “casual gamers and women” that people who un-ironically call themselves “hardcore” gamers don’t understand, but for the experience of interactive discovery and creation that it brings the player.
After just a few hours of playing, I’ve already had a dozen moments that aren’t quite like anything I’ve seen in a game before: surprise, and discovery, and wonder, and experimentation. As a cell, you’ll see dim shadows of huge predators, knowing that it won’t be long before you’re big enough to eat them. As a creature, you’ll walk over a ridge and see a pack of bizarre creatures created by some stranger. A meteor storm will come out of nowhere, sending other creatures running in panic. A spaceship will fly overhead to check everything out. It’s all familiar, but alien at the same time. And there’s always something pointing you forward to the next stage.
That widget at the top of this post should let you see parts of the evolution of my creature (plus some older ones I made with the Creature Creator), but you can’t see the same feeling that I did when I opened up the Sporepedia after a few hours playing. In the full game, they’re all lined up for you, from single celled organism to Tribal Chieftain (and beyond), and I can remember each step, but am still surprised to see the progression. Even though the game is about evolution, and constantly mentions helping your organism “evolve,” and showing you the evolution on a graph at the end of each stage, you still don’t really get the sense of evolution until you take a step back and see how the thing really has changed over time.
And every moment is filled with that sense of creation; you can’t get away from it. As fits the theme and the subject matter, everything you see is about that spark of life, that moment of creating something new. This is the only videogame that could accurately (but fruitily and pretentiously) be described as “fecund.” The creators aren’t add-on modding tools (although you can get to them individually, if you want); they’re key to the whole experience. Many of the previews I’ve read mentioned that everything in the game is created in one of the editors, but that makes it sound like a “nice touch” or a “bonus add-on,” or a marketing bullet point on the back of the box. It’s only when you get in there that you understand that creation and change are what the whole thing is about.
The other common complaint is that it’s a spectacular toy, it’s just not a game. From what I’ve seen, neither word quite does it justice. Spore‘s UI gives the player all kinds of scores and graphs and meters and objectives, and game reviewers seem to be going after those objectives and then complaining that it was too easy (or later, too hard). What they’re missing is that the objectives aren’t the end, they’re the means to an end. Shadow of the Colossus isn’t about beating bosses, it’s about that feeling of loss and loneliness and obsession and majesty. Rock Band isn’t about filling a star meter, it’s about performance and about hearing music in a new way. And if Spore is “about” anything, it’s about that sense of creation, and exploration, and discovery, and bounty.
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 bestscreenwritersalive 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.
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.”
Scream‘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.