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Games Aren't a Storytelling Medium (Yet)
by Craig Ellsworth on 02/15/12 05:34:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

When I think of videogames, I think of Mario.  Most Mario games are basically the same:  you control the character's movements, defeat enemies, and gain some fun super powers that add variety, like throwing fireballs or flying.  This formula has been there since Super Mario Bros., and has continued through Super Mario Galaxy 2.

There have been many spin-offs, but at heart, Mario is a guy who bops on Goomba heads and whacks around a dragon-turtle beast.

Did I mention you rescue a princess?  Oops, I forgot.  Also, did I mention Mario is a plumber?  I guess it slipped my mind considering it has no bearing on the gameplay whatsoever.

The Princess is no more than a plot device, and serves as your ultimate reward each game, but when you play Super Mario Bros., is it even necessary?  In fact, is she necessary in any Mario game?

Bowser sure is an important character, being the boss and all, but defeating Bowser is a reward in itself.  When you beat another player at Chess, you don't need to receive a lollipop for a job well done; winning is its own reward.

Indeed, playing is its own reward, and there is no need for a story to hook you in.  In fact, consider this part of the story in the manual for Super Mario Bros.:

"The quiet, peace-loving Mushroom People were turned into mere stones, bricks, and even field horse-hair plants, and the Mushroom Kingdom fell into ruin."

I guess that means when Mario breaks a brick block, he's killing innocent Mushroom People.  Did you know that?  Is it relevant to how you look at the game?  I suppose if you care that much about it, you could try playing Super Mario Bros. without breaking a single block.

But nobody cares because story was not important in that game, and for that matter it's not terribly important in most Mario platformers.

Now don't get me wrong, I love Mario.  He's my favorite videogame character, the universe he inhabits is beautiful, and if there is one mascot that will forever define videogames -- not just Nintendo -- it's going to be Mario.

But Mario is proof positive that you don't need a story to make a great game.  Indeed, most early games had no story, except for text adventures.  No story necessary in Space Invaders, Pacman, Frogger.  Not much of a story to Pong, either.

These days, games have big stories, and often great stories can make or break a game.  With the depth stories in games get into nowadays, players are often participating in interactive novels.

This is, of course, quite a good thing.  Imagine if movies never got off the "let's watch a train drive by" stage.  Eventually you'd be watching "Trains Driving By in 3D!"

The leap from movies making simple "moving images" to creating a new form of stage play turned the medium from a tech demo into an art form.

But first, movies copied stage plays a little too much; they did not understand that, being a different medium, there was a whole avenue of art called cinematography which could be exploited and used to create something beyond a recording of a stage play.

Eventually it was figured out, of course, and now we have a repertoire of tricks with the camera that change the medium drastically; cinematography is both an art and a science.

When videogames first came out, they used interactivity as the thing to show off.  You played board games on your television!  It was only after some time that developers began taking storytelling seriously in videogames, getting beyond the novelty of the technology to finally make art with it.

Unfortunately, just like movies in its early stages, videogames based their storytelling off another medium.  And just like movies in its early stages, games didn't use their new technology to its potential to create art in the medium.

By this I mean that videogames either concentrated their efforts on gameplay over story, like in Super Mario Bros., or took story over gameplay, like text adventures.

These days, while equal time is usually spent on both story and gameplay, they are not married, but rather are split up into different jail cells.

Gameplay is the thing the player does, which is fun and engaging in its own right; story is the thing the player watches or reads, separate from the gameplay entirely.

A cutscene, a dialogue box; these are static, non-interactive tools game developers use to tell their story, and it is understandable that, when games were first developing storylines, such devices were necessary because human civilization has pretty much kept storytelling locked in as a non-interactive, linear art form.

But now, games should have sufficiently improved their technology that stories can be interactive, through the same gameplay the rest of the game uses.  Play God of War and see that the story is clearly separated from the gameplay.  The gameplay is fighting and exploration, and the story is a study of the character's past and how he arrived in the mess he is in.

The game begins to merge the two at the final boss battle, when Kratos faces a bunch of zombie versions of himself; in essence he is confronting his inner demons, which is what God of War was always ultimately about.  The player finally gets to interact with the story through the same gameplay he's always used throughout the game, and the story (which was restricted previously to cutscenes) merges with the gameplay.

It's very rare that games merge the two parts of the game together.  Often, the more complicated and epic the story, the farther from the gameplay it goes.  Take almost any RPG and you'll see the divide pretty clearly.

Even games which try to give the player meaningful choices to sway the story, while interactive, don't require the same style of gameplay as the majority of the game.  Most dialogue options are like this; when a game is primarily combat-based, dialogue options are a poor attempt to give the player something to control.

Some games do much better in giving the player control over outcomes.  When characters live or die permanently as a result of the player's actions, and the option always exists to keep them alive or let them die based on the player's skill or choices during the main gameplay portions, that is as close as we've come to games truly mixing gameplay and story.

Even linear stories in games can still be just as interactive, even if the player has no control over where the story goes -- the player may not have control over the outcome, but they do get to lead the character(s) through the story.

By this, I do not mean leading a character through a room of baddies to watch the cutscene on the other side.  I mean that the game requires the player to act out the story through gameplay.

Perhaps we need to shift away from the genres we have today, as most of them do not work well to allow interactive story; or perhaps we need geniuses that can figure out ways to make the current mechanics tell the stories.

I think there are still plenty of videogames today that maintain the classic definition of videogame; Angry Birds would fit pretty well at home in an arcade cabinet next to Pacman and Q-Bert.

But there are also many games which are technological marvels, but are half-game, half-movie.  Some want to call these "interactive movies" or "interactive stories", but they are neither, since the interactivity (the gameplay) is far removed from the story itself.  I would call these game/story hybrids, or mixed media.

We are getting closer to interactive stories as game developers try to take big risks with games like Heavy Rain, but the day has yet to come when I can use such a term on a videogame.

Perhaps the current closest interactive story to be found is LARPing, which allows players to improvise and create stories as they go, or at least change the main thread sufficiently to personalize it to their taste; but of course the LA in LARP means there is nothing digital about it.

I have no problem with stories being separate from gameplay (and most of my favorite games have separated stories, or almost no story at all), but when games actually use their primary mode of gameplay to tell their stories, that will be the day when games have truly begun to explore their medium as a storytelling art form.

Until then, we're still just mixing media.

To read this article with some pictures (that is, mixing media), as well as to read other articles, reviews, and development logs, stop on by http://scattergamed.blogspot.com/ 


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Comments


Luis Guimaraes
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Always good to read an article pointing in the right direction when it comes to this subject.



There was a genre that existed in the 80's and 90's, that still had separate story-telling resources, but kept a considerably good amount of narrative in gameplay... what was it called?... Sullivan Horen, Saturday Whore, Souvenir Hour... Hm...



I might go play something from Tale of Tales, probably come later when I remember.

David Smith
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What about Dwarf Fortress? There's plenty of gameplay and the story develops from the gameplay. It's telling a story, just not the developer's (or player's) story. The player's actions influence the story but those little guys seem to have a mind of their own. It reminds of what some writers say about how they write - they create interesting characters, put them into a situation and write down what happens.

Dan Porter
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Agree! Check out the saga of Boatmurdered, a tale written by veteran dwarf fortress players to describe the emergent narrative of their collective fortress.

http://df.magmawiki.com/index.php/Boatmurdered



What is awesome about this is that there are multiple layers of interactivity being explored:

1) Between the player and the game. (The player decides whether to build a room, decides what type of room it is, what jobs each dwarf has etc... if you wanted you could have a fortress full of sewing rooms with hundreds of clothiers)

2) Between the game and the player. (The game tells you what happens next. Did your dwarves have children? Did goblins attack? Did the elven caravan get offended by your offering of wood?)

3) Between players within the game space. (Each player changed the world; sculpting the narrative experience of the next player to inherit the fortress).

4) Between players outside the game space. (The story of Boatmurdered was written as a creative interpretation of the game world, using the mechanics of the game to describe a dramatic story of epic fantasy).

Chris Hendricks
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"The leap from movies making simple "moving images" to creating a new form of stage play turned the medium from a tech demo into an art form.



But first, movies copied stage plays a little too much; they did not understand that, being a different medium, there was a whole avenue of art called cinematography which could be exploited and used to create something beyond a recording of a stage play.



Eventually it was figured out, of course, and now we have a repertoire of tricks with the camera that change the medium drastically; cinematography is both an art and a science."



Those few paragraphs made this whole article worth reading. Not that the whole article wasn't good, mind you, but that is a comparison that drove the point home for me. It will be very interesting seeing the state of games in 30 years, and how they will have learned to use interactivity.

Robert Chang
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On the contrary, I'd say that Mario has the best story, same with Pong, Pac Man, Tetris, and any other gaming darlings. Video game story is not like traditional story, so you can't define it using traditional methods, or you can, but it's more of an ambiguous analogy.



Their stories are emergent, meaning that the story is about the Player's narrative as he/she creates it by interacting with the game system. ie in Mario, the story can be this "Mario moves right. Mario jumps. Mario kicks a turtle shell..."



And games are unique in that their stories are not strictly defined by a script. Even games like Final Fantasy. You get a game where there is a strong strictly defined script component, but the game lives separate to that in that the emergent story of the game is something like "Cloud moves forward, Cloud meets enemies, Cloud attacks, enemy attacks, Cloud use potion..." The scripted story simply wraps around that emergent story to sort of hold each and every emergent event together.



But back to Mario, its "story" of a plumber rescuing the princess offers something that's largely lost in game design: necessity. The game provides an incentive and a justification for why Mario must push forward. Again, this story wraps around its emergent story, and it acts as a motivation device. You might not have noticed it, but your intuition certainly did. And the fact that you remember it to this day proves that you actually did notice it, and it did play a prominent role in the game design.

Luis Guimaraes
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Like this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XdkDjsBiO58



I wonder how related to the perma-death discussions the storytelling cases are.

Daneel Filimonov
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I think a quite literal representation of this would be Bastion. Every (significant) move the player makes is considered as part of the dialogue of the story (and in the case of Bastion, is quite often).

Robert Chang
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@Daneel



You're exactly right. Bastion, perhaps unintentionally, reveals explicitly the emergent story of games.

Joshua Darlington
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"But first, movies copied stage plays a little too much; they did not understand"



I would suggest that they were copying a successful business model for economic reasons (the stage play), and eventually competition motivated them to unlock the potential of the new medium.



I would also offer an adjustment for framing the problem of "story in games." That would be replacing the word "story" with the word "drama." "Story" is essentially retrospective, while "drama" is more active and better suited for the directionality of games.

Bart Stewart
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When I read opinions saying something like, "computer games don't yet really effectively tell stories in their own uniquely interactive way, so they can't really be said to tell stories yet at all," I think of System Shock and Thief and Deus Ex, and of Half-Life and Portal, and of The Witcher and To The Moon. And then I wonder how anyone could think that computer games can't tell good stories through gameplay.



Could they be better? Sure. Trying to chart a path to gamestories as their own medium is what the Ludonarrative Wars are all about. And I'm personally a strong proponent of consciously designing games so that mechanics and story mirror each other to the benefit of both.



But it's possible to hold that view without going all the way to the positions that some have expressed, such as that games "can't" do good stories or that some special and as-yet undiscovered magic is needed to fully exploit interactivity to tell good stories.



The author Gene Wolfe once made a good point that might be useful here. He observed that there's an important difference between plot and story: "The King died, and then the Queen died" is just plot. "The King died, and then the Queen died *of grief*" is a story.



If that's story, I see no reason why computer games can't do it, and potentially do it very well.

Luis Guimaraes
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"That's is the tower room in which the Queen locked herself in grief after the King died, her screams could be heard in the entire court until one night when the crying stopped. Nobody ever entered the tower in 13 years..."

Roger Tober
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"When I read opinions saying something like, "computer games don't yet really effectively tell stories in their own uniquely interactive way, so they can't really be said to tell stories yet at all," I think of System Shock and Thief and Deus Ex, and of Half-Life and Portal, and of The Witcher and To The Moon. And then I wonder how anyone could think that computer games can't tell good stories through gameplay."



Same here. I don't get it. Those aren't stories and gameplay in their own separate cells at all. The story and gameplay complement each other and work off each other. They are married. What I think you find in those examples is that the story is pretty original. It isn't the guy that keeps getting better and better swords and defeating enemies until he gets the really bad guy. Those games are centered around gameplay and the story is perhaps in a separate cell.

Ramon Carroll
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I'm with you, Bart. I can't help but wonder what some people's standards are for acceptable storytelling. Perhaps this is where the heart of the issue lies. Maybe, perhaps, its an unecessarily narrow view of storytelling that leads to such extreme points of view on this subject?



Games have expanded to become something much more than what we imagined them to be when we were just playing Duck Hunt and Tetris. Modern designers (as well as their consumers) are starting to take a broader view of games, seeing them as a medium for imparting a rich, fun, and engaging experience to the user. The gameplay mechanics, aesthetics, and technology (whether digital or non-digital) are all aspects of the game that must be focused on if we are to convey the experience that we mean to convey. Yes, its a difficult balancing act, but every once in a while, we come across a game that seems to pull off this balancing act very well, proving that its not impossible to have both an engaging story and fun gameplay.



Is it possible to just focus on gameplay and have a fun game? Of course, but not all of us hold such a limiting view of this medium, and are interested in seeing its boundaries pushed.


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