This will only make sense if you’ve read Part 1. ( http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JoshForeman/20100809/5728/Story_Transplantation__Part_1.php ) Before I start trying to problem solve from where I left off last time I want to bring up another issue that should weigh heavily on the problem I’ve been outlining and the solutions offered. What kind of story are we trying to put into our games? The words ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ are thrown around an awful lot in these kinds of conversations, so I think it behooves us to understand how we are defining these words. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s various definitions:
1 archaic a : history 1 b : history 3
2 a : an account of incidents or events b : a statement regarding the facts pertinent to a situation in question c : anecdote; especially : an amusing one
3 a : a fictional narrative shorter than a novel; specifically : short story b : the intrigue or plot of a narrative or dramatic work
4 : a widely circulated rumor
5 : lie, falsehood
6 : legend, romance
7 : a news article or broadcast
8 : matter, situation
1 : something that is narrated : story, account
2 : the art or practice of narration
3 : the representation in art of an event or story; also : an example of such a representation
In debates on the subject of story in games I’ve noticed two things going on definitionally. First, most advocates of the game/cinema hybrid have Webster’s 3rd definition in their heads when they use the word story. That is, they are thinking about a crafted, linear story arc like they are familiar with from movies, novels, plays, etc. Since such stories are not currently able to emerge from a game rule-set, these kinds of stories must be compartmentalized from the game part of the game/cinema hybrid. The second thing I see going on in these debates is that there is a sort of middle ground, where most can agree that there is always the potential for Webster’s 2nd definition of story, which is also related to the definition for Narrative. That is the idea that any set of occurrences can be retold in an entertaining fashion. We’ve all heard, and told, stories of our game exploits. But these kinds of retellings lack the stuff that our cinematics are supposed to be bringing to the party.
There are those such as Tadgh Kelly, who insist that there cannot, by definition, be a story (3rd definition) in a game. He believes that gaming and story are distinct entities. (Please call me out if I’m putting words in your mouth, Tadgh.) He makes a good point about our tendency to conflate meanings:
“However, "storytelling", especially in entertainment and literature, has a very specific meaning. It means a Greek arc drama. All that's actually going on here is that a number of very well intentioned people are trying to conflate two entirely different things together through the use of a common word, but it's a bridge that has no existence in reality. "Story" meaning a simple recounting of events is not the same thing as "story" meaning a marketing term to describe a sales tool for products, and is also not the same thing as "story" meaning a deliberately plotted, crafted and edited narrative presented in a dramatic or literary form. Why this attempt at conflation persists is all to do with Hollywood envy and generalized search for artistic legitimacy.”
Now if we are talking about this specific definition of “story” as the whole dramatic arc thing, then when a game is described as “story-driven” all that can mean is that they utilize a lot of cinematics as framing devices. In theory, these cinematic vignettes are supposed to inform the player experience, imbuing the game world with meta data such as the protagonist’s history and motives and such. In a best-case scenario the themes and issues portrayed in the cinematics are echoed or woven into the fabric of the game mechanics and world. In the worst-case scenario (which seems to be the norm) the cinematics are pasted in-between levels and feature annoying personalities saying immature things to each other before you can start playing again.
As I’ve said, a narrative can be derived from a game. That is, one can recount what happened, hitting the highlights, emphasizing the exciting parts and minimizing or ignoring the boring and repetitive parts. But if we think that games are story-telling devices I think we are sorely mistaken. It takes an author to do these organizing and editing tasks before the events that take place in a game world can be called anything like a story rather than a simple play-by-play retelling of events. (Or the dictionary definition of Narration.) A play-by-play radio broadcast of a ballgame is not a story, but an author can take those events and apply their craft to create one. So let’s stop confusing the word narration for story. They are two distinct things, and gameplay generates neither of them. (With the sort-of exception of some of the sports games that have a running commentary, and maybe you could construe the old text adventures that way.)
So going foreword, for clarity, I’m going to use hyphenated words to help make a distinction that I think most of us can agree on. I’m going to use “crafted-story-telling” to denote the traditional, linear story arcs that we find in film, novels, stage, and some music. (Keeping in mind that this is also what we generally mean when we use the word narrative.) And I’ll use “world-building” to denote the kinds of things that fill up a gameworld with detail and life. Things like in-game dialog, text, and other artistic flourishes that writers add to the game outside of cinematics. Sadly, I feel like this portion of game writing is vastly underappreciated and underutilized. Probably because writers have been taught to write crafted-story-telling rather than world-building. The progenitors, distributors and educators of their craft have always been taught linear story arcs, how could we expect anything different? Gaming as a serious art form is so new that the established world of writing has not learned to adapt new methods and modes for it. So they keep throwing this same crafted-story-telling at the problem, and I think that more and more of us designer-minded game industry folk are seeing that this is not the best thing for our craft.
Yet it’s just this crafted-story-telling, with its drama and resonance that make others of us want to inject them into our games. I think it would be silly to say that being dramatic and resonant is something that a designer should ignore. So I’m brainstorming ways to take the fruit that crafted-story-telling gives us and transplant that into the gameplay thereby preserving the player’s Agency. Maybe with viable alternatives we will have a better way to communicate what kind of writing is better suited to the art and craft of video games.
1. Establishing the world
“The world” is obviously a very open concept. What it is about your world that needs to be established depends on many factors, so it’s hard to make a catch-all rule here. A football game comes with a well-established world of stadium and teams and players. Not much exposition is necessary. But a game that takes place on sentient planet full of carnivorous anti-bodies does. And the question about how that exposition ought to take place is determined by how Hollywood-infatuated the dev team is. Do they hire Blur to make a 3 minute vignette full of action and crazy things you’ll never see happen in the game? Do you do an in-game cinematic with the characters doing things you can’t do when you’re actually playing? Or do you plop the player in a spot that presents a visual and aural panorama, guiding their steps with good composition, level layout and other artistically proven cues? Can you find ways to show or demonstrate, rather than tell? It seems to me like this is the easiest thing to transplant from cinematic to game. And there should be plenty of room for game writers to describe things that the designers and artists can implement. A good descriptive writer could be very valuable in the process of determining mood, environmental stuff, and other details that an art director or level artist might never consider. Let’s get our writers more involved with the art!
2. Establishing characters/player
Who am I? What am I doing here?! When it comes to defining the character that the player will be stepping into, there is a huge range of options that don’t require a cinematic. Many games do this well such as Half Life 2, Oblivion, Fallout 3. No protracted cinematics are needed when a player can PLAY from the get go. To be fair, Half Life 2 starts with the assumption that you know who Gordon Freeman is. And Oblivion and Fallout 3 purposely leave the player as a blank slate so that we get to choose what kind of a character we are. So how do we address player characters with a complex background if we don’t want to show a movie to explicate it? I can think of two answers to this. First, a montage of gameplay: Assasin’s Creed 2 comes to mind. The setting and heritage of Ezio is established as the player learns the button presses they can do to branch cinematics, by kicking their little baby arms and legs. Fallout 3 let’s you toddle around your nursery as a baby and introduces you to the stats system with a rhyming children’s book. These are perfect examples of world-story. And perfect places for writers to get in there and build the world.
The second answer I have goes back to a question I brought up in the first installment: Do we WANT to bring everything that crafted-story-telling has to offer into a game? I mean, music and novels can exist and thrive as artforms with no visual elements. So do games NEED everything that crafted-story-telling brings to be successful and thrive? This is a philosophical issue that strikes at the core of our current cinema/game hybrid paradigm. Is a game with a complex player character more fun to play than one with a blank slate or a minimal set of obvious characteristics? Well, there is a matter of preference here, obviously. And I’ll bring up my WWE analogy again to reiterate. The crafted-story-telling in games and WWE is pretence. The whole reason they exist is to support the game/”sport”. Without the game, the story is just a story. And if writers are interested in writing plain old stories I think they ought to write novels and films. But as in the WWE: there comes a point where the pretense overwhelms the substance and it simply becomes ridiculous. I think we overburden our games with pretense when we insist on filling out our characters with the amount of depth and detail that a novel or movie character has. Characters with depth are great… for books and movies. But in games you can easily undermine the main point of gaming… which is playing the game. The more you develop the player’s character, the less of themselves are reflected in that character, and the bigger the discrepancy between the cinematic and the game. This is a central theme in Darby McDevitt’s article: The Deaths of Game Narrative.
“In each game, the protagonist -- my avatar -- is a mass murderer.”
The only reason that this is a problem is because the pretense for the gameplay has overwhelmed or undermined the game mechanics.
Often the cinematics have completely different rules that apply to movies, but not to the game. (Ludonarrative dissonance) The game with the very best cinematics that I’ve ever seen/played is Uncharted: Among Thieves, and the difference between the world of the game and the world of the cinematics are stark. Even though the graphics are identical in each, the internal logic is different. There are multiple scenes where the bad guy gets the drop on the player and his tag-alongs and forces them to surrender… with a gun. A gun. Yeah, those things that have shot Nathan Drake about ten thousand times in the past couple of hours. Drake has taken more bullets to the face than a target at a gun range, yet now in the cinematic, he is forced to capitulate? It is at points like this where a designer’s true love is on display. Here it is demonstrated that the pretense is at least as important to them as the gameplay. This schism between the logic of the gameworld (where a wise-cracking hero can shake off a dozen bullet wounds by resting for 10 seconds, and never shows remorse for the men that he has mown down), and that that of the cinematic, (where he’s a charismatic rogue with a heart of gold and a human-like mortality) shows no signs of reconciling.
My concern is that one side is pushing the other to change, and I don’t want the cinematic side to win. We already have cinema for that. I want gameplay to win. In the meantime I think that our current output of story-driven games is simply producing bad art. The separate elements may be excellent. (As in Uncharted 2) The people behind their respective systems may be very talented and good artists. But I simply can’t see how our pretence-laden, schismatic game/cinema hybrids will be considered as good art by future game historians. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not insulting those who love cinematic laden games. My favorite kind of music is gothic metal and one of my favorite movies is UHF. I love all sorts of bad art. But I’m not going to pretend that because I love it, it must therefore be good.
3. Articulating motives for characters/player
This runs into similar issues that I just ranted about. During the gameplay my motives as a real life human playing a game are very base and primal. I want to relax. I enjoy seeing things blow up and watching dead ninjas rag-dolling down stairs. I enjoy the progression from confusion and frustration to success, and then basking in the self-affirming glow of finally overcoming a mental or hand-eye coordination challenge. While I am in the heat of button mashing or contemplating strategy I am not thinking about the pretense of a kidnapped girlfriend or the fate of the villages my avatar vowed to protect. My mind is far too busy analyzing situations and breaking complex problems down into their constituent parts. THAT is what gaming is. It is NOT “I’m an ex-marine with a troubled past.” It is NOT “I’m a time-traveling demi-god seeking revenge.” Maybe those role playing pretences bleed around the edges into our gaming consciousness. But who among us would role play to the point of making a decision that leads to a less-fun experience? Once we are engaged in the game world and game rules, our role playing becomes a distant memory, perhaps nagging at us from the back of our mind, but ultimately sublimated by the urge to just have fun in the game world.
I do, however, want to make sure that I concede that having non-player-characters in the world who demonstrate depth of character can be a fantastic boon to the world and the player’s experience of inhabiting it. To me, this is where game writers should be most comfortable plying their traditional skills. But this is world-building rather than crafted-story-telling. (Assuming the depth of character is being displayed through actions and words that take place in-game rather than during a cinematic.) So while a writer may be creating lines of dialog, similar to that of a movie script or novel, we need to be searching hard for ways to make this dialog support the gameplay and the player’s actual experience, rather than fighting against it. Writers should be playing their games while they are in development, and examining their experiences so that they can identify with a player’s perceptions, expectations, and motives, so that the supporting dialog meshes with that. A writer can also have valuable input about ways to emphasize themes and elevate mood within the gameworld. Let’s get our writers more involved with the design!
4. Articulating conflict
This is where the pretense of story is often stretched the farthest. How do we justify the killing of so many people, even for a good cause? Well there is a finite number of ways to do that. I think that’s why we have so many games where the bad guys are aliens, robots, Nazis, zombies, orcs, etc. Thankfully there have been a good number of explorations of other sources of conflict and other means for resolving it. Consider the courtroom drama of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, the Trauma Center games, the survival game Lost in Blue, The Prof. Layton mysteries, dating sims, Flower, etc. The world is full of conflict, (especially if you are into Hegel) and designers and writers ought to be searching them out.
No matter what our source of conflict, we have such a wide range of options for explaining it that it seems just plain lazy to rely on a cinematic to do so. Here again is an opportunity for writers to work from the viewpoint of a player rather than a camera. While many crafted-stories seem to have very complex ideas, if you take almost any book or film and boil down the cause of the conflict in that work, the theme and conflict is generally very simple, and thus, easy to communicate within the game world rather than relying on cinematic techniques. Crafted-stories will often obfuscate the conflict and theme with non-sequential editing, shifting viewpoints, hiding information that will be important later, and other tricks of the trade. But in game design, it is in our interest to keep the conflict clear so that players can apply the game-world rules to them. The fun of playing a game is in configuring the options available to you in creative ways to overcome challenges. In crafted-story-telling an author wants to keep things interesting with ambiguity and uncertainty. But if we disguise the conflict in game we muddle up the system and make less-fun games.
5. Developing the world
The first question that springs to my mind here is this: What does a player need to know about the world that isn’t addressed through gameplay? Here we have the full vocabulary of the visual arts, architecture, landscape, fashion design and many others, to communicate what the world is and how it works. No one is going to mistake the world of Grand Theft Auto for Middle Earth or think that Half Life takes place on the moon. In movies, establishing shots are necessary because viewers don’t have the power to explore the environments. They are constrained by the director’s whims and the needs of crafted-story-telling. But many of our games make exploration a key element of the play; we shouldn’t need elaborate establishing shots. If we do our world-building correctly then everything they need to know and much more can be made available to them.
Here is another area where games have an inherent strength. Since a player has Agency that a viewer, reader or listener does not, we can offer them content that is proportionate to their desire to experience it. Things like the audio diaries in Bioshock and Fallout 3 are perfect examples. As a level artist I love making little hidden nooks and crannies that only the most dedicated and curious players will find. I’m sure some writers share my love of rewarding those who seek. This is the kind of stuff that really fills out a world, and gives the illusion that it is much bigger and more real than it really is. Cinematics can do that too, but at the cost of Agency rather than enhancing Agency. I think a design-oriented writer could come up with all sorts of cool ways to enrich and develop the world through exploration rather than cinematics.
6. Developing characters/player
Again, the impulse to give psychological depth to our player characters is a crafted-story-telling one that has no grounding in gameplay. And again: Actual players don’t incorporate these fictional motivations into their real motivations. All player-character depth achieves is to move along a separate element of the game/cinematic hybrid.
But most games also have some kind of world-building character development as well, whether it’s as simple as collecting coins or as complex as changing your attributes from lock-picking to smooth talking. A well designed game will make those changes immediately discernable and impactful on the gameplay. But crafted-story-telling character development hardly ever does. At least not in positive ways. The Final Fantasy games since 3 seem to take perverse pleasure in yanking characters (you’ve spent hours developing) away from you based on some arbitrary crafted-story-telling reason.
I think moving character development/motivation out of the cinematics and into the game world is perhaps the most powerful move we can do because our medium has the unique power to utilize the player’s actual, real-life motivations. Consider Flower: My motivation as a player is to discover what new kinds of beauty I can bring to a desolate environment. And that is exactly what the gameplay does. Linear media like books, plays and movies depend on creating empathy for a protagonist to pull a participant into the world emotionally. But in games, the participant is the protagonist so they are already there. We don’t need all these elaborate story structures and human interest formulas to lure them in and keep them content. They provide their own human interest. If I am playing a game it is because I find the gameplay compelling. The cinematic-fake-motivations that are dumped on my avatar don’t matter when I’m concentrating on gameplay. So it seems to me that the more we unify the avatar’s authored motivation and development with the real world player’s motivation and development we will strike a much more powerful chord and the resulting art will be much better.
This is such a huge issue that I can’t hope to fit it on this already bloated blog, but I’ll just throw this out there… We need to be conscious of what is actually happening psychologically in a player's mind while they play our games. It’s a vast over-simplification to say that we are simply “having fun” while we play. And if we really dig into what’s going on in our noggins I think our writers could come up with some really interesting world-story stuff that resonates with those inner workings by complementing and accentuating them.
7. Explaining gameplay mechanics
A lot of progress has been made in this area over the past several years so I don’t feel a need to spend a lot of time here. I think most of us are in agreement that allowing a player to play new mechanics through a mode of discovery rather than technical explanations is best in most cases.
8. Imparting goals
I’ve already bloviated on gamer motivation. Here I’m simply talking about how in-game goals are communicated to players. Or: how to progress. In strategy games this is often done with maps, fly-overs, and text or spoken word between missions. In linear action games the job of directing the player is mostly shouldered by the level designers and artists. In open-world games there are usually in-game characters that impart goals through dialog and map updates. And in most games when we developers run into problems with these methods we’ll fall back on the old camera swoop. Kind of like grabbing a person’s face and wrenching it in the direction they SHOULD be looking if they were smart enough. With this issue I feel like the industry as a whole is moving in the right direction. I don’t think there is much debate that we should use all of our development tricks to guide a player with in-game cues that are integrated into the gameworld.
9. Rewarding players
Thanks to Charles Stuard for bringing this up to add to the list. This often escapes my mind because I very rarely give the tiniest little damn about the cinematics in games. I’ve never felt rewarded by them. But it’s undeniable that they do function this way for many people. Just like it’s undeniable that the dramatic posturing in WWE brings a much anticipated element for many fans. I guess I’m just a meat-n-potatoes kind of guy, but I always considered the catharsis of overcoming a challenge to be its own reward. I don’t feel a need to see a cinematic after winning a game of chess or cards. Nor have I found a book to be wanting because it didn’t end with a cinematic. I will however concede, that using cinematics as bookends for video games is not atrocious or overbearing. When kept tastefully short and complementing the game world rather than contradicting it, I think that amount of pretence is just fine. It doesn’t undermine our craft by attempting to legitimize our games with mimicking more accepted media.
As a last note here, I’d like to quote from Dana McDonald’s feedback on my last blog:
“In Alien Swarm the players are given the option to carry a welder, and that welder can be used to weld shut almost any door in the game, and give the players some much needed respite at critical times. The more frequent way we would see this implemented in a game would be the players reaching a specific room and then there would probably be a little cutscene of the door being welded shut and the aliens beating on it. There is a HUGE difference between these two. One of them is a storyteller concerned about getting his perfect story sequence in place, and the other he is handing the reigns over to the player, and giving the players the proper tools to tell their own story.”
So imagine a game writer coming up with a cinematic beat, and instead of going to the cinematic team he goes to the designers as says, “We could show this to the players, or we could let them play it.” What it comes down to for me, is the idea that our writers need to be integrated into the art and design teams. As this happens I think game writing will evolve. Writers will stop writing so many scripts and instead write worlds, scenarios, experiences and other words that have less to do with ‘story’ and more to do with gaming.