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Are video game players ready for subtle storytelling?
Are video game players ready for subtle storytelling? Exclusive
July 31, 2012 | By Frank Cifaldi

July 31, 2012 | By Frank Cifaldi
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    24 comments
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Indie, Design, Exclusive



"They donít need their hands held, or things always spelled out. They are sophisticated, media-literate, smart people. Itís okay for things not to make sense."
- Dear Esther writer and project lead Dan Pinchbeck of developer thechineseroom explains how trusting his audience's intelligence paid off in the end for his narrative-driven game.

The explanation comes by way of a postmortem published in the latest issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine, which should be arriving in mailboxes right about now. The digital edition is available as of today.

Of the various lessons Pinchbeck learned during the game's development, he tells us that learning to trust his audience's intelligence was the biggest one of all.

"We trusted gamers to be adaptable, open to a slightly different experience, able to think and feel for themselves," he says.

Authors of the best works of fiction in any medium have always intentionally left out content and ideas, fleshing out the story in a way that gives the published material a sense of scale, of a whole world just behind the curtain. But video game authors in even our most respectable works tend to shy away from this.

Is it because the medium is still maturing? Does Dear Esther's independent success mean that the mainstream market is craving game stories with the depth of classic literature?


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Comments


Simon Ludgate
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I would say yes, on the condition that they solve the problem of motion sickness in first-person games. My parents were very interested in trying Dear Esther, but neither could get very far before they were overwhelmed with nausea and vertigo.

William Johnson
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Try adjusting the FOV slider in the option menu.

Dear Esther's camera by default is this really wide, almost fish eye lens setting. That can lead to a lot of problems for people that aren't sitting point blank in front of the screen.

David Harris
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I don't know that there is necessarily a solution to the motion sickness associated with that style of game. Someone people are sensitive to it, and some are not. I myself have played countless hours of first-person shooter games, and have watched many shaky-cam style films and I have no motion sickness to speak of. Lowering the sensitivity settings may help to reduce the ailment, but I doubt it will completely eliminate the condition.

Joe McGinn
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Subtle I am fine with, and enjoyed in Esther. Less forgivable - spoiler alert! - was the near total lack of interaction. Especially a the end, where the use of a movie instead of player action robbed the game of all the emotional impact it had been hoping to lead up to.

Allen Brooks
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We are finally getting to the point where we can introduce games with mature themes and intelligently-written experiences. The quality of game stories and narratives has been improving, but is still pretty terrible when you compare them to the best other mediums are producing nowadays, let alone the classics.

The constant technology arms race has its role in this - if there's a never-ending flow of new special effects to play with, as with CG/3D/IMAX in film now, it's common for development resources to get routed from the story to the spectacle.

It's looking like a combination of maturing platforms, aging gamers and an improving self of confidence in the industry's ability to provoke strong emotions is finally laying the groundwork for showing players more meaningful experiences than "shoot all the guys to go forward." At least, I hope so.

Cedrian Lex
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The comments, and this post, seem to betray a lack of actual experience with video games. Just because modern video games are poorly written and unimaginative doesn't mean they always were or are. Torment, for example, has always been considered to have great depth. What about the myst series? Even New Vegas had moments of subtlety. It also hasn't been improving, at least in general I think, and again I think it betrays a limited knowledge in saying so.

Perhaps at the least we are finally clawing our way back to intelligence, after taking the expected dive that comes from an increase in popularity of the medium. Expected, especially considering the resources required for modern video games, and the fear that people have of creating something that the average person wouldn't enjoy. The growth of independent video games is heartening though, since it allows for the game to become separated from the culture of the least common denominator, and allows for a smaller number of people, one or two or three or four great minds, to create freely. Though I think independent games have a ways to go before we will see anything resembling 'the greats.'

All this being said, I'm not sure I would call Dear Esther more than a visual novel. There is some distinction in my mind between those, and games. Visual novels are story without hardly any gameplay, and while they can be pretty and well written, aren't really games in the strictest sense of the term. There can be subtlety and poetry in the the gameplay as well as in the story, and the 'greats' if and when we see them will be a blend of the poetry of gameplay and the subtlety of the story, not one or the other.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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I somewhat agree, but "moments of subtlety" are that: Moments. They are not subtle sorytelling. As many subtle moments In New Vegas, and Planescape Torment, or Baldur's Gate as there might be, there is definitely a sense of "fitting into what we understand as games". Don't get me wrong, these are great games but as in many other mediums, they still cling to formal conventions that don't necessarily empower their message.

Similarly, Portal which is often refered to some of the best writing in videogames, is fantastic, with very witty dialogue and smart twists (although I dont quite like the new plot injected in portal 2), but it remains a very enclosed science fiction story, much like a summer blockbuster that aims for the audience to just have a fun time.

Maybe Dear Esther is not the best example, since a lot of people discuss it even being a game (I would pick Journey and Shadow of the Colossus first). But the fact remains that we are observing a raise in games that are willing to explore emotional experiences rather than fitting in to genres and industry conventions or just following gameplay rules for the sake of gameplay.

Dear Esther is obviously flawed. As a commenter says, there are many components but the narrative is purposely nebulous and confuse. However it makes bold statements by constraining the world and creating a complete experience, you cannot interact in this world other than by being there, this has a meaning in the game's narrative. The island guides you without ever really shoving an arrow in your face (there is some impressive level design), it hints rather than says, it invites rather than pushes.

This approach actually connects to the modern view of the player as a critical component to the art, not just a passive espectator. Not in a surface level of "it is more interactive because you press more buttons", but in a personal level because it is pressing your buttons, having a conversation with you.

Allen Brooks
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Good points Nix, though I'm quite familiar with all the games you mentioned.

Looking beyond games deriving from Black Isle's legacy though, I think you'd agree that most modern, mainstream games are pretty badly written (with respect to narrative as well as the actual text).

And hey, maybe they'll stay that way - Hollywood's braindead summer blockbusters don't seem like they're going anywhere.

Anyway, regardless of the size and speed, I feel there definitely is a growing audience receptive to (if not eagerly awaiting) more sophisticated experiences.

David Harris
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I was recently discussing what I feel is a lack of creativity in the industry, and in fact in the entire entertainment industry. I do see a light in the darkness though. There are some titles, particularly the independent titles, that break the mold and beat new trails. This creative deprivation isn't unique to the gaming industry though. The film industry is suffering from the same sickness of monotony, filled with remakes, reboots, and rehashed ideas. However, we can't put all the blame on the producers of this cookie-cutter material. Some blame has to lie with the consumer. It's basic business, basic economics, in supply and demand. If the same old, poorly conceived, recycled garbage will sell and make money, and the consumer continues to buy it, then there is little reason for the industry to change it's practices.

So I believe the solution is to continue to support the titles that try and break the mold by putting those in your shopping cart. Leave the "Call of the Battlefield: Back On Duty XII" titles to collect dust on the shelves. Then, and only then, will higher quality product be produced and made available for us to enjoy.

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Allen Brooks
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I think he's referring to a game's willingness to let the player figure things out as opposed to being bashed over the head with it.

A great example of this is during a late-game cutscene in Splinter Cell: Conviction. During a lengthy monologue with zero subtext, you literally see the words GUILT, BURDEN, SHAME etc written on the wall, which suggests that 1). the designers assume the player is too stupid to figure out what emotion to feel, or 2). the designers knew the scene was poorly-written so they had to 'cheat' to make its meaning idiot-proof to convey.

Result: An emotion-free exercise in forcing the player to feel something instead of crafting an experience that lets him figure it out on his own.

In essence, Pinchbeck is saying we can achieve more meaningful stories by giving players more credit and trusting them to have the emotional intelligence to figure it out.

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Allen Brooks
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@Dan's 2nd reply:

"Am I smarter if I spend my days walking through an abstract art gallery instead of reading well conceived literature? "

It's not exclusive; straightforward narratives like The Empire Strikes Back and less accessible fare like The Sound and the Fury can both be excellent. Pinchbeck is saying more games should venture into less conventional game narratives like the latter did with literature.

Ron Dippold
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You will necessarily limit your audience if you require them to do thinking to get some satisfaction from the game. Maybe that's okay, because Dear Esther doesn't need a lot of buyers to make the money back. It seems like a more useful compromise in general, though, is to supply the deeper story for people who are interested but don't make the game crucially dependent on it. I'm separating puzzle thinking from critical thinking here.

Good Example: Limbo. It demands puzzle thinking, but you can play the entire game without worrying about what the heck is going on, and anyone can appreciate the scary shadow spider - but I loved the theorizing.

Bad Example: Killer 7. The story was fantastic if you dug enough (probably the most bizarre but deeply consistent I've ever seen), but the gameplay constraints imposed by bending the play to the story really hurt it.

Neutral Example: Assassin's Creed has a sci-fi aliens, global conspiracy and virtual reality backstory that I'm pretty sure most players aren't following very well - it doesn't matter so much because they can just pursue the 'local' story, but the game won't let you completely ignore the backstory either. So occasionally you're yanked out of it. Maybe we can think of this as training wheels? It seems like the most high profile series which seems comfortable with keeping secrets.

Strange Example: Final Fantasy VII of all things. That had a lot going on that was never spelled out - the Sephiroth you met except in the flashbacks was likely never Sephiroth, just an avatar of Jenova, and there's a lot more going on with Jenova that isn't made explicit till later installments. However it's hard to tell whether this was intentional or just because they ran out of time and money (hence the tacked on final non-boss fight and non-ending).

But maybe you can trust that you've got enough gamers who can think critically that you've got enough of an audience. It worked here.

Darcy Nelson
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"Strange Example: Final Fantasy VII of all things. That had a lot going on that was never spelled out - the Sephiroth you met except in the flashbacks was likely never Sephiroth, just an avatar of Jenova, and there's a lot more going on with Jenova that isn't made explicit till later installments. However it's hard to tell whether this was intentional or just because they ran out of time and money (hence the tacked on final non-boss fight and non-ending)."

As I understand it, the ambiguity in the story was due to a lost-in-translation situation. I remember hearing the story from a friend who had played the Japanese version and had a distinct moment of, "Wait, what? THAT'S what was going on?"

Cale Schupman
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I'm not sure Dear Ester is the best example of "subtle storytelling." It's full of many subtle elements, but they never add up to what I would consider to be a complete story. At its best, Dear Esther is interactive poetry. If I were meant to understand the story, the plot, the characters, the subject matter, than it failed. However, I do not believe this is what the experience was aiming to achieve.

For me, "storytelling" implies a certain level of authoritative control on the part of the creator. I would say games like Walking Dead or Heavy Rain were far more successful in this regard. Both of those games have more interesting examples of how to convey a narrative through actions, meaningful choices, three act structure, and subtle interactions between characters.

I'm not ragging on Dear Esther; I thought it was a very compelling experience. I just don't think I would hold it up as a shining example of how to tell a story in a game.

Darcy Nelson
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"They donít need their hands held, or things always spelled out. They are sophisticated, media-literate, smart people. Itís okay for things not to make sense."

That makes me wince. I think whatever is understood in a game's current state *should* make sense about 99% percent of the time, unless things are getting inscrutable for some story or game play-driven reason. I thought F.E.A.R. did a pretty outstanding job in that department- a nice blend of WTF moments and appropriate transitions between the normal/not-so-normal content. On the other hand, I consider myself a fairly intelligent person, and the plot of Metal Gear Solid 2 absolutely made my head spin.

I mean, a sense of uncertainty is nice and all, but I'm worried that somebody might take this philosophy and run with it... right off a cliff.

Adam Rebika
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It works the same way in every media - movies, books etc. For one author's movie with great writing and depht, how many blockbusters are released?
Except, in video games, we have the chance on having a strong indie movement that doesn't exist in other medias which have much higher entry costs. This helps a lot.

Also, when talking about subtelty in writing, one should not limit this to a complex story or deep characters. Video games have many ways of expressing themselves, story, of course, but also music, graphics and, what no other media has, gameplay. Take a game like Limbo. Can you tell it has a great story? No, it doesn't have any. But still, this is good "writing" since for most players, it's an experience they won't forget anytime soon. And that is maybe where we should start finding new ways to develop game design: how to express things through other means than words.

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Jason Long
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It has always been possible. It may not always be profitable.

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Tore Slinning
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Am I the only one here that is getting peeved by how everyone is using narrative as a synonym for story?

I was taught that narrative was an important concept, because narrative tells the player how he fares in the game, and from the past present to future of a given moment, should feed the player information so he can decide how he want to progress and deal with challenges.

A good game aims for narrative that gives incentive to progress, if the mechanics and player interaction are stimulating and success feels rewarding in face of difficutly then offcourse he wants to interact further with the various encounters.
This falls under most games, tetris has a high-score and records you might want to beat, a strategy game will give you a goal with game pieces that tells tells you how you spend your turn and in the long run wheter the overall strategy pays, Mirror edge tells you again and again that you pressed space WAY to late and an RPG is meant to encompass an entire world and setting, both in the form of character mechanics that tell you your odds for success and the more litterary writing needed for giving a sense of what the world is doing and where to procced(I call RPGs ambitious world simulators).

But to get back to it, you construct narrative and gameplay togheter...which is not to say that adding a story that plays out throughout the game is something bad. Games are products of design, just as sound and graphics adds to the experience stories and writing is part of that look and feel that also adds to the progression incentive.

Authorative stories does not fit everything however, In a sandbox RPG you are better left having a lean unobtrusive story that does not contradict the player action, and instead focus on writing rich flavored narrative for encounters and by ignoring any story pitfalls can proceed to write a rich variety of them.
Its actually this kind of narrative that gives the player feedback in regards to world/environment he's in.

Droned on and on, but point is...games are BLOATED with an overabundance of Storytelling and cinematography! IO interactive are storytellers, BIOWARE are storytellers...multimedia content has grown to the extreme! Hell DIce had to add an single player campaign to their tried and true multiplayer franchise's.

Everyone has screamed for "better stories, better writing, EMOTE ME", and they have gotten it, AAA games are now blockbusters...and gameplay have suffered for it...Bioware is the best example of this.

I'm not saying that the interactivity of realtime programs can't be used successfully as a literary medium.
But its not the purpose of a game.
Its like football players starting to do ballets.


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