Storytelling and video gamesPosted: November 8, 2011
In this writing I try to give indirect answers to the question: what is the role of storytelling in video games?
Creating narratives for video games results in finished products that elicit storytelling. Stories get fed in game production processes; the resulting games generate storytelling experiences that are not immediate results of the original stories.
Narratives for games are components among others of the complex video game production process. Let’s see more about such narratives.
Learning about video game narratives
One of the first themes about which I tried to learn more when I first approached the video game field two years ago was the story writing aspect, because though I entered the field as a developer I had just taken a creative writing course. So I got two books on storytelling and games for which I found recommendations:
After reading these two books supposedly on narrative in video games, I was more confused than before. The first book is a rehash of well known storytelling techniques for writers and never really makes it to its supposed subject matter, and the second intentionally avoids dealing with games as they are today, as the author wants to create new ways for interactive storytelling.
As the role of narratives in video games as they are today can hardly be denied, and as it is not the same role played in books or movies, I was left with a problem without literature. After further studies and field experience I got some (few) ideas clearer, and also realized that the dynamic nature of the field and the amount of information produced is such that it is not unusual to be confused.
Which video games?
In studying video game design in general, I progressively understood that in this field you can find confirmation and partisans for almost any theory / technique and its opposite. This because the field is so vast and with such a diverse applicability and audience that it has about the same complexity of human nature.
Hence most general considerations on video games need some qualification, making them less general. What I am talking about here if it makes sense at all, it does for specific classes of video games.
Narrative considerations in video game creation are relevant for a restricted class of games: if you are creating say a Go player for the iPad, narrative considerations are probably irrelevant. A game of Go does generate a narrative, the one eventually projected by the players – but it is not in the game build up. Interestingly, adding narrative in the construction of classical games can lead to very interesting results, two examples being adding narrative to Tetris obtaining Brenda Brathwaite’ Trains, or narrative to chess getting Archon, in both cases also changing game mechanics.
To clarify our scope I will say that a game has a relevant narrative if its core leads to a climax in a story. A game with a relevant narrative has a linear narrative if the story evolution is completely defined by the story writers, without generations of non pre-scripted possible paths.
Here I will consider only linear narrative video games (a writing focused on nonlinear is here).
If in a game you can lose at any step and have multiple endings, you may still be using a linear narrative as I intend it. The distinction I am referring to is not so much between linear – non linear, but between fully script determined and combinatorially emerging game behavior. A game with eight (four characters times a positive or negative ending for each) possible endings like The Curfew is generated by a structurally very simple and completely pre-determined story.
My thesis is also that having a deep combinatorially branching narrative will lead you to focus on a set of problems which are of scarce or no relevance to the player’s experience, instead of focusing on creating a good story.
Some examples of linear story games (there are large numbers) follow, to get an idea of the variety that this simple schema supports.
Heavy Rain: “interactive drama psychological thriller video game”. This game has multiple endings and “big sets”, it is in my sense a linear narrative game, both overall and in detail. A book with a couple alternative ending chapters is still structurally a linear book.
“Heavy Rain is about normal people who have landed in extraordinary situations”: this is a classical of narrative plots, and Heavy Rain is a game where plot plays a crucial role, probably as crucial as it can be without the game losing its characterization as such (see the part on loops below).
The Curfew: The Curfew is an adventure web-game in a dystopian Britain in 2027. The game has eight possible endings, all completely scripted. Interaction with the four main characters is along a finite and not branching graph of possibilities.
Sword and Sworcery: “It’s a mix of laid-back exploration, careful investigation & mysterious musical problem-solving occasionally punctuated by hard-hitting combat encounters”. Again a perfectly linear narrative.
Dinner Date: A story-driven game, so much that it made reviewers a bit perplex – and totally linear, of course. It shows masterly how a limited but psychological subtle interaction can make a game intriguing in the context of a good narrative.
Adslife: A browser game that mixes a Chandleresque story and setting with user generated contents from the web. The story is totally scripted, there are several possible premature endings, and only one happy ending. There Is a part user contributed, so the internal bidding game cycles depend on social interaction, but those are local loops that don’t impact the overall story.
In linear narrative games, often the player is made to identify with a character and this character lives a story, probably in some Hero’s journey pattern. Actually in the most frequent recent examples more than hero’s games, we find redemption, cathartic games.
Once one focuses on searching narrative structures in video games, these are found in a wide range of them, sometimes sedimented in character design. Angry Birds lacks a real central catharsis, but it has a minimal narrative structure, strong characters and themes.
The death of classical explorative adventures and their rebirth in the form of dramatic linear stories in partially open worlds, where free exploration is just an additional decorative option is a confirmation of the centrality of the linear narrative scheme.
A simple reasoning
The first time that a writer approaches the idea of writing for games a simple reasoning will be quite natural – even in my limited experience, I heard it several times – and it goes along like this : what is the difference in media between books and games, movies and games? Well, its interactivity. So this is the major factor to be taken into account when writing for video games: interactivity, of the game and “hence” of the story plot.
There are two thesis here: (1) traditional media lack interactivity , and (2) video games stories are interactive – of course, this is why they are video games at all! In a brief interview of Salman Rushdie “Video Games and the Future of Storytelling” a similar thesis is in the background.
This is a most natural line of reasoning and it can lead to mistakes and misconceptions. I’ll try to show that both (1) and (2) are false.
The misleading and fascinating idea is that writing for games means creating something like The Infinite Adventure Machine: “a proposal for a computer program which generates fairy-tale plots […] Based on the work of Vladimir Propp, who reduced the structure of Russian folk-tales to 31 basic functions”
In The Infinite Adventure Machine presentation video, a (real) child creates progressively a story using elements from the software; one of the commenter added “*Girl sold separately.” This makes perfectly the point – how much of the story creation progress is in the reader? If the creative process, each time of a different story, relies so much on the players, you will need special players indeed, so special that the game is actually in their minds and not anywhere else.
Interactively creating the story defined by the game play could not be farther from the reality of video games as they are today and from the role narratives play in their build – and from how they will be in the near future. Games are interactive because they let the player move dynamically in spaces that do not influence – let alone create – the main story line. In games players search solutions and treasures, they are not creating new stories.
One could object that I am considering games that confirm my thesis – but the reality is that interactive plot creation like in The Infinite Adventure Machine, as wonderful a it may be it is simply in a marginal corner of the universe of today’s video games.
“Movies are not interactive but games are”
As I am watching the movie Gladiator, I am fighting, talking, and making physical and moral choices. I am being faster, stronger, and more courageous than I am in my everyday life.
So it happens that I am doing all this very efficiently, as a gifted, very good looking and efficient Roman general and not as the aging geek Pietro Polsinelli – something that makes my projection even stronger. My body moves with Maximus Decimus Meridius, I feel his (delusion of) choices as my (real) choices. Watching movies is a highly interactive experience, from the point of view most relevant: that of the watcher’s experience. This because a space of fictional possibilities is a perfectly valid experience space. Knowing analytically that you are unrelated to the stream of pictures apparently moving down there which will cease in one hour and fifty minutes is not relevant for you second level experience. At some level it is, because you don’t run seeing tigers, but for your enjoyment it isn’t. And enjoyment is the relevant descriptive level when analyzing games.
It is not very interesting to consider games as movies plus some interactivity: what such idea misses is that movies are interactive, for the viewer. Viewing a movie issolving dilemmas. In the face of a possibility which is not actually there, we can fake it and live it as real, perfectly naturally. Hearing a story is living the story and taking choices.
What is incorrectly superimposed is the space of possibilities which could “really” be taken, and the space of possibilities told but that in a linear story setting can never be taken. From the experience of the player or movie watcher there is no such distinction.
If one understands that storytelling for games has little or nothing to do with interactive storytelling one has already saved oneself a lot of trouble.
Narrative in video-games production: just a piece in the puzzle
Once one exits the swamp of story interactivity, one can begin understanding the role of stories in video games. And one of the first features to focus is their being one ingredient among many. Narrative is the heart of a book – title, cover and paper usually quite secondary. Narrative is a main component in movies, where yet there are several more dimension with respect to a book: music, special effects … . For a game, the number of components is even greater, as anyone who has produced even an indie game (like myself) has discovered, sometimes at a high price, and narrative is proportionally still less crucial.
A way to look at it is: the narrative you use to produce a game is not the same narrative experience that is perceived by the player. The global game story is perceived by the player through complex media, which may include many local stories which are closer to game mechanics and can change in time, along with the main story. The general concept of game loop may help in understanding how stories form a skeleton of an animated being which has many parts.
Loops are essential game components. I let it be explained by Tadhg Kelly in the excellent post Functions vs. Loops [Finding Fun]:
“The loop is the essential atom of game play […] An example action is aiming a gun and shooting, but a loop is the ability of the game to process the action and shoot back. This might oblige the player to act again, and so again the game reacts, around and around until either a victory or a defeat condition is reached […]
Some loops are more immediately obvious than others. A shooting game, or the orienting and dropping of a piece in Tetris, are clear. Planting and collecting crops in Farmville is also a loop however. Even gathering and placing pieces to complete a structure in Minecraft is a loop.”
To understand the importance of game loops, think about Gladiator (the movie) without battle scenes and duels. When there is a duel in the movie, replace it with a descriptive sentence. Do that for the whole movie: that is a game without loops. It has a main plot, felt as a space of possibilities by the watcher and written as linear by the writer, but there is no movie because there is no fun, no action, no local stories filled with (pseudo) risk and choices.
Linear narrative and interactive episodes
A frequent game story structure is linear story backbone with a sequence of local interactive episodes, sometimes called levels, sometimes separated by the (in)famous cut-scenes. Such interactive episodes can manifest character’s features, often of recurring characters, and will need a design by the writer that takes into account state, something that in novel writing is lacking entirely.
Episodes have their own micro stories, with situational narratives, often extremely simple: think about an Angry Birds episode, for example, where the writing is mostly concentrated on characters.
Why linear narrative with interactive episodes is such a natural setting? it is a perfect fit with the autobiographical narrative that we use for self definition.
Linear narrative and event models: state
The combination of main plot, characters and game loops is the heart if the game; this gets expressed along several dimensions: often text, graphics, animations and sound. Characters that are not players’ dolls, called non-player characters (NPC), often have a state; this is a crucial point that makes it possible to generate locally diverse micro stories, and that can lead to premature endings or variations in endings. This does gives an “interactive” character to game writing, but in a local and combinatorially limited sense. Here a rapid write-and-test tool (like our Storymoto) can be an effective way to write, actually, in this case program the story, probably better than an exhaustive combinatorial scripting.
Readings and finale
“[…] writers need to do more than just “sling hot sentences.” They also have to be the map and the compass for the rest of the development team, which is knee-deep in other important aspects of creation like game design. “Over the arc of time over a game’s development, you’re the person holding the torch [for ideas].”
Writing a plot, writing levels’ micro-narratives, and creating loops that are fun are all creative processes that may be part of game writing, and all this goes into generating the game’s storytelling, and I think that here I’ve just shown a little part of this complex generation process. I believe that game story writing played, plays and will play a role in video games just as important as scripting plays in movies.
One can also invert the perspective: instead of thinking about what is the role of stories in games, let’s see what games can do to tell stories, in particular complex stories. First example of journalisms done with games can be found online here, but this is the theme for another essay.
Further readings, links, quote sources and image attributions can all be found on this online booklet supplied by the amazing Licorize .
I’ll happily amend this essay on feedback, you find me on Twitter here.