Game Design

On Game Narrative, Again

Dan Cox said the following in reply to my recent post Plot Ignored + Unfinished Games = Useless Effort?

I’m fearful that the take-away for many developers will be to not attempt much of a story now. If people can’t remember their favorite game’s story, would go the logic, there’s not much of a reason to try at all.

Of course, I would argue that the problem is not that any particular game’s story is memorable or not, but more that, in general, they aren’t very good. Some are, sure, but way too many AAA games have very little story.

I imagine that there will be some industrial momentum that will keep writers employed in the game industry for some time.

That said, frankly, I think it’s difficult to make a good game with a fully authored story.

In game design, there’s the concept of meaningful play. If you give the player agency, then the player should expect to be able to express it. If you are trying to enforce a specific story, however, then that agency is an illusion. No matter what action the player takes, it won’t affect the story in any meaningful way, which reduces the quality of the game.

At the extreme, you have “press button to turn the page” kinds of games. Years ago, a friend of mine was excited to find a cheat code that allowed him to instantly finish missions of Star Trek: Armada because he just wanted to see the story. To him, he wasn’t playing a game, and in fact the game seemed to be an obstacle to his enjoyment of the narrative. He would have been happier if it was a a movie or new episode of Star Trek.

But many gamers want their actions to matter. So then you have games that allow you to go through XYZ branches of a story, where XYZ isn’t unlimited but is in fact quite limited, relatively speaking. But, hey, your choices affect the story!

I’ll admit to loving Wing Commander for its branching storylines. If you did poorly in a mission, you didn’t retry it until you got it right. If you survived, you kept going, and your ability to escort a supply ship or strike at a key base affected the war effort.

My favorite moment from the game, in fact, was the final mission in the branch of the story where the Tiger’s Claw is being forced out of the sector by the overwhelming Kilrathi. You were tasked with fighting off the enemy while the Tiger’s Claw slowly makes its way to the jump point to safety…and it was made clear that if you aren’t on the carrier when it leaves, you’re stranded. Everything I’ve failed to do throughout the game comes to mind as I realize that this is my last chance at doing something well.

Still, as enjoyable as the story was in that game, it was limited. There are only so many branches, scenarios, and missions.

And then you have games with no inherit story, yet the stories they generate can arguably be the most memorable. I have posted stories that were generated by the playing of NetHack plenty of times. And I’m overdue for one. B-)

Over half a decade ago (!!!), I wrote about the importance of stories:

In general, I suppose stories are important for games. I just think that they don’t necessarily have to be dictated from within the game. There is nothing wrong with games that tell a story, but games that do tell stories shouldn’t let the story get in the way of the game. Some people might prefer games that let them figure out their own stories. When I play Flatspace, I like to be a trader, but I like to hunt pirates as well. I don’t have to fight the pirates, but I’m just taking the law into my own hands, hoping to get my hands on the pirate who destroyed my life in my made-up past. There is no actual support for the story in the game, but there isn’t anything that gets in the way of that story, either. I enjoy the act of creation, even if it is only in my mind.

Amazingly, I still agree with my past self. The more games have fully authored stories, the less game-like I think they can be because authored story demands less meaningful game play. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with such games. They are wildly popular and have an audience, so it isn’t hurting them.

But when I play games, I’m not as interested in someone else telling me what my experience will be. My experience is my story, which gets generated during play. The more a game allows me to craft my own story, the more I think it is leveraging the strengths it inherently has. Minecraft allows so much story to be generated out of the interaction of play and mechanics, for instance. The Last of Us, on the other hand, only allows so much.

Games are meant to allow players meaningful interactions within a play area. While the game design can guide a player towards moods, ideas, and concepts, the story should be the player’s to generate. Otherwise, the meaning of play is nothing more than what the player needs to do to watch the rest of the movie that’s marketed as a game.

3 replies on “On Game Narrative, Again”

The perils of writing when annoyed, I guess. I end up with output from Academic Jerk(TM) mode.

Question: Do games need a story at all? Answer: No, absolutely not. Is that the same as having a narrative, though? Uh, well… sort of. Depends on who you ask.

So, first off, I think we probably agree a great deal on this. As I’ve tried to explain my own thinking on it, I usually extend my hands out to two sides. Over here, making my left hand wriggle, are things like books. The story, as we might think of it, is written in a predetermined way. Start here, on the first page, and end here, last page.

(Entering teacher mode…)

The fun academic word for its determined nature is “prescriptive.” This is the degree to which the user has some form of agency. In a game like The Last of Us, as I understand from not having played it, it is it highly prescriptive. You go to a certain area and have a handful of verbs from which to interact. The characters, when you don’t have some control over them, are prescribed to you. This, the game states in cutscenes and the like, are how the characters SHOULD act.

Books are like this too. Well, most books anyway. Paintings as well. Most static art is this way. We can bring interpretations, but our ability to change the art as presented with our presence is very limited.

(Slightly exiting teacher mode…)

Returning to my hands, since they are getting tired now, I make my right hand wriggle. This here, on this side of the continuum, are things like Minecraft. This over here, again with my right hand, is the exciting thing. Games have this amazing ability to be narrative machines for us. With a few simple rules, or even hundreds of complex ones, we get these things called stories out of them. By interacting with a game, we get these series of choices we made, what happened after, and how we felt through the whole thing.

It’s also the thing we have the least handle on explaining. Believe me, there are loads of books, articles, and general disagreement about what exactly is happening with games, stories, and us as humans in the middle. Lots of thoughts on the subject. Some of it even helpful in small ways.

Generally, and this is me slipping into Academic Jerk (TM) mode again, narrative and story are separate things, though. Like, I might say, “The story on the page.” It’s the created thing, the words on the page or the game as its parts before a player touches it in anyway.

The narrative is exactly what you wrote: “My experience is my story, which gets generated during play.” Well, except replacing ‘story’ for ‘narrative’ in the sentence. (Again, it’s an Academic Jerk(TM) move, but I’ve been trained for many years to correct myself — and others as a result.)

When I wrote my last comment, I was writing about the words themselves. Their order and syntax. It’s a very Ivory Tower move to make, to diss games as not having Good Stories (as if that mattered at all) by comparing them to some other, usually older, X. Not as good as Hemingway. Not as good as… some other dead white guy.

In retrospect, I probably should have written something like, “Let’s keep trying! Game stories are not memorable, eh? Let’s set that as a challenge and try to overcome it. Games have all this untapped potential. I bet we really could make memorable stories. Make games that excite others to make their own pieces for yet more others to produce some exciting and dynamic narratives.”

Instead, I wrote, “*Grumble* Games stories aren’t good enough. We should all quit. *Grumble* Grumble*” (I did, actually, grumble out load when I wrote it the other day too. So sad.)

Anyway, this has been my monologue. Thank you for listening. *Bows* I’ll take my seat now.

/me claps.

Excellent comment, Dan! I will admit to conflating narrative and story, and you’re right that there are differences. Having a common vocabulary helps us pontificate more efficiently. B-)

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