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A Critique to A Common Framework For Storytelling in Videogames

Using bottom-up analysis techniques, I analyze Gian Mancuso's reasoning in a attempt to justify his personal preference of absolute authorial control in the story-telling aspect of Videogames by Game-designers.

Tim Tavernier, Blogger

June 10, 2010

10 Min Read

Do games tell stories? Yes and no. As exhibited in one of my earlier blogs, story is the last experience layer of a game with many games just not having it. Almost all of the biggest games in entire videogame history (defined as a game that sells more then 10 million copies on a single platform) do not even tell stories. Someone can even argue that trying to tell a story in a videogame is actually obstructing video gaming to evolve.

This educational feature from Gian Mancuso makes the same mistake as many before him in that regard. The mistake is to “believe” in methodology that works in a strictly top-down analysis manner, disregarding any kind of dynamic that happens at the receiving end. In actuality, a lot more attention is given to what a maker is conveying than at what it conveys to the audience.

The first mistake already happens with the line “Whether we're reading a book, watching a movie or playing a game, the way we experience reading, watching and playing is as a narrative. Games are experienced as narratives”. If a narrative is linear series of events, then people don’t experience narratives when they’re reading a book, watching a movie or playing a game. What people do experience is a series of events (the so-called narrative) happening in a certain universe (the world where the story happens).

This universe is a far more powerful and important element in all entertainment mediums but why does it get ignored so much? Because universes are damn hard to construct let alone dissect and analyze, it also means that you have to keep in account the audience in your analysis and this is against the Authorial Control-values a lot of “artists” and their academic fields are bonkers about.

The problem with narratologic analysis, and other artistic aimed analysis-disciplines is that they focus on superficial, technical aspects that people don’t really care about, mostly because the techniques used that makes art so-called “genius” is more a result of course idiocy and not having insight in human nature (this is why Modern Art is utter bullocks). Are Tolkien’s books literature masterpieces?

Narratologists will say no because of lousy writing and bad use of techniques, the audience will say yes because of the enormous imaginative universe he constructed with its own history, languages, races, cultures and others. And most of the time, he isn’t even communicating all these things in the story but people start filling in the blanks themselves according to their contingency history (things you have been thaught/conditioned) and the very small bits and pieces Tolkien does provide.

Shakespeare does the same thing, using metaphore after metaphore. Do these have a certain intent? Very debatable since Shakespeare coined the phrase “A rose, by any name, is still as beautiful” hinting at the arbitrary linguistic labels we give phenomena’s we encounter. Shakespeare wanted also to jolt people’s imagination. Shigeru Miyamoto the same. He isn’t about telling convoluted stories using technique X and plotdevice Y but giving the people imaginative universes where they can play at their heart’s content, filling in the blanks for themselves, literally living in the Universe.

Because of this very dynamic author-audience relationship in the Universe layer, it is incredibly hard to found out how people truly react to your product. What you wanted to communicate can have a complete opposite effect on the audience. All of this…nothing to do with story, narrative or plot. One can even say that those are just tools to make access to the Universe easier. When more emphasis is put on these superficial, supportive techniques, the Universe most of the time suffers and with that the content. Your product doesn’t speak to the people, despite being technical “superior” to other offers (sounds very familiar for many artists I believe).

But let’s keep going with this critique. Second line I have a big problem with.

“As mentioned above, it's useful to describe gameplay in terms of story and plot. Not all games should be described this way, since a game for gaming's sake has arguably no reason to worry about storytelling. But with the release of titles like Uncharted 2 (Naughty Dog, 2009) and Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream, 2010), it's easy to see that good storytelling continues to be an important selling feature.”

I agree with the part that a game for gaming’s sake has no reason to worry about storytelling. It’s the arrogant, completely subjective notion that games should do it anyway because of the two mentioned titles. The problem, since both games haven’t sold anywhere near ten million copies, their relevance to anything gaming related, especially Heavy Rain, is very minimal. Also gameplay should not be described as story or plot, then it isn’t gamaplay anymore, then it’s just story and plot. Gameplay is the Playfield layer people experience when they play videogames. It’s indeed about mechanics, rules and others, but that’s it, no story. Let’s use a few play examples.

You’re playing football (the real kind) with some people. Football has some specific rules like only the goalie can touch the ball with his hands and others, these rules are not telling any kind of story. People playing the game can lead to story, because the playing is off course a series of events, but those events don’t impact the rules, mechanics or other factors of the play. Another example, you’re playing Indian and Cowboy. This is a game where you also have a Playfield (which can be dynamically altered depending on who’s playing).

A Universe layer consisting of the immersing as Indians and cowboys, recalling every bit of memory and emotion you built up regarding the subject, maybe even adding on to it (cowboys with lasers, because I saw lasers in Star Wars!) that don’t necessarily change the rules (lasers, bullets, eh what’s in a name right). Only as last you got the story, Billy the Kid and his gang kidnaps the daughter of Indian Chief WoofieWoof (as we all know, pets sometime shave to endure these games as well) and we must save her! And some mock shooting happens and fun is had!

“the story is dictated by the game mechanics, art assets, animations, environments, sound effects, musical score and haptic sensations that make up the game. A game's story materializes itself experientially through the interaction of its many parts.”

Dictated…really? This is where the obsession with authorial control gets clear. If the story is dictated, then it is always the same, players are just able to change the narrative or plot. Offcourse this is wrong on the very basic Sid Meier level: a player can at any moment deny your dictation and replace it with something more fun.

Example, my friend was playing Heavy Rain, the kid is dead and we have ole’ dad and son at his house. There’s a small black board on the kitchen counter telling things you the player could/should do. Because we were bored out of our heads, we just started doing things at random going “Zomg, the sign didn’t say we could do that! Now the sign will punish us! Bow down to its glory!”. In sense, we changed the dictated story, refusing the sign for its function and giving it unintentional properties to make the game more fun (the joke kept running for like half hour and all six people in the room were laughing greatly, the actual game? Boring as hell).

Don’t mistake this for an re-interpretation, we just rejected the told story and replaced it with our own. How? Trough messing with the Universe. A normal blackboard doesn’t have the god-like powers we gave it, but we added the law anyway…and there was much re-joicing.

The author also again uses the faulty term “story” to explain Playfield when he uses the Sims as an example. A story, being a series of events, cannot be a series of mechanics or rules. The laws of physics are not a series of events, they create a framework where events can happen, but are not events in themselves, the same with the rules/laws of a Playfield in a videogame. The Sims are a Playfield first, a Universe second (the whole sub-urban life thing) and no story at all! There are stories though, but these are player-created. The actual content of the Sims is when it combines its Playfield and its Universe together, creating the player controlled story-o-matic that it is.

“The game industry has been trying hard to move away from flat characters, but in most cases we don't know how to approach creating that depth. Back story and cinematics can only go so far in establishing characters. What matters more is how those characters behave during gameplay. If their only role during gameplay is to be a mindless "helper," then even the most masterfully rendered cut-scene will fail to convince a player that they're anything but a flat character once the cut-scene ends. The key lies in creating in-game character behaviours that help reinforce their characterization and the story's themes, and dynamically create moments for the player to experience the story you're trying to tell.

There are some good bits here and some really bad bits. First of the good bits: you can see the author is trying get say that characters in games should behave in line with the game’s Universe (he calls it story’s themes as if the theme is supportive of the story while it is the other way around in the players expercience). This is true, elves shouldn’t go acting like monkeys and start throwing feces at others, Mario doesn’t go around shooting hookers and Protoss don’t go sipping tea with biscuits.

Universe coherence is crucial when introducing characters into it, but again, you’re introducing characters into a Universe, not pouring a Universe over your well-made characters. Characters indeed should be made in mind to the Universe’s laws, within the player’s expectations they have when playing inside a specific Content-context. Which brings me to the bad bit: People should stop teaching people that you must tell your story to the audience.

The audience is far more dynamic then that, if they don’t like your story, they will supplant it or just simply don’t care. Your story needs to support the Content, being it Sci-Fi fairytale knights, a plumber inside a Alice in Wonderland-like cartoon world or children attending magic-school while fighting a should-be defeated evil (which evokes powerful cyclic experiences).

The third and fourth page is just disastrous with more self-wanking “force stuff on the player so you can tell your GENIUS story without them having no say in it whatsoever” bollocks all over the place. You do not know what you’re telling the player, you can’t. You can only try to make a compelling Universe and a fun Playfield and hopes it gives players enough options and possibilities to enjoy your game and let them create their own stories. Your story or game isn’t yours anymore from the moment the bits and bytes are printed on the disks. It is this self-wanking that is standing more in the way of videogames then any kind of casual-Wii’ing (sorry, couldn’t resist :p).

Designers their job is to make a fun Playfield and an interesting Universe that speaks to people while both give the player enough options to create his own stories. It is this player-controlled story-making that makes videogames unique. It is it’s power, it’s core-expericience.

But how do you analyze Content, Universes and such? How do you really know what would speak to people and what not? There is a fairly scientific and exact way to do this. The theoretical framework for this will consist out of Behaviorlogy combined with insights from Anthropology and Cultural/Mentality History. Because I’m still reading up on the Behaviorology part, the blog about that will take a while. 

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