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RE: Analysis: Memorable Game Characters, Mirror's Edge And Picture Books by Andrew Vanden Bossche

A response to the 12/04/09 news article. Andrew's analysis of storytelling in Mirror's Edge is accurate but uses some incorrect statements about game writing to get his point across. I address the blog/comment to Andrew as a written response.

Jonathon Myers, Blogger

December 4, 2009

4 Min Read

Re: Memorable Game Characters, Mirror's Edge And Picture Books by Andrew Vanden Bossche


I love what you’re getting at, but I think your use of terms might be getting in the way. 

The distinction you’re actually making is not so much between stories with/without words but instead between stories with/without dialogue/monologue.  I would qualify it as verbal vs. non-verbal storytelling instead.  (Or perhaps verbal vs. visual?)  Whether or not there are written/spoken episodes (scenes of verbal interaction between characters or first- or third-person narration) that are used to tell the story during or outside of gameplay, there will still be a narrative (whether designed or written).

Something will inevitably be used to further the plot via action.  Plot is merely a series of actions or events in a distinct order that make up a “big-picture” action.  Super Mario Brothers had a story, due to its plot: Mario the plumber jumps on things and travels through pipes to make it past several successive castles until he defeats Bowser, thus saving the princess.  Every game has a story because every game has a plot (no matter how simple) because every game has a series of actions because the screen has to have a moving picture that reacts to your own physical actions while playing -- or it’s not a video game. 

Now “why” did Mario save the princess?  No one cares.  You’re right, the motivation doesn’t matter and dialogue would ruin it in this case, but it is because the gameplay and action ARE the story, not because the story is non-existent without words or writing.  (Even sports games provide story experience, but that’s getting into deeper theory.)

I’d caution against taking a grand stance against “words” or “writing” because those terms are general and represent so much more than what you mean.  You don’t need verbal storytelling to enact a plot, but you definitely need words. 

You have to give a game a title using words (or at least language symbols), and even with Passage that one word title adds a depth of meaning to the experience of the game.  I started out playing that game with one view of what the title meant but ended up with a completely different view.  The gameplay experience AND the one word title caused me to reflect about the meaning of life and death.  Every game uses words somehow.

Likewise, “narrative” is a term with much broader meaning than you intend.  I think sometimes when you write “narrative,” you may mean “narration.”  Narration is entirely verbal, and I agree with you that it is not only unnecessary, but often overused in games AND in film to the detriment of the story and the character development.  But ultimately, narrative can be non-verbal.

Bottom line: all games should probably incorporate narrative design into their overall production from the beginning of the creative process.  Ultimately, narrative design should be developed alongside visual, level and gameplay design.  And that doesn’t mean dialogue.  Use or don’t use verbal storytelling, but don’t try to hire writers too late in the process to string something together.  (And please don't blame writers who are asked to do the impossible and try their best when it's too late.)  The final result of comprehensive game design, like Portal, Bioshock, Fallout 3 or even Passage, is a final product in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Overall, Andrew, I like what you have to say, but don't agree with how you say it.  So please don't get me wrong, I definitely appreciate your analysis.  As you can see, it gave me a lot to think about...


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