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Storytelling With Game Consequences

In this article, game designer Sande Chen reports on Jason Rohrer's session at the 2019 Taipei Game Developers Conference, in which he gave his thoughts about storytelling in games, games as art, and how his game design processes have evolved.

Sande Chen, Blogger

July 23, 2019

5 Min Read

[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect under the topics of Branching Narrative, Player Death, Emotive Games, and Indie Game Revelations.]

Independent game developer Jason Rohrer, best known for his game, Passage, debuted an open source image selector (available on GitHub) at the 2019 Taipei Game Developers Forum on Thursday, July 11, 2019 to go along with his non-linear, spontaneous presentation about storytelling in games, games as art, and the evolution of his work.

His latest effort, One Hour One Life, is a multiplayer online survival game in which players can spawn either as a helpless baby, a woman, or a man, and as the title implies, one hour corresponds to one lifetime. Cooperation is key to survival. 

Rohrer took a roundabout approach in explaining why permadeath was necessary in the design of his game. He wanted the players to feel like their choices had real game consequences and so if players allow babies to die, then there's no Undo or Rewind. There will never be a playthrough where the babies live and the players will never know what would have happened if the babies had lived. Since it's multiplayer, all the players are witnesses to the babies' deaths.

One Hour, One Life

Rohrer explained that storytelling engines haven't quite advanced to the point where he didn't feel like the storytelling was forced or fake. They either take the branching narrative approach or AI a la Facade. He's skeptical of AI ever producing great creative works and jokingly asked if we wanted HAL to tell our stories. As for branching narratives, even when there are a multitude of options, he still felt that because the player can replay the choice, the consequences don't feel impactful.  

Rohrer acknowledged that he's usually associated with the genre of games known as "art games," or games with artistic purpose. He thinks about what it is that games can uniquely do and how games can tell stories. None of his games are like Choose Your Own Adventures (CYOA). With Cultivation (2005), it was about building a mechanical system that allows the player to make and reflect on choices within that system. With Passage (2007), the game mechanics are metaphorical as if they were lines of a poem. He continued in this mode until he began to feel like this was like a high school English class where students write essays about what something means. No one goes to the movies to look for symbolism, he pointed out.

Now he thinks about creating "unique aesthetic experiences" that can only occur within video games. For instance, Inside a Star-Filled Sky is an infinite, recursive shooter. One can enter a monster and find another world with monsters and enter those monsters and find another world, etc.  It creates this feeling of diving in so deep that one forgets what one was doing in the first place.  

He mused about whether or not the game industry would ever produce that "Citizen Kane of gamesa game so powerfully meaningful it's a transformative experience. He argued that there hasn't even been a game equivalent to the film Titanic, let aloneCitizen Kane. He put up a list of games like Shadow of the Colossus,the first Zelda, and Metal Gear Solid II and said that even these amazing games paled as culturally relevant experiences when compared to masterpieces like the novel, Lolita.

Whether or not games are culturally relevant has been a subject of debate for more than a decade.  A watershed moment occurred in 2009 when industry watchers proclaimed with great fanfare that the video game industry had surpassed film because Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (CoD: MW2) had earned over a billion dollars.  Yet, as Rohrer showed in a graph, CoD: MW2 only sold around 20 million units whereas the film Avatar sold 360 million, Titanic sold 400 million, and the classic Gone With the Wind moved a billion units.  Therefore, the average man on the street probably knows Gone With the Wind orTitanic or Avatar, but what about CoD: MW2?  Even if that average Joe were to go play CoD: MW2, Rohrer argued, that person would not say, "OMG this experience has enriched my life! I'm in tears because CoD: MW2 has so deeply changed my life forever."

Rohrer acknowledged that there was a skill barrier to beating and winning at video games. Perhaps, he said, this barrier is so great that video games will never be as accessible as movies, books, and other mainstream media and therefore, cannot achieve cultural relevancy.  Another issue is that as technology marches on, classic games are no longer available, since the hardware becomes obsolete. This didn't occur with other media. Analog TVs still work with converters. CDs from 1983 still work, but a game like Quake was originally designed for specific hardware and emulators don't always capture that original experience. Rohrer had no doubt that engineers could make gaming systems backwards compatible if it were an industry expectation.  

For about 15 years, Rohrer has been creating games that are insightful and innovative. Mainstream media press have found his work to be deeply moving and complex, even tear-inducing. Despite his intellectual ponderings on whether or not video games can be considered masterpieces of art, others have already decided that Rohrer's work fits that description. In 2016, he became the first video game creator to have a solo retrospective in an art museum.

[Jason Rohrer's recorded session will be available on IGDA Taiwan's YouTube channel soon.]

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 15 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG., 

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About the Author(s)

Sande Chen


A co-founder of Writers Cabal, Sande Chen works as a game writer and designer. In 2008, she was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing. While still at film school at USC, she was nominated for a Grammy in music video direction. She can be reached at: [email protected]

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