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Can gameplay and storytelling ever work together?

Thane Ware, Blogger

March 13, 2012

9 Min Read

When discussions about the importance of interactivity in videogames come up, they are often couched in a conflict between gameplay and narrative. It usually sounds like this: "Games are an interactive medium, and storytelling is not. Nobody finishes game stories because they're not important. Showing and telling only get in the way of doing."

Johnathan Blow's 2008 talk on 'Conflicts in Game Design,' might be the most widely disperesed criticism of the fundamental problems in our storytelling today. Though, if pageviews are our metric, that honor also might fall to Roger Ebert, regardless of how shallow his criticism happened to be. His ideas didn't really make it past his blog, but he did get a lot of pageviews.


The argument goes that the traditional techniques of authorial influence, and most of the techniques we've come up with to pace and control stories have been a hindrance to gameplay, and that gameplay and player choice is only a hindrance to story cohesiveness. Games just can't have good stories. To wit, almost every game fits this argument. Games that try to be more inspired by cinema or literature lead their players down obviously linear paths that make their player's decisions feel meaningless just as the authors tell the player they are 'the most important and powerful hero of their time.' Gamers know that feeling well. Corridor-shooter is a four-letter word in games. Players won't buy games unless they promise important choices and dynamic gameplay. Most every game gives those promises, but the actual impact of most of those choices is almost always shallow. Our discontent with the execution of most all authoring has fueled two modern trends.

The first trend is toward emergent and branching storytelling; designers focus on player choice and the interplay of dynamic systems to generate a different story for every player. Both are popular enough terms that publishers tout them in their marketing. Blurbs like "Decide your fate..." or "Dig in to a complex world..." usually suggest one of these kinds of design. Emergent games usually include 'open-world's, 'roguelike's, 'massively multiplayer's, and simulations, but small pockets of emergent storytelling can arise in other types of game wherever dynamic systems interact. As long as an emergent moment have some kind of meaningful context, players fill in the story. Branching storytelling, or non-linear storytelling appear in all kinds of modern action adventure games, usually with some kind of bi-moral pathway. Some games, like Heavy Rain and The Witcher and Way of the Samurai have put the effort into dividing up their story into vastly different narrative lines. Non-linear storytelling also can manifest in open-world games where players can choose the order in which to tackle obstacles.

The other trend is to narrow the focus onto either narrative or interaction, in some cases to the detriment of the narrative, in some cases to the detriment of gameplay. The games that focus on gameplay are games that skew towards one or another pace or mode of play; the gameplay-focused games get called 'pure' representations of genre. Strategy, action, puzzle, competitive multiplayer, sports & racing, most 'creativity' games, simulations, and board/paper game recreations are the most likely to focus on their gameplay, and they often have the most basic of stories or no story at all. On the other side of the spectrum are the genres of point-and-click, interactive fiction, classic RPG, and and text adventures. 

There's a middle ground trend as well. The most popular trend. The cinematizing of linear, meaningless mechanical fun. Developers so often create games running on a mindset of trying to deliver a movie between segments of gameplay. Moment to moment, the gameplay is disconnected from the overall story or theme of the story. At important trigger moments, however, players visibly lose some aspect of control to be shown the most important moment. 

Developers assume that these are the most cost effective practices, that the amount of time that would be required to make every moment of gameplay be meanigful for the development of plot or character or theme would way too risky and expensive. They all have tried and true examples of genre staples, and it only takes a little experimenting with the minutest details of convention to call a game innovative. Why mess with the form, when it's so easy to make a game that is "like [popular shooter x] but with [y]." Players are playing for gameplay, or they're watching for story. It's cheaper to make games this way, and nobody would ever be able to recoup their investment on such a heavily crafed game.


Now, more than ever we have the chance to make our games truly reactive and immersive. The tech industry has been learning ways to track and monitor users on a wide scale. Our industry can be the pioneers of tracking people on a very small scale. We can be the bridge between the quantified population and the quantified self. Maybe we can be the bridge between the quantified self and the qualified self. By measuring timing and as many angles of behavior available within the rules of our game, we can craft stories that mean something for every action a player takes. Only when we start experimenting with these really reactive stories will we learn the places designers can scrimp and simplify. Only then can our medium build a useful background of creative staples and rules.

The argument of cost is a valid one for everyone working within the current model, and selling games at $50-60. Those AAA games that try to follow a cinematic route and keep selling games at the price of 3 or 4 dvds or 5 or 6 cinema tickets will have to follow the current trends. It takes those trends to stretch and pad a game out to be long enough for that price of entertainment to be worth it. I propose that games be shorter, denser in craft, and cost no more than a film if they try telling a story in 5 or fewer hours, and no more than a song if their entertainment loop lasts as long as a song but is as repeatable. AAA Video Epics will probably exist forever, doing their best to thrill narratively and interactively, but relying on whatever the trends of the genre at the time are to mix them together. 

The way I've begun to think about narrative in games is to relate the medium to music rather than to film or fiction. There is a dichotomy in music between music and lyrics that mirrors the separation between gameplay and narrative. Gameplay and music are both the less concrete, more emotionally simplistic side of the equation, while narrative and lyrics present a more complex, context-specific emotional experience. 

For a long time, both mediums eschewed attempts to inroduce language into the "purity" of their medium's salient feature. Classical music is dominated by music with no words. They were still figuring out the use of sound and silence, their medium's salient feature. Our arcade era used the most rudimentary storytelling techniques while they figued out the basics of engagement and interaction. These games focused on the fundamentals of the medium, and their entire story could often be summed up by their packaging or cabinets, not unlike how the titles of early musical compositions set the entire context for the piece. Just like it took ages for rebels and revolutionaries in the genre to change the face of music from baroque to classical to romantic, our designers are at the tip of the revolutionary iceburg when it comes to introducing more of the potential of the genre, and we're still learning to feather that balance between defining the classics and experimenting with the form.

Theater, also is divided between two very different disciplines, one of playwriting and one of stagecraft. Theater might be even more applicable to our medium because the audience views the stage from their own angles, but the staging is set and the fourth wall does not move. The playwright must craft the language to convey one meaning that works regardless of viewing angle and setting, and the stagecrafter must design the visuals to accent the meaning of the written play. Sure, many playwrights will add in staging cues, but the stagecrafter or director often reinterprets those cues for different settings, eras, and presentations. They're comparable to a game-writer and a designer respectively. But there is one more major discipline in theater. The actor. Actors do their own interpretations of the space a stagecrafter builds and the words a playwright has them say. Their analog in game design is the player. What, you ask? Isn't the audience the analog for the player? No, the audience is everyone sitting around the player, watching the player's version of the game. The player is, like an actor, interpreting the systems and stage and narrative that the designer and script-writer. 

I think that the storytelling in games have been often so meager and disconnected from gameplay for reasons not just inherent in the act of giving players narrative authority. Jonathan Blow was generally right about "games these days," but he may not be right about games of tomorrow. What if the best way to combine traditional authorship with emergence is to just make sure they harmonize on their message. Algorithmically monitor players, and make the world react to the their decisions so that within the limits of the game, no decision is a wrong decision, so that the game's reaction to every decision is a comment, rather than a win-fail state. Gameplay when done well can make comments. It can comment on the limits of the medium, comment on real life, comment on the basics of the medium. To focus on one comment, or take a combination of these comments reveals what Ian Bogost often calls the 'ludonarrative,' and what Hunicke, Le Blanc, and Zubeck call 'play-aesthetic,' and what I'd like to call the 'interscript.' It's my belief that experimentation with ways to make the interscript and the narrative speak to eachother can only lead to a games industry that garners respect from both the art world and the market. 

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